Dick Williams' Latest Renovation Project Looks Like a Success

The Washington Post

In the first full season of his latest renovation project, Dick Williams has barked and drilled and swapped until the Seattle Mariners barely resemble the Seattle Mariners.

In the last year, they've said goodby to a half-dozen highly paid veterans, and even to a coaching staff. They've even changed their logo, which had been an inverted trident until owner George Argyros discovered that Greek mythology considered it bad luck.

These Mariners are young and fast and smart. They hit the cutoff man and move the runner over and get men in from third base. They don't walk many batters, because as Williams snapped recently, "There's no defense for a walk."

They also don't make many mistakes, and when they do, they "hear about it pretty quickly," first baseman Alvin Davis said.

Ask young second baseman Harold Reynolds. This spring, Williams didn't like his defensive play, so he brought him out for an 8 a.m. one-on-one teaching session. Reynolds improved and also is hitting .292.

The result of all this is that these Mariners have become a hustling, ove-rachieving young team, one that's fun to watch and fun to be around. In a city that loves its Seahawks and its SuperSonics and has mostly ignored its Mariners, times are a-changin'.

The Mariners are off to their best start (27-26), and not only do they see themselves as serious contenders to win a weak division, they're on a pace to draw 1.4 million fans into the cold, damp Kingdome.

A recent weekend series with the New York Yankees drew 103,325, and a few months after almost everyone figured they'd be playing their 1988 opening night in Tampa or Denver, they may yet have the Emerald City spending its summer months considering something other than wind surfing or salmon fishing.

And if they do, they may be able to trace their survival to last May's hiring of irascible Richard Hirshfield Williams, long of tooth, short of temper.

"That is already a Dick Williams team," Baltimore Oriole catcher Terry Kennedy said of the Mariners. "I can see he's getting them to do the same things he got us to do in San Diego. Say what you want about Dick, but he knows the game, and he knows how to teach it."

Davis, one of the Mariners' few stars, said: "He can be tough. Very tough. But we needed that. We needed someone to emphasize how important it was to move the runner from second to third with no outs."

Williams, who quit the Padres at the beginning of spring training in 1986, became the Mariners' sixth manager in 10 years only two days after his 56th birthday last May. He did not make large promises but, having managed three teams to pennants, and having turned around franchises in Montreal and San Diego, he did not need to.

"We will do things right," he said, "and we'll do the little things. You either learn those things for me, or you don't play."

He then "sat back and watched" for two months.

"I saw some guys weren't going to fit in," he said. "Nothing against the veterans because most of 'em were fine people, but you have to have people who'll do it your way."

On June 12, three days after his two-month anniversary, the Mariners released outfielder Al Cowens and gave a starting outfield job to young Danny Tartabull, a former second baseman.

Reynolds was moved into the second-base position, and by the end of the season Williams also would cut pitcher Milt Wilcox, catcher Steve Yeager, designated hitter Gorman Thomas and outfielder Barry Bonnell.

He and Dick Balderson, the new chief of baseball operations, traded outfielder Dave Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Rey Quinones and pitcher Mike Trujillo.

Then last winter they traded away veteran reliever Matt Young and Tartabull to get speed and pitching. They sent Tartabull to Kansas City for pitchers Scott Bankhead and Steve Shields and outfielder Mike Kingery.

He sent Young to the Dodgers for another pitcher, Dennis Powell. But when Williams didn't like Powell's attitude or performance during spring training, he did a strange thing. He sent him to the minors.

"In the past," said a club official, "we would have kept him just to make the trade look good. Dick didn't care about that."

But when the trades were made last winter, almost everyone in baseball laughed at the Mariners.

"They just keep giving players away, don't they?" one general manager said, shaking his head. "I thought it would be different under Balderson and Dick."

Six months later Williams takes more than a little pride in saying he told you so.

"Yeah, I liked the trades when they were made, and I like 'em even more now," he said. "And you know what? I like to think I had something to do with them."

Do you love these kids? The starting infield of Davis, Reynolds, Quinones and third baseman Jim Presley averages 25 years. The outfield of Kingery, Moses, Phil Bradley and Mickey Brantley averages 26 years, as does the starting rotation of Mark Langston, Mike Moore, Scott Bankhead, Mike Morgan and Trujillo.

Reliever Edwin Nunez, who missed most of last season with arm problems, is 23. His seven saves rank him behind only Dave Righetti, Dan Plesac and Jeff Reardon in the American League.

On paper and on the field, the Mariners' sum is greater than any of their individual parts.

At the top of the lineup, Moses is a pesky leadoff man who bounces the ball around the carpet and has only a .330 on-base average. Bradley's average has dipped this year, but he's still among the league leaders with 31 walks.

The middle of the order is the Mariners' strength. Designated hitter Ken Phelps, who played sporadically in the past, is third in the American League with 14 homers and is averaging a home run every 8.6 at-bats.

Presley and Davis totaled 45 homers and 179 runs batted in last year and will probably top that in 1987.

Kingery, like Moses, hits line drives and "hustles his tail off," Williams said. Quinones was let go by the Red Sox, who were looking for a solid shortstop, but in Seattle he has become a .299 hitter.

Langston and Bankhead are the stoppers of the rotation. Moore is one of the league's most feared pitchers, but still has long streaks of wildness. The big boost has been in the bullpen, with the return of Nunez and the addition of middle relievers Shields (3.18 earned-run average) and Stan Clarke (4.32).

There are still many questions. Quinones can make errors two at a time, and Moore, Morgan and Trujillo have been erratic. But quick success has left the Mariners feeling giddy about themselves, which is huge change for a team that has never finished closer than 17 games out of first place.

"It has been a total team effort," Davis said, "and that goes back to Dick. We worked on all the little things this spring, the bunts and pickoff plays and all that. He just told us he wanted players who worked hard, and I think we were willing to do that. After having him for 100 games last year, we knew what he expected. We know you can get in his doghouse in a hurry."

Oddly enough, when this season started, it looked as if it would be the Mariners' last in Seattle. Argyros announced he was selling the club because he wanted to buy the San Diego Padres, which would put him nearer his home in Southern California. But he said recently that negotiations with the Padres had ended, and that he would retain the Mariners.

As a result of Argyros' original announcement that he would sell the franchise, the team's books were more closely examined, leading people to conclude that the franchise is in better shape than people thought. One reason is that the lease may be the most favorable in baseball. Another is that the payroll is the lowest in either league.

So while other clubs are swimming in red ink, the Mariners probably will make money this year. But it remains to be seen if they can finish above the break-even point in the standings.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World