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Don't blame Olerud for M's demise

7/19/2004 - Seattle Mariners

Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Seattle's baseball stadium, and it was an odd night at the diamond.

John Olerud, who grew up in a Seattle suburb and played the past five seasons with the Mariners, was designated for assignment but showed up to say good-bye to his friends, clean out his locker and make an appearance in his street clothes during a pregame ceremony for charity. He received a standing ovation from the few fans in the stands at the time.

Standing out there at home plate in jeans and a polo shirt while his now ex-teammates busied themselves in the dugout must have been like Pete Best watching the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Except, of course, for the key difference that the Mariners band isn't going anywhere this year.

"I think the way I played, I definitely put the team in a tough situation,'' said Olerud, the 1993 batting champ who was hitting a career-low .248 with just 22 RBIs. "I forced them to make some tough decisions. I'm not thrilled by what they did, but I understand and I'm not mad. It's disappointing that I put them in that position.''

That's nice of Olerud to say, but he didn't put the Mariners in that position. They wedged themselves into it with a long series of poor decisions.

Despite winning 93 games each of the past two seasons and more games than every team except Oakland the past four, the Mariners are the equivalent of a homeowner who put off needed repairs for years and suddenly finds himself faced with peeling paint, corroded pipes, a leaky roof, dry-rot, a crumbling foundation, termites, uncovered asbestos, an overflowing septic tank and an assessment for street repairs.

Ownership tried to get one more year out of the team's aging veterans -- at 35, Olerud was virtually a kid by Mariners standards -- and now is paying a steep price. The Mariners fell into last place opening week and have never pulled out. They lost more games by July 4 than they lost all 2001. They are 16½ games out of first place and 14½ out of next-to-last. They just went two full weeks between victories.

On pace for one of the worst seasons in club history -- and that's saying something -- the club has finally started making changes, beginning an extensive remodel that has left them with only five players from the 2001 team -- Ichiro, Jamie Moyer, Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone and Dan Wilson.

The first move was trading Freddy Garcia to the White Sox three weeks ago for two prospects and catcher Miguel Olivo (who promptly went on the disabled list with kidney stones). Last weekend they designated shortstop Rich Aurilia for assignment, ending what was one of the worst free-agent signings in team history. While Carlos Guillen was turning into an All-Star in Detroit, Aurilia was a disaster at the plate and in the field.

That Aurilia was dumped days before Guillen played in the All-Star Game was symbolic of the direction this season has gone.

The Olerud move was made in part so that Scott Spiezio could shift to first base and allow prospect Justin Leone to play full-time at third base. Leone, who hit 21 home runs at Triple-A Tacoma, made an immediate impact with a game-winning two-run homer Thursday, then hit another Friday -- and it was the first time this year that, when trailing, the Mariners hit a home run to take the lead and also held onto the lead.

"The move was much more about Leo at third than Spiezio at first base," manager Bob Melvin said. "I want him in there. I didn't want to play him a day and then take him out the next."

Seattle's roster now looks much less like the 2001 Mariners who won 116 games and much more like the 2004 Tacoma Rainiers. In addition to Leone, Seattle has moved Australian rookie Travis Blackley into the rotation and called up reliever George Sherrill and first baseman Bucky Jacobsen. Blackley allowed seven runs in two innings Friday, an 18-6 loss to Cleveland.

The Mariners aren't done, or at least, they shouldn't be. Veteran reliever Ron Villone has been moved into the rotation, which should only be a temporary move if the team is serious about a youth movement. They also need to find at-bats for Jacobsen, a 28-year-old career minor-leaguer, to see what he can do in the bigs.

Jacobsen, who hit 26 home runs at Triple-A Tacoma in the season's first half, is already a cult hero. Fans not only started a Web site devoted to him six years ago (buckybackers.com), they sell Bucky mugs, shirts, caps and baby clothes on it.

"I'm sure the guy running the site is a little busier now," Jacobsen said of his callup. "It's been a long road to get here with a lot of roadblocks -- injuries, politics, whatever. Now that I'm here, I want to take advantage of the opportunity. I know I've been blessed with the ability to hit. I want to hit well enough to convince people who make the decisions that I'm someone who can help next year."

It will take more than the rookies to make a difference, though. The Mariners may have finally hired a contractor, but their rebuilding project still figures to be long and costly.

If the Mariners are to have any hope of returning to contention next season, they need to make the sort of substantial free-agent signing this winter that they never have in the past. Instead of someone like Aurilia, they need to use the revenues generated by the new stadium to sign someone such as Carlos Delgado.

Seattle's new stadium was built on the canard that it would allow the Mariners to be competitive year after year. As so many fans in other cities have learned, that isn't the case. Teams still lose, players still grow old and veterans still have to be replaced, not simply let go.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.