As the Los Angeles Dodgers enter the home stretch of their quest for the winningest campaign in baseball history, Jeff Nelson understands their situation perhaps better than anybody on the planet. A standout reliever from 1992 through 2006, Nelson pitched for two of the most dominant teams of his or any other generation: the 1998 New York Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
The former finished with 114 regular-season victories and blitzed the competition in the playoffs en route to a World Series sweep, earning the reputation as one of the greatest collection of players ever assembled. The latter fared even better from April through September, matching the 1906 Chicago Cubs’ all-time record with 116 wins. But conversations about the best teams ever rarely include the ’01 Mariners, unless to lament—or mock—what happened next.
The Mariners failed in October that year, losing in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees with a defeat that forever sent them to the wastebasket of disappointments and missed opportunities. They blew a late-inning lead in Game 4, a contest in which Nelson threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings. That night, so sure of the series’ eventual outcome, Nelson recalls staying out until 6 a.m.
“You can say I played on a team that won 116 games,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “But we didn’t finish it off. We didn’t win the World Series, so what does it matter?”
Consider Nelson’s experience a word of warning for the 2017 Dodgers, a powerhouse looking to become the first team since those Mariners to top the 110-win mark. Regardless of how this next month unfurls, whether the Dodgers beat Seattle’s performance or not, they will head into the postseason facing only two possible paths: Either win the World Series and polish off a season for the ages, or fall short and watch it all go for naught.
It might sound unfair, but the 2001 Mariners know the feeling well, and it continues to haunt them 16 years later.
Paul Abbott, a Seattle starter who went 17-4 that season, said that he tries to keep a positive outlook and remember that the Mariners “were a part of history” and “did something that was pretty special.” Ultimately, however, Abbott admits that he can’t escape the fact that “it still stings that we’re not going to be talked about as one of the best teams because we didn’t win the World Series.”
In other words: Hey, Dodgers—no pressure.
“If you’re going to be one of the greatest teams of all-time, you probably have to win it all,” said Ed Sprague, a utility man for the ’01 Mariners who now works in the Oakland Athletics organization.
In other sports, regular-season excellence tends to correlate with titles. The team with the best overall record has won half the championships since the NBA moved to its current playoff format in 1984. The top regular-season team has won 49% of the Super Bowls since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The 2007 New England Patriots and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors feel like such choke jobs because teams that good rarely falter.
It doesn’t work that way in baseball, which features a playoff structure that declares a victor by distilling a 162-game marathon into a month-long sprint. Billy Beane, the longtime A’s executive, once described the postseason as a “gauntlet of randomness.”
The numbers support that view: The team with the best regular-season record has won the World Series less than 23% of the time since the introduction of the wild card in 1995. Three of the six teams ever to reach 110 wins went home without a ring, including the 2001 Mariners.
“In a short series, anything can happen,” said Edgar Martinez, the longtime Mariners’ designated hitter who now works as the team’s hitting coach. “In baseball, you just never know. I don’t see [the ’01 loss] as a failure.”
Players say that in the playoffs, the hottest team usually wins, not necessarily the best, and momentum can change at a moment’s notice. The Mariners went 20-7 in September and early October before heading into the playoffs, only to struggle in a five-game series against the Cleveland Indians before running into the Yankees.
Looking back now, the Mariners say they don’t know what they would change about how they approached the playoffs. They just ran into the wrong opponent at the wrong time.
“There’s not anything you can do to prepare for going into the postseason other than, hopefully you’re playing well,” said Mark McLemore, who hit .286 in 409 at-bats for that team “That’s it. There’s not a different mindset that we could have taken. There was nothing more that we could do.”
When the playoffs begin, the Dodgers will face loads of pressure and expectations, almost certainly dealing with more intense scrutiny than the Mariners did.
They play in the nation’s second-largest media market and haven’t won a championship since 1988. They have the highest payroll in the major leagues and have claimed four straight division crowns—with a fifth on its way—without winning a single pennant. Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in the sport, has posted a 4.55 ERA in 18 playoff appearances, a fact that will no doubt come up a few times this October.
But Nelson says the added pressure could wind up helping the Dodgers. He pointed to his time in 1998 with the Yankees, a franchise that subscribes to a “championship-or-bust” mentality and had an owner in
who made it abundantly clear that 114 wins didn’t matter without a championship. With the Mariners, a team that has never made the World Series, Nelson said he didn’t always feel that.
“It was a huge difference because of two different cities,” Nelson said. “In New York, we had to keep the pedal to the metal because of pressures from the outside.”
For now, the Mariners players say the Dodgers should just remain focused on winning in September in an effort to go into the playoffs feeling confident. That hasn’t been happening lately: Los Angeles entered Monday’s action having lost eight of its last nine games, its worst stretch of the season.
The Mariners wouldn’t mind if the Dodgers even lose few more before October. They may not have won the World Series, but they did win 116 games—a record they would like to keep.
Write to Jared Diamond at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the September 5, 2017, print edition as ‘Can the Dodgers Be Great?.’