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Thursday, July 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor

'Going for it' is costly: Check out the Indians

The Cleveland Indians were, after all, the model for the Mariners. They got a new stadium, filled it every game, and won division title after division title.

Maybe in all this frenzy to keep up with the Yankees, to make the move before the trading deadline that gets them over the top and into the World Series, the Mariners ought to see what separates them from Cleveland.

A model has become a mess. The Indians are dismantling what is left of a great team. They no longer fill their stadium, they no longer have the same owners.

The questions are many. What happened in Cleveland? Is rebuilding inevitable? Are the Mariners missing the boat or keeping it afloat by sticking to their much-ballyhooed budget?

The Indians prospered in the '90s by committing to scouting and player development. For Dave and Dick Jacobs, the Indians were an investment, not a novelty or a tax write-off.

But caught in the draft of success, they answered the call of their passionate fans by "going for it," jumping wallet-first through the window of opportunity that gave them a shot at winning it all. To their credit, twice they got to the World Series. But at what cost?

They traded prospects for pieces to the puzzle, losing players such as Brian Giles, Sean Casey, Richie Sexson, Jeff Kent and Jeromy Burnitz.

They spent money on people such as Wil Cordero.

Even though they were selling out, they didn't have the broadcast revenues to keep up with the Yankees, or ultimately their own payroll. They had raised ticket prices about as much as they could. A fan could be expected to buy only so many Omar Vizquel jerseys.

Their payroll had gotten too big, their minor-league prospects too few.

Manny Ramirez and Juan Gonzalez weren't re-signed. Under new ownership — Larry Dolan bought the team in 2000 — Roberto Alomar was traded, and then, this season, in full retreat, Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley were jettisoned.

The Mariners are fighting to avoid what has happened in Cleveland. They don't think it is inevitable that they must rebuild.

It is the reason they haven't traded some of their best prospects, the reason that they got a young catcher last winter (Ben Davis) when they already had a catcher, the reason that they will stick to their budget no matter what.

When baseball stops making sense as a business, ownerships grumble and crumble, and dynasties can die as they did in Toronto as well as Cleveland.

The Florida Marlins went for it and lost $30 million, even though they won a World Series. Tom Hicks went for it by signing Alex Rodriguez, and now he, too, wants to stop the bleeding.

"If you don't operate as a business," said Howard Lincoln, the Mariners CEO, "all sorts of bad things happen."

The goal of the Mariners is not to win the World Series. It is to field a competitive team year after year, to put itself in a position to win a World Series, and hope at some point that happens.

"People want us to do something exceptional," said Lincoln, "but what we want to do is have the discipline to stick with our plan."

The Mariners are making money.

"We absolutely have to make money," Lincoln said. "No question, end of story."

The Mariners contend that none of the profits from the past two or three seasons have gone to the owners.

"They haven't taken a nickel out of this thing," said Chuck Armstrong, the team president. "Nor have they used any of that money to pay off previous losses."

According to Armstrong, the profits have gone back into the business. They were used to improve minor-league complexes in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, to establish scouts around the world, to go after Ichiro, to push the recent major-league payroll to $90 million, a 17 percent increase from the year before.

The Mariners think they took their exceptional action last winter, trading for Jeff Cirillo and Ben Davis, signing Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

There is no question that the future of any club is in its farm system. Players you nurture and bring up are cheaper than those you trade for, and prospects often bring about great trades.

The Mariners have hung on to most of their young pitching. They believe they'll have position players ready to move up when they are needed.

"I'd like to think of us as being like the Atlanta Braves," said Lincoln. "It is inevitable that we will have swings in our performance, but the goal is to keep them at a minimum."

As the trading deadline nears, the Mariners will be chided for missing an opportunity, for failing to be like the Yankees. Which is OK, as long as they aren't like the Indians.

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com.

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