April 1, 2003: Without the help of a noisy alarm clock, barking dogs or a hotel wake-up call, both Ken Macha and Bob Melvin were wide awake before the sun came up in Oakland. That’s what happens when you get your first managerial job in Major League Baseball.
Macha and Melvin, both tired but too anxious to sleep, spent the morning doing busy work, trying to erase the anticipation of the season opener. No such luck. The nervous excitement actually took its toll on Melvin, who had to fill out his lineup card three times before getting it right (one, he messed up his own signature and the other he didn’t include Ichiro Suzuki’s last name).
Macha and Melvin were more than just newbies, they were rookie managers taking over the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners respectively, division rivals with high expectations in 2003.
Following all the opening day formal introductions and pre-game festivities, Macha and Melvin, just feet away from each other in opposing dugouts, watched as Tim Hudson delivered a first pitch fastball to Ichiro Suzuki at Network Associate Coliseum.
41,723 roared when Suzuki grounded out. As Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejeda turned and held up one finger to signal the first out of the inning to leftfielder Terrence Long, a large sign draped beyond the left-centerfield wall, reading “A New Machatude,” blew in the April breeze. Hope, again, springs eternal on the baseball diamond in Oakland.
The Athletics would go on to score twice in the second on Erubiel Durazo’s two-run homer and three more in the fifth, knocking out Mariners ace Freddy Garcia. Tim Hudson blanked the Mariners for eight innings as the A’s shut out Seattle 5-0, spoiling Melvin’s managerial debut.
After the game Melvin greeted the media in awe over Hudson’s performance. “He was a strikeout machine … it was my first game. He could have picked a better one.”
Across the way, Macha and his A’s were in a celebratory mood after completing the first opening day shutout for the franchise since Ned Garver pitched a seven-hitter for the Kansas City A’s to beat the Cleveland Indians in 1958.
Macha told the Oakland media, “It was good … we’ve got some pitchers here who have the tendency to make you look smart.”
As the team showered and exited the ballpark, Macha returned to his office where a piece of paper with nothing more than “Congrats!” lie, waiting on his desk. Macha filed away the scorecard as a keepsake.
The A’s went on to win two of three from the Mariners in the first series of the season between the two division rivals. But the Mariners would bounce back and take the lead in the AL West.
With the defending World Champion Anaheim Angels struggling and the Texas Rangers looking to ship off Juan Gonzalez to get an early start on 2004, by the All-Star break the AL West was shaping up to be a two-team race. The Mariners were back in first 58-35 (.624), four games in front of the A’s, who were 54-39 (.580).
For two weeks after the All-Star break, rumors swirled as the trade deadline drew closer. The Seattle media was buzzing as Mariner players and fans watched, listened and waited to see who Mariners general manager Pat Gillick would acquire to push the team over the top and into the World Series.
August 1, 2003, 12:01am: The trading deadline had come and gone and the Mariners remained sleeping in Seattle. Everyone was stunned.
The White Sox acquired Roberto Alomar from the Mets, the Athletics – now just three games behind Seattle – traded prospects to the Reds for Jose Guillen, the Yankees added punch acquiring Aaron Boone, the Giants picked up Sidney Ponson, Jeff Suppan went to the Red Sox, the Dodgers traded for Robin Ventura and Arizona made a deal for Raul Mondesi.
The contenders were making moves, getting better, deeper. The Mariners did zip, zilch, nothing. Well, except for Rey Sanchez. Gillick traded for the 37-year old journeyman shortstop who was hitting just over .200 and had worn out his welcome in New York with the Mets.
Seattle baseball fans, who have spent the last eight years always one strike or one key hit short of advancing to the World Series, were left shaking their heads. The Mariners are getting old and this might be their last realistic chance at a championship with their current core of veterans.
Slugger Edgar Martinez is 39 and talking about retirement, Mark McLemore is 38, Jon Olerud (35), Jamie Moyer (40), Dan Wilson, Bret Boone and Jeff Cirillo (34).
Eligible for salary arbitration next spring: Ben Davis, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Ichiro Suzuki, and Randy Winn. Free agents in 2004 include: Edgar Martinez, Mike Cameron, Arthur Rhodes, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Mark McLemore, Armando Benitez and Rey Sanchez. The Mariners are facing change one way or another in 2004. The fans, the media and the Mariners themselves felt the sense of urgency, a sense not shared by Gillick.
