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Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Mariners castoffs of a feather flock together

Seattle Times baseball reporter

JUPITER, Fla. — The training complex at Roger Dean Stadium is like a Mariners nightmare flashback. Everywhere one turns, it seems, is a screaming reminder of ill-fated trades, misguided personnel decisions, and faded splendor.

On one side is the St. Louis Cardinals camp, where (cue the scary music) Scott Spiezio has resurfaced as a backup infield candidate. This may surprise those who believed, based on last year's .064 average, that Spiezio would have difficulty winning a backup job on a high-school team. Never mind a pennant contender.

In various recent interviews, Spiezio has had the gall to intimate that his pathetic two-year stint with the Mariners was the fault of: a) stick-in-the-mud teammates who broke his spirit; and b) management that didn't give him a fair shot; rather than c) an abject inability to perform.

Decorated reliever Jeff Nelson is also in Cardinals camp, a living testament to the severed nexus between the Seattle glory days and the mess into which they've descended.

Wander a few hundred yards and stumble upon the youthful faces of the rebuilding Florida Marlins, who share Roger Dean Stadium with the Cardinals and have executed one of their periodic dismantlings of world-championship talent.

Why, isn't that Miguel Olivo, the M's catcher of the future, right up until the moment they decided they couldn't stomach his present? Now Olivo is the Marlins' catcher of the moment, hoping to build on the .304 average in San Diego that followed his liberation from the Mariners.

Then there's that fellow at second base, gobbling up every grounder with the accomplished ease of a glove master. He definitely looks familiar, but I can't quite place him.

It's on the tip of my tongue. Pikey, Pukey ... no, wait! I've got it! Pokey. Pokey Reese, the phantom of the infield.

Reese will always have a special place in Mariners lore — the man paid $1.2 million (a $100,000 signing bonus, $800,000 salary, and $300,000 buyout), for as many at-bats as Bode Miller, Paris Hilton and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Combined.

Reese, a genuinely good guy who has gone through various episodes of pure hell in his personal life, wants Seattle fans to know that he feels very badly about the way last year went.

"I know I could have helped the team," he said quietly. "I'm sorry I couldn't get out there and perform."

Signed away from the 2004 world champion Red Sox to be the starting shortstop in Seattle, his magic glove was supposed to combine with (giggle) Bret Boone to give the Mariners a state-of-the-art double-play combination. But Reese knew from virtually the first day of camp that he was in big trouble.

He noticed a protrusion on his collarbone, and felt discomfort in his right shoulder.

"I knew when I was overthrowing Richie Sexson, or underthrowing Richie, that there was a problem," Reese said.

At first, it seemed like a minor setback, and for most of spring training and early in the regular season, the Mariners hoped Reese's return was imminent. But the shoulder got worse instead of better, eventually necessitating surgery in May to shave that bothersome knob, as well as to repair fraying on his labrum.

That operation didn't solve the problem, either. So in August, Reese had a second surgery on the shoulder. Afterward, he quietly slipped back to Charlotte, N.C., to rehabilitate and regroup, thus ending the Reese Era, for which no statistical evidence exists.

"The Mariners cleared me to just go home, and I took them up on it," he said. "It's tough when you can't do anything. You're walking around, feeling like you're not part of the team."

Reese grew up in extreme poverty in South Carolina, where he and 10 others lived in a two-room shack without hot water or an indoor toilet. Adulthood brought the wealth and fame of a big-league career, but unthinkable tragedy. The mother of his first child, LaBresha, died in a car crash in 1993. Three years later, the mother of his second child, a boy named Naquawan, died in labor while delivering a baby fathered by another man.

When Naquawan was a toddler, living with his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, he witnessed a man enter their home and murder the two women. Naquawan, now living with Reese's sister in Charlotte, was found sitting in the blood, and though Reese says he's doing well now, he's still traumatized by the event.

Suffice it to say that Reese is able to put a mere baseball injury in its proper perspective.

"This is nothing," he said.

But Reese, now throwing pain-free and in line to be the Marlins' starting second baseman, always had baseball as his refuge. Until last year.

"I couldn't get out there, and you start thinking about a lot of things that happen in the past," he said. "My mom really helped me last year, pulled me through. She'd call me up and tell me to hold my head up."

For the ex-Mariners of Jupiter and other galaxies, that's sage advice all around.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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