Tanking has become a huge issue in sports. Teams become unwatchable for years in the pursuit of striking gold in the draft. Even if they secure that number one pick, it’s usually a total crapshoot anyway.
Things in 1986 were a bit different though. Ken Griffey, Jr. was going to be the top pick in the 1987 draft and he was as can’t miss as can’t miss can get. Due to draft rules of the time, the American League team with the worst record was going to be able to land Griffey the following June as the leagues rotated top draft choices back then.
With nine games left in the season, the Twins had 65 wins, the White Sox had 66, the Mariners had 67 and the Brewers and Royals had 70 each. The team with the most losses would win Griffey.
We all know where Griffey ended up, so how did the Mariners emerge from that group to grab the greatest first overall pick in Major League history? By losing all nine of their remaining games. In fact, they lost 12 of their final 13 games that season to leave no question about who would be picking first in the following draft.
This wasn’t a tank job though. The Mariners were very competitive in those games, with ten of their final 12 losses by two runs or less. Two of the losses came in walk off fashion. A combination of bad luck and bad baseball sent Griffey to the Pacific Northwest and it served as a metaphorical AED for the moribund franchise. The Mariners had been in existence for just ten years and averaged just 64 wins a season over that time. Griffey gave the franchise their first generational superstar and helped keep the franchise in Seattle.
None of that would have happened if Griffey ended up elsewhere, so the Great Seattle Shit Streak of 1986 that begat The Kid, lands itself in The Stud 400.
Before we move on to this week’s edition of The Stud 400, here’s a look at the last five entries as we count down the 400 greatest moments in Major League Baseball history:
295. George Brett wins batting title in 3 decades (1990)
294. Greg Maddux chooses Braves over Yankees (1992)
293. Pete Alonso sets rookie HR record (2019)
292. Joe DiMaggio first player to earn $100,000 salary (1949)
291. Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell die in car accidents exactly 30 years apart (1958, 1988)
And now, here’s Episode XXIII of The Stud 400, featuring artwork by Will O’Toole.
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World Baseball Classic debuts (2000)
The World Baseball Classic is awesome. Players take pride in representing their countries and fanbases for the countries involved have embraced their teams with national pride. The atmosphere is incredible and it’s pretty cool to see some of the game’s biggest stars competing as teammates alongside players from other countries who will never sniff the Big Leagues. The WBC started in 2000 and is now played once every four years with the next tournament coming in 2023. Baseball has done well growing the sport on a global scale over the past four decades and the WBC is a natural progression to continue that momentum.
Mariners lose nine straight to clinch top draft pick (1986)
There are so many “what if” draft scenarios that it’s barely worth revisiting any of them. There are a few in Major League Baseball that have had such an impact on the trajectory of franchises though, that they can’t be ignored. One of them is the way Griffey landed in Seattle. The Mariners lost 12 of their final 13 games in the 1986 season, including their last nine, in order to secure the top pick in the 1987 draft, which everyone knew would be Griffey. Griffey was a transcendent talent who came along at the right time. Michael Jordan was huge, Bo Jackson ruled the world for a couple of years and Griffey was next in line. It led a resurgence that kept the Mariners in Seattle and although any team could have used Griffey, perhaps no franchise needed him more than the Mariners. It all happened because of a horrendous two weeks of Seattle baseball at the end of the 1986 season.
Ozzie Smith traded for Garry Templeton (1981)
This trade was the classic headache-for-a-headache trade, even if it is hard to think of the affable Smith as an issue. Both players were the same age and both had worn out welcomes with management while fans held mixed opinions of the budding stars. Templeton wielded a great bat for a shortstop in an era when most at the position couldn’t hit a lick. Smith was a Gold Glove defender and moving to the turf in St. Louis was only going to make that better. Templeton had drawn the ire of Whitey Herzog and in August of 1981, flipped off his hometown fans during a game. The Padres were cheap and had just let Dave Winfield walk amid the star’s contract demands. Padres management wasn’t going to cave to Smith’s contract demands either and leaked them to the media in an effort to paint Smith as greedy. All it did was make the fans hate management more. In the end, Smith became one of the icons of the 1980s and raised the level of his play to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Templeton was solid with the Padres and fans embraced him, but he wasn’t Ozzie Smith. Not even close.
Earl Battey beanings lead to an earflap (1961)
Helmets have undergone quite the evolution in baseball history, but hey, at least they’re wearing them now. They weren’t mandatory until 1971. Helmets haven’t changed much since the earflap became mandatory in 1983. Tim Raines was the last player to wear the nacho helmet in 2002, and since then, everyone who came to the plate did so wearing at least one ear flap. But who wore the first? Jackie Hayes wore a makeshift plastic head contraption in 1940, but that wasn’t quite a helmet but wasn’t quite an earflap either. As far as anyone can tell, Earl Battey was the first to attach an earflap to an existing helmet. He did so after twice suffering severe fractures in separate beanings. It was a piece of plastic with padding that was screwed directly into the outer shell of the helmet. Crude indeed, but it looked like it would have gotten the job done.
Harry Caray sings Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1979)
All ballparks have their little traditions. Some are more successful than others, but in general, they all aim for some type of fan engagement that enhances the in-person experience. For that, the bar is set in Wrigley Field with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and, no offense to the Sausage Races, no other stadium comes close. We hope you know that it started with Harry Caray, but do you know how it started and continued? According to Caray himself, when he was a White Sox announcer, he used to sing along in the booth to himself with the organist as they played the song over the stadium. One game, White Sox owner Bill Veeck hid a PA microphone in the booth and flipped it on when Harry started signing. His voice went out to all of Comiskey Park and Caray had no choice but to continue singing. After the game, Caray confronted Veeck, who convinced him to continue the tradition, stating that his voice was so bad that fans wouldn’t be intimidated and decide to sing along themselves.
When Caray shifted over to the North Side to become the Cubs announcer in 1982, he asked management if they’d like him to continue singing the song. They decided to try it, it worked great and has continued ever since. Upon Caray’s death in February of 1998, fans were worried about whether the tradition would continue. For the Cubs home opener, when the time came to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Harry’s widow Dutchie leaned out of the press box, said, “Let him hear you in heaven!” Then belted out the song herself, along with a sold out, teary-eyed Cubs crowd. The tradition, of course, continues to this day with different guests each game.
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Stay tuned for next week’s episode of The Stud 400 when we learn why Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Red Schoendienst ended up on the All-Star Team bench in favor of Don Hoak, Johnny Temple and Roy McMillian and examine a couple of the darker days in MLB history. Walk through the cornfields of Iowa with us next week in The Stud 400.