2001 Mariners embodied the word 'team'

2001 Mariners embodied the word 'team'

2001 Mariners embodied the word 'team'
You know those feel-good, teamwork cliché words like chemistry and camaraderie?

Baloney. Only great players can create great chemistry.

At least that's what Bret Boone thought during his first eight years in the big leagues. But that was before he played on the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

Sure, this Seattle team, which will be honored with a 10th anniversary celebration before Saturday's game against the Rangers, won a record-tying, mind-boggling 116 games and had its share of great players. There were eight All-Stars that year, with Boone hitting 37 homers, Ichiro Suzuki winning the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards, along with a superior starting pitching staff and bullpen.

But there was something else to this team, some inner source of rare confidence -- and one that you probably won't see for a long time.

Let the players try to sort it out for you.

"It was a feeling I can't even explain to people," Boone said after wrapping up a birthday party for his 7-year-old twin boys in Southern California. "It'd be the eighth inning, we'd be down by three, and we'd walk onto the field and that other team knew they were going to lose. It was the weirdest thing, because I had never gone through it before. I was never a believer of that.

"All of a sudden, I'm going, 'These guys know they're going to lose, and they are winning by three with their closer coming in -- and they know they're going to lose.' And they would."

The 116 wins will be remembered forever. But the number doesn't do justice in explaining how unique and how rare this group really was.

"There was zero panic every day," said left fielder Al Martin. "There was just a way we thought we were going to get it done -- somehow, some way."

"No matter which way you look at it, we could have been losing in the early part of the game -- we just knew we were going to win," starter John Halama added. "It was something magical."

Magical indeed. But how exactly did this team win so much?

HOW THEY DID IT

For starters, it didn't just happen overnight. Charles Gipson, a defensive specialist known as the "little bro" of the clubhouse, gave credit to the man at the top.

"It happened," said Gipson, "because we had somebody like Pat Gillick, who knows baseball and was putting together pieces of a puzzle to create something special."

Gillick, who ran Seattle's baseball operations from 1999-2003 and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 24, took over after Randy Johnson's departure in 1998, and then said goodbye to perennial All-Stars Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in consecutive years leading up to the 2001 season.

Without a clear-cut star, the Mariners weren't picked to compete in the rugged AL West just one year after winning the AL Wild Card berth. Yet, it was the very fact that there was no star that enabled this team to work so well together.

"There wasn't a main superstar on that team. We had a bunch of hard-working guys that loved to play ball," said longtime Mariners great Jay Buhner, who ended his career after the 2001 season. "Basically, we found ways to win, instead of how most teams find a way to lose. We had no quit."

Though nobody could reasonably fathom that the Mariners would win 116 games, Gillick had created something special from the beginning. He had a great mix of veterans and talented youth, with the right man at the helm in the dugout in proven manager Lou Piniella, who had been with Seattle since 1993 and took the team to the AL Championship Series in 1995.

There was also a certain left-handed batter who wanted to be called by only his first name, and had starred in Japan as a speedy outfielder known for his unique batting style.

No one was really sure how good Ichiro would be until one day in Spring Training. The Japanese product constantly slapped grounders in between the gap at shortstop and third base, prompting Piniella to half-jokingly tell Ichiro something along the lines of, "Geez, son. We paid all this money for you to be a slap hitter? I can't believe it."

Ichiro heard and responded the very next game.

"The next day, he goes out and he hits one or two home runs to right field. He was trying to pull it, and he was smoking it," Gipson remembers. "I remember him after he hit a homer, he came in the dugout and said, 'How's that, Lou?'

"You questioned him, but realized he was working on stuff. This guy knew what he was doing, and he was pretty special."

With their newest star in the making, the Mariners made the magic happen from the beginning, when Seattle raced out of the gates to a 20-4 record in April.

While chemistry on the field was obviously working, it was even better in the clubhouse, where the saying "family atmosphere" was an understatement. Clusters of friends often form on every other ballclub, but that just didn't exist on this team.

