Pilots and Mariners

  • By Bart Wright
  • Posted 7/04/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3427
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In this reflection, Bart Wright traces the links between Seattle's first Major League ball team -- the Seattle Pilots -- and the Mariners.

Summer Memories

A long time ago in a land far away that was famous for its bratwurst and beer, there lived a man who sold cars and wanted to own a baseball team. He desired to buy and sell players instead of sedans and station wagons.

Twenty one years later is an appropriate time to consider the direct lines of Seattle baseball history that connect the first, failed effort at Major League Baseball in the Northwest to the glimmering example of glorious fundamentals on the field and high powered politics off the field that converge on Seattle this summer at the All-Star Game.

Sicks' Stadium v. Safeco Field

It is a remarkable departure from the first brush with big league baseball in Seattle when the franchise was granted conditional status, based on an upgrade of Sicks' Stadium that was never fully realized. It surely wasn't ready for prime time on Opening Day when more than 7,000 seats in left field were unfinished and roughly 700 fans waited in lengthy ticket lines outside while their seats were being installed.

Compare that to Safeco Field, at $425 million, still the most expensive single-purpose sports facility ever constructed on the continent and you get a sense of the gap in time and circumstance that separates the Pilots and the Mariners.

Yet, there are those living links, integral players who have personal attachments to both.

In the spring of 1970, Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots from their bankrupt owners. It had been one largely forgettable season in the American League standings for the Pilots and later became one transformational season in sports literature. The voices that haunt the memory of the Seattle Pilots are alive and in full flower in the summer of 2001 when Seattle hosts the All-Star Game for the second time, the first time outdoors at Safeco Field.

Up there somewhere in the luxury suites consorting with the owners was Selig, now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Viewing it all in his exalted position had to have been one of Selig's finest moments, overseeing the pastime that truly became international this year when Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, bought in the offseason from a professional team in Japan, was the leading vote getter of all the All-Stars.

Down there in the dugout was Lou Piniella, manager of the Seattle Mariners who led their division by 21 games at the halfway point (81 games) of the season, the largest lead at the halfway point for any team in major league history. It was a long, strange trip to this position for Piniella, who had been a 14th round draft choice of those Seattle Pilots prior to their first and only season in 1969. On the day that first spring that Pilots manager Joe Schultz told Piniella, "You'll have to be pounding your Bud in Kansas City," as his way of informing the rookie ballplayer he'd been traded to the Royals, Piniella couldn't have imagined anything like this in his future.

Forgettable on the field perhaps at 64-98, those Pilots were the group that inspired pitcher Jim Bouton to write Ball Four, a clubhouse peek at the team that forever changed the way people thought of and wrote about sports in our culture. More than anything else you can say about the Pilots, the enduring legacy of the franchise will always be what happened in the clubhouse, in that draft before the season began and then again the next spring when the club went to Arizona as Pilots and left in the direction of Milwaukee as the Brewers.

A Legal Connection

The line that connects that team to these Mariners was one drawn in legal papers in a courtroom when Washington Attorney General Slade Gorton sued baseball for stealing the Pilots. When an effort to retain the Pilots was turned down because the local group had no majority partner, Gorton saw an opening for a lawsuit. It was also Gorton, then as House majority leader in the state legislature, who muscled through, in the final hour of the 1967 Legislature, the bill to build the Kingdome. Having the Kingdome built and ready for occupancy as the suit against Major League Baseball progressed was seen as crucial to the eventual success of the lawsuit.

The Mariners were born as a ward of the court, granted life in the spring of 1977, a direct result of the lawsuit filed after Selig took the team to Milwaukee.

Strange bedfellows, this Republican politician and the former car salesman from Wisconsin? Consider how they later worked together to approve the sale of the Mariners to another local group, this one fronted by money from Minoru Arakawa, son-in-law of the Japanese owner of Nintendo of America, a company Gorton had aided on several occasions as a Senator. Gorton's contacts found the investor that kept baseball in Seattle and it was also the force of his strong arm efforts that pushed legislators to find a way to provide funding for Safeco Field after citizens of King County voted down a stadium proposal.

If you saw Gorton and Selig raising a toast in the owner's box at the All-Star Game and flashing each other a knowing wink, you could understand the context if not the politics.

Time and Changes

After the concerted efforts of local and state politicians -- at least those on the western side of the Cascades -- resulted in the construction of the Kingdome, the Mariners became the third big league team in town, following the NBA Sonics, owned by California businessmen and the NFL's Seahawks, owned by the Nordstrom family of Seattle.

You could say the Mariners were the fourth team in town if you counted the soccer-playing Sounders as big league, but their star burned brightly for what amounted to the blink of a sports fans' eye. The Seahawks began play in the Kingdome in the 1976 season and the Mariners followed in the spring of 1977, on April 6, when the California Angels came to town and beat Seattle behind Frank Tanana, 7-0. The starting pitcher for the Mariners that night was Diego Segui, who had also performed briefly for the Pilots.

Similarities were few from the opening games of the Pilots who started with a 4-3 win in Anaheim against the Angels, came home with a 1-1 record and on a 58-degree day before 17,150, beat the White Sox 7-0 in the first Major League game at Sicks' Stadium.

Compare that to the opener in the Kingdome eight years later when 57,762 fans watched the Mariners lose to the Angels. Where the Pilots started with a bang in a falling-down ballpark that hadn't been able to add all its extra seats, the Mariners started with a whimper in a cavernous concrete dome before more fans than would see the Pilots in a typical week.

One thing did draw them together, though. The Pilots and the Mariners each went 64-98 in their inaugural seasons. Things began to change in Year 2 for the Mariners: they won only 56 games in 1978.


Bart Wright

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