Mariners continue to achieve, wearing hearts on their sleeve

Fall is here, which means so are the Major League Baseball playoffs.

Even better, they're here in the Northwest for the second straight year. And we have a team that may just bring home the big prize -- a club that won more games than any team in the history of the American League. A "team" that exemplifies the true meaning of the word.

The Seattle Mariners made history last Saturday by tying the 95-year-old major-league record for wins in a season with 116. They have already put together the finest baseball season in the modern era, but they're not even close to done.

From day one, all 25 players on that roster have been shooting for one thing and one thing only: to win the World Series. Most teams begin spring training each year by setting the World Series as their goal, but it takes all 25 guys to buy into the system if that goal is to become a reality.

For these guys, individual accomplishments are far less important than the end goal. Everyone knows his role on the team, and no one lets personal interests disrupt the team's success. Very few teams have the makeup of this one that is comprised of mostly no-name, unsung heroes whose hearts are bigger than the stadium they play in.

Who knew David Bell would be playing gold-glove defense at third base, and coming through time after time in the clutch? Who could have guessed that Mark McLemore would play seven positions and excel at every one? Who would have thought Jamie Moyer would achieve the first 20-win season of his career at age 38?

Very few have fathomed that Ichiro Suzuki would become the most feared leadoff hitter in baseball, and win a batting title, stolen base title and hits title -- perhaps an MVP award -- in his first major-league season.

No one could have conceived that Bret Boone -- a career .270 hitter known more for his defense than his bat -- would put together the best season in history for a second baseman, shattering his career marks for homeruns (37), RBIs (141), and average (.331), while making his own run toward the MVP.

Only a genius like general manager Pat Gillick could have predicted that centerfielder Mike Cameron would drive in 110 runs, play gold-glove defense, and make most every Mariner fan say, or at least think, "Griffey who?"

And who can forget Freddy Garcia, who won the American League ERA title in only his third major-league season; John Olerud, the local product who epitomizes "character guy," and took less money just to come home; or Dan Wilson, who revived a sputtering career to reestablish himself as one of the best catchers in the league.

The list goes on: Edgar Martinez, an RBI machine who showed how indispensable his bat is to the Mariner lineup with his sixth straight 100-RBI season; Kazuhiro Sasaki, who recorded more saves (45) than any Mariner pitcher in history; Jeff Nelson, who spurned his Yankee mates to come home and be part of what may become a new dynasty; Aaron Sele, another hometown guy who earned his fifth straight 15-plus-win season. Paul Abbott, who obliterated his career-high for wins with 17; reliever Arthur Rhodes, who rebounded from last year’s ALCS collapse to register a 1.72 ERA; and utility man/defensive specialist Charles Gipson, who doesn't care how much he plays, he just wants to help the team.

Not only did each of these players put together tremendous individual seasons in 2001, but they brought a new sense of character and teamwork to an organization that has long been mired in mediocrity and egos.

Each player on the roster put the team above himself, and that, coupled with the best players' manager in the game, Lou Piniella, is what guided them to the best record in history.

Mariner players and coaches demonstrated a genuine love for one another, the organization, and the city of Seattle. They supported one another through every batting slump, injury or -- gulp! -- two-game losing streak.

They wore their hearts on their sleeve and treated every game like the seventh game of the World Series. They showed a competitive fire and team unity that made them the league darlings all season long. After losing three superstars in three years, the Mariners dug deep within themselves and realized that no one player makes a championship team.

They understand that it takes all 25 guys to accept responsibility for the team goals, and are willing sacrifice numbers and paychecks for the cause. That's what has made the Yankees so great, and that blueprint is what has allowed the Mariners to narrow the gap and try to wrestle away the pennant in 2001.

We may never again witness a season like this one just passed, but we haven't heard the end of this Mariner team. They will only continue to improve and, in the process, will attract top-quality players whose only concern is winning. Whether the M's win 80 or 120 games next year, the character of this team will remain constant.

But I tend to think we've only seen the beginning of what this team can do. Last year the Mariners were on the doorstep of the World Series. Now they're ready to take the next step.

Bring on the Yankees, and bring on the A’s. Bring on the Diamondbacks and even the Braves.

The M's have a chance to break the Northwest Hex and become the first Northwest pro sports team to bring home the hardware since the 1979 Seattle Supersonics.

Just like fall, playoff baseball is in full swing, so put on your seatbelts because it's going to be one wild ride.

And even if the Mariners don’t go all the way, you can bet this big-hearted bunch will go down swinging -- and come back even stronger next season.

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