"On that team, that year, I wouldn't have minded going to dinner with any one of those 25 guys," Boone said. "That's how tightly knit that group was, and how special it was."

Something so simple as pregame stretching wasn't done in typical small cliques -- it was done as a group. Players went to dinner on the road in groups of 10, 15, 20. It didn't matter whether you were a pitcher, a third baseman, a quiet Japanese rookie, the best player or the worst player -- you were a Mariners player, and that's all that mattered.

And it wasn't like everyone was the same type of person. In fact, many players couldn't have been more different.

There was the outspoken Boone, hootin' and hollerin' around the locker room with the always happy Mike Cameron. There were the quiet vets like Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, who led not with their mouths, but by example on and off the field. There was Dan Wilson, the man behind the plate, and the experienced guys like Buhner, Norm Charlton and Stan Javier.

Those differences ended up being a good thing, and part of the great chemistry stemmed from the fact that all players were accountable for their actions -- and anyone and everyone could call out a teammate if need be.

"I don't care who you are or what happened, somebody on that team was going to call you [out] if you screwed up," Charlton said. "Whether it was [Kazuhiro] Sasaki, [Jeff] Nelson, [Arthur] Rhodes, Buhner, Wilson or Boone, it didn't matter who you were -- if you screwed up, somebody in that locker room was going to call you on it. Nobody was getting a free pass on anything."

That accountability helped Piniella take a back seat and let the engine run itself.

"He knew with that team we had enough leadership that he didn't have to worry," said Martin, who had Piniella as a manager with a young Tampa Bay team in 2004, and could tell the differences in the skipper's managing style. "He kind of set guys loose and free to let them do their thing."

But this team had a certain Piniella influence in them, without a doubt.

"I would encourage anybody who has never seen [Piniella] play baseball to just look at some of the tapes of him sliding into bases and running around," Gipson said. "This guy gave it his all. That, to me, is how you play the game.

"We played the game the way it's supposed to be played: The old-school way, which is going to the bases hard. Somebody comes inside on you, you come inside on them. We played hard-nosed baseball, a scrappy type of hard-nosed baseball."

Whatever they were doing, the Mariners could not be stopped. They would follow their 20-4 April with another 20 wins in May, as they finished 63-24 at the break -- the fourth team in history to have 63 or more wins by the All-Star Game. They sent eight players to the Midsummer Classic, which was played at Safeco Field that year.

It wouldn't stop. Behind a torrid and timely offensive attack, consistent starting pitching and an unbreakable bullpen, Seattle tied the MLB record with 116 wins by season's end -- it lost its final game against the Rangers -- had a starting pitching staff that combined to go 70-21, scored an MLB-leading 927 runs and also allowed the fewest runs (627).

Perhaps the season's most defining and memorable moment came when Seattle clinched a playoff spot in its first home game since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following the game, there was a somber celebration on the field, as Cameron and Mark McLemore hoisted the American flag around the field, in what McLemore calls one of his life's defining moments.

"Behind the birth of my children and my marriage, that was definitely up there in the special moments," McLemore said. "Just being able to hold that flag -- I wasn't holding as it as a ballplayer, but as an American."

Unfortunately for the Mariners, their incredible regular-season success -- they finished 70 games above .500 and 14 games ahead of division foe and second-place Oakland, which won 102 games -- didn't translate into the postseason, where they were ousted in the ALCS by the Yankees in five games.

"We had about as much fun as you can have in a year, until the end," Boone said. "That's the only real thing. Looking back on it, you say, 'Wow, how did we not finish that deal?' It's amazing to me to this day, but there are no excuses to be made."

The early postseason exit put a damper on the season, but it didn't take away from the fact that this group did something so rare and so special.

Javier, a 17-year vet who spent his final season with the 2001 team, won a World Series ring with Oakland in 1989 but said the 116-win season beat em' all.

"Those two years I spent in Seattle were the most enjoyable years I had in baseball," the 47-year-old said. "It was very special. Everything seemed like perfect. I remember so many details, it's unbelievable."

Unbelievable. There's not a better way to put it.

Taylor Soper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.