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Star-Laden Mariners Are on Top - for Now

Seattle aims to win its first pennant this year

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Seattle has it all these days: Bill Gates and mighty Microsoft, Boeing, an enviable spot on the Pacific Rim, and a baseball team that probably has as many megawatt stars as any in the majors.

Headliners like centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., pitcher Randy Johnson, and shortstop Alex Rodriguez, however, do not necessarily translate into pennants, and for the talented but unfulfilled Mariners, that might be the rub.

During their 20-year existence, the M's have made it to the playoffs just once, in 1995, when they lost the American League championship Series to Cleveland. And they are no cinch to make it to the postseason this year. The Anaheim Angels are battling them neck-and-neck in the American League West. (They meet one final time this season on Sept. 23 and 24 in Seattle.)

The Angels squandered an 11-game division lead to the Mariners two years ago, then lost a one-game playoff to Seattle the day after the regular season ended. The Mariners went on to beat the Yankees in a dramatic, come-from-behind, first-round series, a triumph that helped establish them as winners, despite a long history of losing.

"We're at that age and maturity level that clubs need to win," says manager Lou Piniella, who guided Cincinnati to a stunning sweep of Oakland in the 1990 World Series. "Now we have to take it to the next step."

That should be a championship, something only one of Seattle's major professional teams - basketball's SuperSonics in 1979 - has ever produced.

To get there first means reaching the playoffs, then winning the League Championship Series and the World Series. Those goals might have seemed realistic after the best June in franchise history, but the club has cooled off considerably since then.

In one move made to acquire much-needed bullpen help, the Mariners traded Jose Cruz, who was fast becoming a fixture in left field, where 48 players have been tried since 1989.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of great expectations, Griffey spoke out angrily after a mid-season exhibition against a Double A minor-league all-star squad in Zebulon, N.C. The game, arranged long ago as a favor to a farm club, was ill-timed, coming at the beginning of Seattle's longest road trip of the year - and this for baseball's most heavily traveled team.

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