The city of Seattle witnessed history on the night of September 30th as Cal Raleigh hit a walk-off homerun deep to right field to send the Seattle Mariners to the postseason for the first time in 21 years, effectively ending the longest playoff drought in the history of baseball.
The Mariners played 3,138 games between their loss to the Yankees in the ALCS game on October 22, 2001 (last postseason appearance) and their last game of the 2021 season. 702 playoff games were played in that time period and the Mariners didn’t compete in a single one of them. To put that in perspective, Seattle’s own AL Rookie of The Year favorite Julio Rodríguez was not even one year old the last time this team played postseason baseball.
Until last week, this was the longest active playoff drought not just in MLB, but in all four major professional sports leagues in North America. Suffice to say, they’re stoked to be relieved of such a title.
The first time that the Mariners breathed postseason air was in 1995, behind Ken Griffey Jr. – undoubtedly the most influential Mariner to ever play the game. In fact, in 2018, the Seattle Times ranked Griffey the most important athlete in Seattle sports history. Griffey made his MLB debut with the Mariners in 1989 and played in two of the franchise’s four postseason appearances (1995 and 1997). During the iconic 1995 season which is still considered to have housed one of the best teams in franchise history, Griffey was in good company – alongside Randy Johnson, Jay Buehner, Dan Wilson, and Edgar Martinez. Longtime Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus (the Vin Scully of Seattle) called the games. All six of these men, Niehaus included, are in the Mariners Hall of Fame today.
Seattle’s drought began the very season after the team won 116 games – the most in AL history and tied for the most in MLB history. That season, Ichiro Suzuki made his MLB debut, and would become a driving force in the team’s postseason achievement. That season scored him Rookie of The Year and MVP, and he became the second person to ever achieve both in the same season.
Over the years, the club has seen 10 managers, four general managers, and three presidents. There have been three seasons where the team has won at least 90 games and five seasons with at least 85 wins and still, they suffered through 20 boring Octobers.
And while it’s easy to call this an overnight success story, that’s really not it at all. Things began to change in the clubhouse in 2018. They were a good baseball team with the likes of Félix Hernández, Robinson Canó, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Crúz leading the aging team to an 89-73 record but way short of the playoffs. At this point, they were the oldest team in baseball, and these four guys were taking up half of the payroll.
Current General Manager Jerry Dipoto, notoriously known in the league for his aggressive decision-making, was at a crossroads. He made a decision – a big one – to enter a rebuilding phase. This phase was marked by a decision not to resign Crúz and to trade Canó to the Mets following the 2018 season. They then endured a painful 68-94 losing season in 2019, and another one in 2020. But Dipoto stuck to the game plan – revamp the farm system and bring undervalued talent into the franchise – like Ty France, a forgotten 34th round draft pick who just got his first All-Star nod this year. Or Cal Raleigh, farm system product who’s leading all MLB catchers in home runs.
Enter Julio Rodríguez, signed in 2017 for a mere $1.75 million. Hailing from the Dominican Republic at just 21 years old, he’s become the face of the Mariners organization and per his recent contract, could continue to be until 2039. He led all rookies in home runs in this regular season (28) and has helped turn this franchise into a winning team in just one year. He’s the closest thing Seattle has seen to Griffey, ever — which is an accomplishment in itself. Unsurprisingly, he is a heavy favorite for this year’s AL Rookie of The Year award.
And don’t forget the bullpen, which was transformed into one of the best in baseball at a low price tag, another testament to Dipoto’s ability to find overlooked talent and make something of it. Andrés Muñoz, acquired with France from the Padres, has been groundbreaking, alongside other notable arms like Paul Sewald and Diego Castillo. This corps of relievers and closers, dubbed “Los Bomberos,” is the only team in MLB history to lead the league in one-run victories, two years in a row.
In short, Seattle is now reaping the benefits of the risk they took four years ago.
They are still the only franchise in baseball who has yet to see a World Series, but they finally have a chance to rewrite the story. They take on the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Game on Oct. 7 followed by Games 2 and 3 on Oct. 8 and 9.
My Oh My. If only Dave Niehaus were here to see it.