1997 was a glorious year. The Hale-Bopp comet made its closest approach to earth, which, fortunately, didn't mean that it collided with the earth. The first Harry Potter book debuted, briefly appearing in bookstores before disappearing from view. And President Clinton banned human cloning, ruining Branch Rickey's last, best idea for developing prospects.
Meanwhile, a number of teams made deals to improve their playoff chances, never realizing that with the universe expanding, it will someday break apart, leaving little need for a second lefty out of the bullpen.
One of my favorite kinds of trades took place on June 13, 1997: a six-player deal between the Padres and Cardinals, two teams going nowhere, with none of the six players having much of an impact. The Padres acquired Rich Batchelor, Danny Jackson and Mark Sweeney, and the Cardinals received Scott Livingstone, Phil Plantier and Fernando Valenzuela. The Padres hoped for the 23-8, 2.73 ERA Jackson; they settled for the 1-7, 7.53 ERA Jackson. In fact, only Mark Sweeney played in any season beyond 1997. But hey, six-player deal- what's not to like?
But the 1997 deadline was dominated like no other by the Seattle Mariners and their destructive need for mediocre arms, no matter the price in young treasure. This would be a Behind the Music episode if only Lou Piniella could carry a tune.
It started on July 18, when the Mariners traded for Felipe Lira and Omar Olivares, giving up Carlos Villalobos (minors), Dean Crow and Scott Sanders. None of the three players Seattle gave up amounted to much. Villalobos, the best of the bunch it seemed, gradually stopped hitting and never made the major leagues. Lira and Olivares pitched like, well, Lira and Olivares – the latter posted an ERA over 5 for Seattle, one of five teams for whom he turned the trick. Still, for a team that had just released Josias Manzanillo, and would shortly do the same to Mike Maddux, the search for sweet, sweet pitching would only intensify.
Meanwhile, the Marlins solidified the roster that would go on to win a championship by dealing outfield prospect Billy McMillon to the Phillies for Darren Daulton on July 21. Dutch's catching days were behind him, but he was still an effective bat, posting an OPS+ of 114 for the Marlins in his final 151 plate appearances. The Marlins weren't finished, dealing Mark Hutton to the Rockies on July 27 for Craig Counsell, who went on to hit .299/.376/.396 for Florida and touched home plate to end the 1997 World Series.
It was all a prelude to July 31, 1997, one of the busiest trade deadline days in major league history. Seven major trades covering 30 players took place. Moreover, three of them live on in infamy to this day.
The Chicago White Sox made the so-called "White Flag Trade" dealing Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin and Roberto Hernandez to the San Francisco Giants for Brian Manning, Lorenzo Barcelo, Mike Caruso, Keith Foulke, Bob Howry and Ken Vining. The trade was widely panned by White Sox fans, since Chicago trailed Cleveland by just 3.5 games at the time. But all three pitchers Chicago traded were past their peak. Alvarez was never a dominant starter again, Darwin was about at the end of the line, and even Roberto Hernandez had a 2.84 ERA through the end of the 1997 season, 3.88 ERA from 1998 on. Meanwhile, both Foulke and Howry threw important innings for the 2000 White Sox, a team that edged the Cleveland Indians for the AL Central title.
But most memorable of all from that fateful day was Seattle's decisions. Less remembered but just as unfortunate, the Mariners traded a 23-year-old Jose Cruz Jr, to the Blue Jays for a pair of relievers: Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. The former was okay for the 1997 Mariners, much better in 1998. But to deal a talented young outfielder for a pair of expendable arms merely set the table for… Heathcliff Slocumb to Seattle. Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to Boston. Slocumb posted a 4.13 ERA in 1997, a 5.32 ERA in 1998.
For their part, the Mariners did win the AL West in 1997, finishing at 90-72, before losing in the ALDS to the Baltimore Orioles. And all the changes did allow Seattle to lower a 6.12 relief ERA in the first half to 4.76 in the second half. But to give up so many trade chips for such little value strikes me as an awfully vital cautionary tale for 2010 contenders, given the reliever market.