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Monday, May 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Larry Stone / Baseball reporter
Home runs not where Mariners' heart is this year


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NEW YORK — In the eighth inning yesterday, Seattle's Scott Spiezio drove a ball over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium, which older fans will recall is something known as a "home run."

These four-base hits — the batsman is permitted to circle the bases, untouched — have become an endangered species on this year's Mariners, who have a chance to break Barry Bonds' season record. En masse.

Spiezio's 320-foot shot, which barely eluded the leap of right fielder Gary Sheffield, was the M's 24th of the year, putting them on a mighty pace for 105. Triple-digits, baby.

The Mariners' vaunted power of past incarnations? It has flown, flown away for good. Elvis is staying in the building, and Grandma has put away the rye bread and mustard until further notice.

Power outage


If the trend holds, the Mariners' home-run total will decline for the fifth consecutive year.

• 244 in 1999*

• 198 in 2000

• 169 in 2001

• 152 in 2002

• 139 in 2003

• 24 in 2004, on pace for 105

*Played half the season at the Kingdome

Only one team in baseball, the San Diego Padres, has hit fewer home runs (22) than the Mariners, and they have come to the conclusion in San Diego that their new ballpark, Petco Field, is a vast space-land of daunting proportions.

The Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies, by contrast, went into yesterday's game with 52, more than twice as many as the Mariners. The American League-leading Texas Rangers had 51.

Now, mind you, with Safeco Field as their home base the Mariners are never going to resemble, say, the 1997 Mariners, who still hold the major-league record with 264 homers — their second of four consecutive years over 200, leading the league in three of those seasons. The M's had bashers such as Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Alex Rodriguez playing at the launching pad known as the Kingdome.

But there's really little explanation — or excuse — for this year's meager output, which is yet another in the litany of root causes of the Mariners' horrendous start.

"I'm surprised, but not shocked (at being last in the league)," Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said over the weekend in New York. "When you're playing badly in every phase of the game, there's going to be something you're last in."

If the trend holds, the Mariners' home-run total will decline for the fifth consecutive year. A drop off from the Kingdome is to be expected, but now the problem is getting to be critical.

"We don't expect to lead the league in home runs, but we don't expect to be last," Melvin said. "(Bret) Boone's been out for a while ... and Boone's been out for a while."

Casey Stengel once described managing as "getting paid for home runs someone else hits," in which case Melvin's checks might start bouncing.

He can only dream about employing the noted managerial philosophy of Earl Weaver, who said "The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals and three-run home runs."

In fact, Melvin would settle for a few solo home runs. The Mariners' starting lineup yesterday totaled 14 homers, with four of the nine still waiting for their first of year.

"Where we are in the league in home runs is not good," Melvin said. "There are games that have had the effect on us where we get three, four, five hits and score a run, and then they come up and get a walk and a homer. That can wear on you a little bit.

"But we have what we have. We can't say, 'All right, guys, start to swing for the fences.' But I don't think you'll see it stay this way all year. I think we'll hit some more homers. Richie (Rich Aurilia) is guy that's hit a bunch before, and he doesn't have any. Johnny (John Olerud) should hit a few more, Edgar (Martinez) will get going, we'll get Boonie back in there, and I think we'll hit some more."

Meanwhile, the Mariners have become a station-to-station team — so slowly, sometimes, they could use a station wagon. Usually, a power-challenged team (at least the successful ones) are compensated by speed, but with a few exceptions, the Mariners are as slow as they are anemic — not a good combination.

Melvin got a good look in this series what a well-placed blast can do for a team, as the Yankees hit six in three games, compared to one for Seattle — Spiezio's in the 30th of 31 innings at Yankee Stadium. The Mariners had just one other home run on their six-game trip — Martinez's 300th of his career, in Minnesota.

"It has an effect on you sometimes," Melvin admitted. "A team can be struggling, not swinging too good. Then someone will make an error, you get a walk, and all of a sudden, a three-run homer. That's something we're really not built to do right now."

It's a good thing Harry Caray isn't around to see this. He'd have to change his famous home-run call, which could also serve as a statement on Seattle's status as a contending ballclub.

It could be, it might be ... it isn't.

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

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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