Pack for 7 days. That is the message written in red ink on the wipeboard in the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse after their 6-4 win over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, Sept. 27 Seattle is to play its final home game the next afternoon before departing for a season-ending, three-game weekend series with the Anaheim Angels. From there the Mariners go to...who knows? They could go to New York to start an American League Division Series against the Yankees or to Chicago to start one against the White Sox. They could go home to play the Cleveland Indians on Monday in a wild-card tiebreaker or to await a Monday makeup game between the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that could necessitate a divisional tiebreaker in Seattle on Tuesday. Or they could begin the hunting and fishing season.
With four days to go in the regular season and three teams ( Cleveland, Oakland and Seattle) vying for two playoff spots, the Mariners understand the math. They also understand that they'll be baiting their hooks soon if their 25-year-old shortstop and MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez—"Let's be honest, he's the heart and soul of this team," manager Lou Piniella says—doesn't snap out of a slump. He has had two hits in his last 23 at bats, including a l-for-16 disappearing act while Seattle dropped three out of four the previous weekend to white-hot Oakland. So lost is Rodriguez that in the half inning after one of his three strikeouts on Wednesday against the Rangers, he forgot to cover second base on a steal attempt. "I was thinking about my last at bat, I guess. That just can't happen," Rodriguez says after the game in the darkness of the players' parking lot at Safeco Field. "The whole season comes down to the next few days. I have to be ready."
Ken Griffey Jr. is gone, having forced a trade from Seattle to the Cincinnati Reds last winter. Piniella typically starts six hitters batting less than .270. "Nothing," he says, "comes easy for this team." The Mariners might make it to the postseason without Griffey. They won't make it without Rodriguez.
Thursday, Sept. 28: Seattle
Four adjacent lockers on the far wall of the Seattle clubhouse belong—two apiece—to Rodriguez and DH Edgar Martinez. The previous evening Martinez had received a standing ovation for becoming the Mariners' career leader in games played, supplanting Griffey Jr. Rodriguez, who can be a free agent at season's end, might be playing his last game in Seattle home whites. He and a clubhouse attendant are cleaning out his lockers. A season's accumulation of magazines, videos, mail, awards, photos, extra equipment, clothes and assorted knickknacks are stashed into boxes.
"All of it?" the attendant asks.
"All of it," Rodriguez says.
When asked about the possibility of this being his final home game in Seattle, he says, "You know, so much is at stake it really hasn't entered my mind that much."
A fan at Safeco carries a sign that reads: A-ROD'S LAST (HOME) STAND. In the fourth inning, with the Mariners leading the Rangers 5-4, the crowd erupts with a roar. It is 5 p.m. and the leftfield out-of-town scoreboard shows the Angels have taken a lead on the A's in the 14th inning in Oakland. Nineteen minutes later, a bigger cheer goes up. The A's have lost 6-3. Seattle's bullpen, though, coughs up the game to Texas, 13-6, and the Mariners' lead in the West remains at a half game.
"We're still driving the bus," says Rodriguez, who had a two-run double in three at bats. His gaze is fixed on a clubhouse television showing a game between the Indians and the Minnesota Twins that's tied in the 10th inning. "We have to drive it to the finish line. We have to take that rearview mirror and throw it away."