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Wednesday, January 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Cold spell leaves M's in a winter of discontent

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Remember that 19-inning game with Boston last summer?

All that drama? All that tension spilling over from one day to the next?

All of those three-up-three-down innings?

The night ended with the (exhilaration) of Mike Cameron's opposite-field home run.

It was a night to celebrate. One of the most memorable wins in franchise history.

It also was a harbinger, a warning flare reminding us of the lack of pop in the Mariner order.

That win over Boston was one of those nights when you missed the idea of Ken Griffey Jr. in the middle of the lineup. The superstar, with the an actor's flair for the dramatic.

And it was a night when you knew even Alex Rodriguez in the lineup wouldn't be enough to take the Mariners to their first World Series.

Too many times in that game David Bell, Dan Wilson and Mark McLemore were the first three hitters in the bottom of the next inning.

Now, of course, Rodriguez is in Texas. Griffey is long gone to Cincinnati and the Mariners have become the latest version of Chicago's '59 Go Go Sox, or Los Angeles' 1965 edition of the Dodgers.

This is a team completely built on arms and legs.

It is a line drive in the gap. It is a manufactured run in the bottom of the ninth.

The days and nights of the long, long balls are gone.

The 2001 team is six or seven strong innings from its deep starting rotation and a lot of heat and deception from its even deeper bullpen.

It is unlike any Mariner team in franchise history.

And probably not as good as the playoff-contending teams of the last 10 years.

Monday's doubleheader news that the Oakland A's helped themselves immeasurably by acquiring Johnny Damon from Kansas City and that Cleveland was in the process of salving the loss of Manny Ramirez by signing Juan Gonzalez to a one-year deal, was nothing but more bad news in this winter of discontent.

The morphing of the Mariners is complete.

The thunder is gone.

Sure, Jay Buhner might have another 25 to 30 home runs left in his trustworthy stick. And Edgar Martínez is the surest thing in baseball and another 30 home runs waiting to happen.

Bret Boone will make up for a portion of the infield power that Rodriguez took with him.

But this is a team that is going to have to score more with its legs than it lumber. It is a team that needs more thunder than this roster is ready to produce.

This winter the Mariners had a chance to make themselves better and they didn't do it.

Why didn't they make a serious play for free-agent catcher Charles Johnson?

Why did they fall out of the competition for Ramirez, even after assuring Ramirez and agent Jeff Moorad they could move in the Safeco Field fences to accommodate his selfish pursuit of power numbers?

Why couldn't they close a deal with Kansas City for Damon, who is maybe the best all-around outfielder in the American League? How could they allow AL West rival Oakland to steal him away?

Why were they so reluctant to make the same one-year $12 million offer to Gonzalez that Cleveland made?

Sure, we know Gonzalez had a troubled year in Detroit. He hated the cold weather. He was an unhappy distraction in the Tiger clubhouse.

But sometimes you have to take a chance and gamble on a guy's track record.

Putting Gonzalez together with Manager Lou Piniella could have worked.

Instead the Mariners will head for the desert next month with a sombrero full of serious questions.

Can left-handed starter Jamie Moyer return to his 1999 form?

Is Freddy García ready to become the absolute ace of the staff?

Does reliever Kazu Sasaki have another year of those magical split-fingers in his marvelous right arm?

Is Japan League superstar Ichiro the real thing?

Is Carlos Guillén ready to become the everyday shortstop?

Can outfielder Al Martin return to his old hitting form?

Can Cameron learn the discipline to become a more consistent hitter?

How much does Buhner have left? And how many years can Martínez perform laser surgery on American League pitchers?

This week the A's got Damon and the Indians got Gonzalez.

This winter, the Rangers got Rodriguez, the Yankees got Mike Mussina and the Red Sox got Ramirez.

The best teams in the American League got better.

Every team, that is, except the Mariners.

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