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Sunday, October 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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STEVE KELLEY

Mesa brings relief to Mariners, belief to long-jaded fans

Times staff columnist

To Mariner relief pitcher Jose Mesa.

Jose:

You must be a little cynical by now.

I mean you saved 33 games for Seattle last season and all you heard were boos.

It seemed as if every time you got up in the bullpen you heard panicky shouts of "Oh, no," that must have sounded to you like echoes bouncing off the walls of the Grand Canyon.

And this year it was worse. You got demoted to set-up man and you got booed even louder.

Every time Mariner Manager Lou Piniella went to the mound and pointed toward you in the pen, you must have braced yourself for the kind of oral onslaught that only should be reserved for corrupt politicians and cheating college coaches.

"Now pitching for the Mariners, No. 49, Jose," and then, most nights, you never heard your last name. It got drowned in the jeers.

And every time you fell behind in the count, you heard the hometown fans hooting.

Even Mayor Paul Schell didn't take that kind of heat after the WTO mayhem.

Few of us will ever know the kind of loneliness you must feel on the mound, in the center of the diamond, when 40,000 fans are expressing their displeasure.

It has to affect even a 10-year veteran like you. There must have been times when you wanted to throw your best fastball at every open mouth you could find.

I'm sure there were more than a few times you wanted to pump some Jugs-gun smoke into the press box.

The point is, you didn't.

You hunkered down in the bullpen. You listened to your pitching coach, Bryan Price. You threw your curveball more and it made your fastball look like something from the arm of Bartolo Colon.

You struck out 84 batters in 80 innings. You gave up a run in only two of 11 appearances in June. You pitched three shutout innings in the 19-inning win over Boston.

And then, last week against what was supposed to be the best-hitting team in the American League, you silenced the Chicago White Sox in the first two games of the American League Divisional Series.

In the first game, with two men on in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game, you got Magglio Ordonez to meekly fly out to right.

And in the second game you were positively unreachable, striking out two in a perfect, lead-holding 1 2/3 innings.

The thing is, Jose, I think there was a time when the entire city quit on you - and you've proven it wrong.

Instead of sulking in the bullpen, you got better. Instead of wilting in the heat of 40,000 boos, you responded with strikes.

Seattle owes you a thanks for your unslakable determination.

Let me give you a little history that can act as an explanation for this city's insecurities.

You see, several years ago, Seattle unofficially adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward the bullpen.

You weren't around here for the worst of Bobby Ayala, or for those nightmare late-inning appearances by Mike Timlin and Heathcliff Slocumb.

I mean, we have a history here of disappointment. Tom Niedenfuer, the second year of Mike Schooler. The Mariners used to have a left-handed setup man named Paul Mirabella who was so bad one of my former sports editors left the Kingdome every time Mirabella was called into a game.

Seattle has this fear of the inevitable that dates back to the early 1980s. It's a fear that gathered momentum in the late '90s.

When the Mariners had the chance, they didn't re-sign Mike Jackson. And, when they traded Jeff Nelson to the Yankees, that just ratcheted up the anxieties a few notches.

There has been a case of bullpen-envy in this city for so long, it has seemed as natural as the seventh-inning stretch.

Seattle has grown accustomed to the nervous, prickly feeling that creeps up the spine in the late innings.

It has become familiar with the feeling of dread that would hit in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings every time a big lead began to shrink and Piniella slowly would walk to the mound like an inmate heading toward the gallows.

So, you see, the city wasn't prepared for this season. It didn't figure a quartet as good as Jose Paniagua, Arthur Rhodes, Kazuhiro Sasaki and you could exist here. Bullpens this deep were the kind that beat the Mariners. You know, bullpens like your 1995 Indians.

Seattle still is adjusting to the notion that a lead can be safe, that the late innings are something to embrace, not fear.

You know how people who fear riding in elevators can get over their fear by spending hours in them, riding up and down and discovering nothing bad happens?

That's kind of what it has been like for Seattle baseball fans this year. It has taken a while to realize how good you guys are. It has taken all of these months to get over this "Pen"-aphobia.

You muted the boos with your resolve. You silenced your critics with your heat. You won over a city that had left you for dead.

Seattle owes you and, my guess is, you will hear its gratitude the first time Piniella calls on you at home in the American League Championship Series.

You won't be alone anymore at Safeco Field.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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