Grounding not in Seattle flight plan


NEW YORK -- They were in Texas on Sunday, Seattle on Monday and here yesterday after flying all night across the country on a rollicking team charter.

Talk about sleepless in Seattle.

"When did you get in?" someone asked Lou Piniella, manager of the Seattle Mariners, before Game 1 of his team's divisional series against the New York Yankees last night at Yankee Stadium.

"We got to the hotel around 4 in the morning," Piniella said some 12 hours later in his office, pulling hard on a cigarette and contemplating a shave.

Someone suggested that Piniella, a former Yankees player and manager, had seen the wee hours of a few other New York mornings.

"Not in an airplane, though," Piniella said, laughing and rubbing his gray stubble.

Don't misunderstand. Piniella wasn't complaining. None of the Mariners was complaining yesterday -- about tiredness or anything else.

They were champs instead of chumps, finally, participants in baseball's postseason for the first time in the franchise's 19-year history.

Having to fly 7,000 miles on two charters in less than 24 hours? Big deal.

Having to play three games in three days in three cities in three time zones? Who cares?

"We're running so high on adrenalin that we could have flown in just now, come straight to the ballpark and played," Piniella said.

They were brought back to reality in a hurry last night in a 9-6 loss before 57,178 screaming Yankees fans. If they don't win Game 2 tonight, they'll have to win three straight in Seattle over the weekend to avoid elimination.

But unlike the Red Sox, Indians and Yankees, their season will have qualified as a true sporting epiphany -- for themselves as well as their hometown -- even if they get swept.

What the Mariners have accomplished this season, and how they accomplished it, will go down as one of the better thrill shows to visit baseball in some time.

No, it didn't resonate on the East Coast or anywhere else. But if it had happened at Camden Yards, we would be talking about it for years.

The Mariners not only came from 13 games out in August to win the AL West -- the third-greatest comeback in major-league history -- they came from behind in 43 of their 79 wins, a remarkable statistic. In September alone, they rallied to win a dozen games.

"I think you had to see it to believe it," third baseman Edgar Martinez said.

They almost blew it at the end, losing their last two games in Texas to force that one-game playoff with the Angels on Monday. And although they had to use Randy Johnson to win there, costing them dearly against the Yankees last night, they almost seemed pleased it had worked out that way.

"We wanted to have Randy open this series, but by the same token, the way we wound up winning, in front of our home fans, will have a more lasting, meaningful impact on our fans," Piniella said. "It was an emotional day, and I'm glad our fans got to experience it."

Such things matter in Seattle because the franchise had never put down lasting roots until now. A dreary indoor home and too many losses had conspired to push the Mariners and Seattle to the brink of a divorce.

No longer. The team sold out Monday's playoff in 15 hours. The last six home games drew 302,000 fans. And even though a referendum for financing a new ballpark failed by a thousand votes, it is now considered a lock that the state legislature, bowing to public pressure/pennant fever, will still get the ballpark built and keep the Mariners in town. The legislature is meeting this week to debate how to raise the revenue.

"Is this the team that saved baseball in Seattle?" someone asked Piniella yesterday.

"I don't know," he said. "But I know it's a good, young team."

Indeed. Ken Griffey Jr. is only the greatest talent in the game -- he hit two home runs in his first postseason game last night -- and the Mariners had him for only half the season and still won their division. A lot of other teams would exchange their core talent for the Mariners' core of Martinez, Johnson and Jay Buhner.

And, of course, it doesn't hurt that Piniella is simply one of the best managers going. Fired by the Yankees, a World Series winner with the Reds, he was in his glory yesterday, back "home" in New York with a winner from Seattle, of all places.

He was so excited that he even talked a security guard out of kicking the press out of his office before the game. "They're not bothering me," he said.

At this point in this memorable season, nothing can bother him. Last night's loss? A harsh comedown, for sure. But at least there was this consolation waiting at the end: a good night's sleep, at last.

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