The slow, downward spiral began when the media turned their microphones on and pointed them at Jeff Nelson. Without hesitation, Nelson became the mouthpiece of frustration. Nelson ripped the Mariners front office for NOT making a deal before the trading deadline.
The day after his statements showed up in headlines, Nelson arrived at Safeco Field early for a private meeting with Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong. Nelson apologized for question their integrity. Nelson, Lincoln and Armstrong broke the meeting without a truly resolving the problem.
August 6, 2003: The night before the Mariners opened a six-game road trip with a 2-1 over the Cleveland Indians. Jamie Moyer had a another quality start to earn his 15th win of the season and the Mariners maintained a three-game lead in the AL West.
Nelson arrived at Jacobs Field early in the afternoon and is interrupted in the weight room with a message that manager Bob Melvin wanted to see him in his office.
According to media reports, Nelson had no idea what was coming next. “I had no idea what that was about, but when I got there and they told me there had been a trade … right away, I wondered where? When they told me New York, I was very surprised.”
August 26, 2003: The Mariners are reeling. The team is 8-13 since the Nelson trade. In the week prior, Seattle had lost six-in-a-row on the road, two to Toronto and a four-game sweep to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. More importantly, Oakland had moved into a virtual tie for the AL West.
The Mariners, still optimistic, felt they had the schedule on their side with six games against Tampa Bay and Baltimore and three more against Texas coming up. Jamie Moyer opened the homestand, soundly beating the Devil Rays 9-3 and clinging to a first-place tie.
August 27, 2003: While Barry Zito is baffling the Orioles in Oakland, Devil Rays rookie Doug Waechter is making his first major league start at Safeco Field. The Mariners bench watch the scoreboard. By the time the national anthem is over on the west coast, the A’s have moved into first place in the AL West, winning their fifth straight game. Waechter and the Devil Rays go on to beat Seattle to give Oakland a full one-game lead in the AL West.
September 2, 2003: Despite losing Mark Mulder in late August, the Oakland A’s are surging. They win their 10th straight, shutting out Baltimore 2-0. Meanwhile, Melvin and the Mariners beat Tampa Bay 10-8 in a slugfest on the road. The A’s are now two full games in front in the AL West.
September 22, 2003: It’s the final week of the regular season. The Mariners just took two of three in Oakland but is now 4 ½ games back in the division and 2 ½ behind Boston in the AL Wild Card race. The Mariners are playing .500 (24-24) since the August 1 trading deadline.
Following a crushing 12-0 loss to Oakland in the final game of the series on Sunday, it appears Mariners fans have thrown in the towel when this entry shows up on a Seattle newspaper message board:
Apparently, the M’s ownership group only wants to have the M’s be “competitive” and not “champions”, according to Pat Gillick. Listening to Gillick over the weekend, via the radio, allows one to gauge the main culprit in quest of the answer to why the M’s will not help themselves toward the end of July…time and time again. Screw the M’s ownership. This season ticket holder and many of my buddies whose seats are next to me are NOT going to renew our tickets. With the ever increasing price of M’s tickets, the highest prices of food n beverage in the major leagues, the M’s are awash in dead presidents (i.e., cash-o-la). I invite all other season ticket holders to boycott renewing thier plans for the 2004 season and beyond, unless and until the M’s ownership stops using their navels as periscopes – Posted by: Stephen H. at September 22, 2003 04:43 AM
September 23, 2003: The Titanic sinks. Tim Salmon drives a 2-2 pitch into the seats at Edison Field in the bottom of the 11th inning off former teammate Shigetoshi Hasegawa, giving the Angels a 2-1 win over Seattle. The Mariners – who were eight games ahead of Oakland on June 13 – are officially eliminated from the division race.
Earlier in the day the Seattle Times polled over 1,000 fans with the questions: “Do you thinks the Mariners will make the playoffs?” 77% of fans said no, only 16% said yes.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, Ken Macha, in his first season as manager of the Oakland A’s, wins the AL West division title as the A’s beat Texas, 4-3, and celebrate in front of their home fans. It’s the second straight season the A’s have won the AL West division title.
September 24, 2003: The Mariners are 3½ games behind Boston in the wild-card standings with four to play. Bret Boone told the media, “I’m not going to sit here and say it looks good, because it doesn’t.”
As for the sleepless nights, they will start all over again in October only this time Melvin anticipates spring training 2004 while Macha awakens with butterflies and the excitement of managing his first post season playoff team.