Seattle Manager Lou Piniella was in his Fenway Park office doing a crossword puzzle Wednesday afternoon when he paused and said with a smile, "53 down, 'Let's make a ----.' Maybe it's an omen for us."
It was . . . a bad one. The Mariners, a World Series-caliber team except for a bullpen that turned the blown save into an art form, made two deals Thursday night. But was it wise to trade what they had for what was behind the curtain?
Certainly, the Mariners improved with the addition of Boston's Heathcliff Slocumb and Toronto's Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric, but they didn't improve enough for what they gave up.
They sent outfielder Jose Cruz Jr., the third overall pick in the 1995 draft and a budding superstar, to the Blue Jays, and Jason Varitek, the 14th overall pick in the 1994 draft and their best catching prospect, to the Red Sox, and they did not get a dominant closer in return.
"They traded Cruz without getting Ricky Bottalico or Roberto Hernandez?" one stunned scout said at Thursday night's Angel-Chicago White Sox game. "I can't believe it."
Seattle had zeroed in on Hernandez, the White Sox closer with 27 saves, but when Chicago dealt him to San Francisco along with starters Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin on Thursday afternoon, the Mariners had to scramble.
They had discussed a deal for Philadelphia's Bottalico, one of the National League's best closers, but Piniella and Roger Jongewaard, team vice president, reportedly told General Manager Woody Woodward they preferred an American League pitcher, so the Mariners turned to Slocumb.
Piniella may come to regret that move as much as handing Norm Charlton the ball with ninth-inning leads this season.
Bottalico, who is 2-3 with a 3.80 earned-run average and 19 saves, is clearly a better closer than Timlin or Slocumb, and at 28, could have anchored the Mariner bullpen for years.
Until his blown save Thursday night, Slocumb had a 1.47 ERA and 11 saves in 19 games since June 14, but the right-hander has been wildly erratic this season and is now 0-5 with a 5.79 ERA.
Timlin is 3-2 with a 2.87 ERA and nine saves, but Toronto Manager Cito Gaston lost so much confidence in the fragile right-hander that Kelvim Escobar, a 21-year-old rookie, has been getting most of the save opportunities lately.
For weeks approaching Thursday's trading deadline, it appeared Cruz, who had 12 homers and 34 runs batted in in 49 games, was untouchable. The Phillies wanted Cruz for Bottalico, and the Mariners declined.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and trading Cruz to Toronto seemed like a desperate act.
"It came down to the 12th hour," Woodward said. "It's true, I did not want to make that deal. There were some suggestions within our baseball office that we may have to include Cruz in a deal earlier.
"I avoided that, and then as we got closer to the deadline, we realized that to get the help we need to win this year, we were going to have to put a good young player like Cruz in the deal."
Do the Mariners fear Cruz will make them regret the deal?
"I'm sure he will," Woodward said. "He's a good player."
THE PUDGE BUDGE
Texas Ranger President Tom Schieffer arrived at the Ballpark in Arlington on Thursday ready to explain to reporters how his team had no choice but to trade all-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez to the New York Yankees for catcher Jorge Posada and minor league pitcher Tony Armas.
Knock-knock. Someone was at the door--Rodriguez. A few hours later, the two were telling reporters about the five-year, $42-million contract extension Rodriguez had accepted, putting an end to Pudge Panic in Texas.
When the Rangers traded Ken Hill for Angel catcher Jim Leyritz on Tuesday, it appeared Rodriguez, who had turned down the team's five-year, $38-million offer, would be the next domino to fall.
Rodriguez would have been a free agent at the end of the season, and Texas wasn't about to let the game's best catcher slip away without getting anything in return. So the Rangers began shopping the 25-year-old to the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, and Ranger fans began burning their "Sign Pudge" bumper stickers.
But a heart-to-heart talk with teammate Rusty Greer on Wednesday afternoon, another with Juan Gonzalez on Wednesday night and some words from his mother, Eva Torres, left an impression on Rodriguez, who was seeking a five-year, $45-million deal.
So Rodriguez, without attorney Jeff Moorad, marched into Schieffer's office and the two hammered out a deal in which they essentially split the difference between what was offered and what was asked for.
"Everybody on the team told me they wanted me to stay," Rodriguez said. "That makes me happy, that my teammates like me the way I am and the way I play. . . . I don't want to play anywhere else."
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the White Sox and Chicago Bulls, has said and done some outrageous things--$55 million for Albert Belle immediately comes to mind--but many wondered this week: Exactly what's in those cigars he smokes?
After the White Sox traded Alvarez, Hernandez and Darwin to the Giants on Thursday, giving up on a team that was only 3 1/2 games out of first place, Reinsdorf said, "I haven't been this excited in years. . . . This is how I felt the night we drafted [Bull forwards] Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant."
Forgive the White Sox if they didn't share Reinsdorf's enthusiasm. They felt the way Bull Coach Phil Jackson might have felt if Chicago traded Pippen to the Vancouver Grizzlies for a few CBA players.
"It's disappointing to think you have a team to do it, now you can't, and you'll never know," third baseman Robin Ventura said. "It's really disappointing. Everyone goes through trades this time of year, but to lose three good pitchers is pretty severe."
* Ross Newhan is on vacation.