Shane Rawley was the poster boy for the Mariners' seeming adoration with handing away free talent. Having languished in the Mariners bullpen, the Yankees soon converted him into a starter and a couple of three-win seasons from him in the middle of their rotation. He went on to the Phillies and made the insult even worse by going 11-5 in the first half of 1986 and making the All-Star team. The wheels fell off by the age of thirty-three, but by then he'd accumulated a career WAR of 20. The Mariners, as we know, could have used those twenty wins. And so Rawley stepped near the head of the long line that includes Rick Honeycutt, Bud Black, Dave Henderson, Danny Tartabull and Bill Swift, another talent the team didn't feel they needed. They were that guy in your fantasy league you always call at nine on a Saturday morning because you know they're still hung over. But the Rawley trade doesn't belong with those others. In fact, Steinbrenner later called the deal "The worst we've made this year."
This article isn't even about Shane Rawley.
If you asked people "who had the best single season as a reliever for the Mariners before Kazuhiro Sasaki," they would probably purse their lips and rub a toe in the dirt as they struggled to parse such an awkward sentence. Then, if they answered at all, they would probably conjure up the demons of Mike Schooler or relive the quote-unquote glory days of Bobby Ayala and Norm Charlton. People would probably not answer with Bill Caudill in 1982. Whether this is because people are generally shortsighted or that time moves at a rate faster than the human mind is equipped to handle, I leave as an exercise for the reader.
Instead, let's pause for a moment to reflect on The Inspector's glorious 1982 campaign:
Caudill got edged in the MVP ballot by mild-mannered Robin Yount, who posted a decidedly unmild 10.5 WAR season. Actually, Caudill finished 29th, one point behind Damaso Garcia. But he also finished seventh in the Cy Young voting and second among relievers, the first Mariner to accomplish this partial feat. It's a particularly impressive one for a guy that, a week before the season, two teams didn't want.
April Fool's Day was an interesting one for Bill Caudill that year. It was the day he learned that he had been traded in retrospect as a player-to-be-named-later by the Chicago Cubs. Baseball was hard back then. A year removed from a stellar 1980 season in which he posted the ninth-best WAR among pitchers, as a setup man no less, Chicago rode Caudill out of town. George Steinbrenner must not have felt like cleaning out another locker, though, because that same day Caudill was flipped again, this time to the Seattle Mariners in a deal for Rawley. This was the era where anytime you had an offer on the table from the Mariners, you had to take it.
It's a shame that Caudill has faded into relative obscurity, for reasons beyond just the numbers. The early M's featured a surfeit of crazy, but Caudill stood tallest among them all. They called him "The Inspector" because he would go through the team's bats checking for duds, discarding any that he felt had run out of hits. He stole the keys to the bullpen car on Opening Day, leaving it stuck in the outfield and delaying the start of the game. He shaved off half his beard in the bullpen before an appearance: the right half. The man was a master of Jell-O. Said Caudill: "The only word in pranksterism is originality. I want to pull pranks that people will talk about for 10 or 12 years." But why just ten or twelve?
For all the 90s-soaked nostalgia that the Mariner marketing department wades in, the teams of the early eighties may as well have played in the early forties. In my memory the Kingdome is always dark and silent, as if the games took place in a dream. It's understandable for a struggling franchise to try to distance itself from its checkered past, but the team treats its time in the Kingdome as if it were located in a different city. Caudill in particular appears to be the perfect representation for a baseball franchise in adolescence: gangly, awkward, and rebellious. And like most teenagers, the Mariners players were underpaid and relatively unskilled. But as mortified as most of us are of how we behaved in high school, it's a part of us.
Baseball, more than any other sport, has its foundations in history and mythology. Its eras are swathed in black and white, sepia, and teal, indelible. It fashions legends, and uses them to connect generations; each game carries a piece of the ones before it. But if the early part of the Mariner Epic is more comedy than drama, and the legends are perhaps little more than life-sized, it's still a story that deserves to be told. Characters like Bill Caudill deserve their chapters, even if by some unfortunate accident their tales took place before August 24, 1995. And when the Mariners do win that first World Series, however many years from now, you can't erase the fact that part of the road to the championship was driven by a motorized tugboat with a reliever sitting in the back.
Pro Ball NW originally ran this article on May 26, 2011.