In Seattle, A-Rod, Junior, Big Unit were rare trio
Piniella, their manager, recalls their youthful potential for greatness
As soon as Alex Rodriguez cleared the Green Monster last week in Boston with the 631st home run of his career, three things came to mind, ranging from impressive to amazing to "wow."
First, the impressive.
Just like that, only Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds owned more homers than Rodriguez.
As for the amazing, not only did Rodriguez break a tie with Ken Griffey Jr., for the fifth spot, they were teammates on the Seattle Mariners for six seasons during the 1990s. So they were the latter-day version of Ruth and Gehrig, Aaron and Mathews, Mays and McCovey.
Here's the "wow" part. In addition to Rodriguez and Griffey, Randy Johnson gave those Mariners teams a trio of superstars with the statistics to waltz into Cooperstown in a flash.
We're talking about three Hall of Famers playing for long stretches on the same team. You sort of knew they were headed for something bronzed for eternity at the time. Now you see it -- with Griffey and Johnson glorified in retirement, and with Rodriguez still making history nearly every time he flicks his 36-year-old wrists.
"There also was Edgar [Martinez]," said Lou Piniella, his voice rising over the phone, while recalling another one of the prolific Mariners he managed back then. "Edgar was as good a right-handed hitter as I've ever seen in the game. You can talk about [Albert] Pujols, but let me tell you. I mean, this guy right here could really hit a baseball."
Martinez was the designated hitter who eventually slammed 309 career home runs with a lifetime batting average of .312.
As for the Big Three ...
Griffey was the multiple Gold Glove center fielder who also could hit a little for power and for average. Johnson was the left-handed pitcher who scared batters with his hair (crazy long), his size (6-foot-10) and his fastballs (100 mph) to win 303 games. Rodriguez was the shortstop who did everything beyond great with his bat, glove, arm and legs.
So you're Lou Piniella, and you're taking over the historically shaky Mariners in 1993 for the first year of your decade in Seattle. You have Griffey and Johnson starting their fifth seasons with the team, and you have Martinez starting his seventh. You also have Rodriguez joining the Mariners as a rookie in 1994.
When do you suspect you have a ton of greatness among players in your midst, especially among the Big Three?
"Well, it didn't take too long to figure that out, I'll tell you that," Piniella said, chuckling. "The talent was there. Now, could these guys stay injury-free? Could they have long careers that would allow them to put up the numbers to warrant making the Hall of Fame? That was the question."
Piniella on the young Griffey: "I know when I had Junior, he was the best player in the game. He had the edge on Barry Bonds, because Junior played center field. Athletic, fun loving. I mean, what a swing. If you want to classify somebody as what you would want to call 'The Natural' in baseball, you're talking about Ken Griffey Jr."
Piniella on the young Rodriguez: "Alex, here's a young man, second [full] year in the big leagues, he wins a batting title. He was more dogged. He was a man among boys when he got up to the big leagues at the young age of , and he developed so quickly, and he was such a hard worker and such an attentive student of the game."
Piniella on the young Johnson: "He just had that overpowering fastball. It took him a couple of years to harness it. But, boy, once he was able to get it together, there was no finer starting pitcher in the game."
In sum, Piniella said of the group that became All-Star Game regulars, "Looking back, you could see they all had what it took to become [first-ballot] Hall of Famers."
Piniella should know.
In 1973, during the last of Piniella's five years as a player for the Kansas City Royals, he watched the debut of future Hall of Famer George Brett. Then Piniella spent 11 season with the Yankees, and his teammates during that stretch included future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Catfish Hunter and Gaylord Perry.
"I've been around a lot of great players," said Piniella, now 68, who also helped mold the likes of Rickey Henderson and Barry Larkin during managerial stints with the Yankees, Reds, Rays and Cubs. "You know, what they all had in common, first of all, is that they were driven. They all had the drive to be good, to be consistent and then to be great.
"They also were good people. How about that?"
That's all impressive, but a couple of other questions come to mind regarding those loaded Mariners teams.
Why didn't they win a World Series championship?
Why didn't they even win a pennant?
"You know, the one thing we lacked there in Seattle those years, our team was basically built more for the long season than for a short playoff season," Piniella said. "You've got to have a great starting staff to win in the postseason. You have to be deep. We weren't that deep starting pitching-wise, and when we played the Yankees in the postseason, especially in the second round of those playoffs, it became a little difficult for us."
As a consolation prize, they still had the Big Three.
And Martinez, too.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.