Mariners / Randy Johnson Trade -- What Happened?

In a sense, the Mariners have already filled the hole left by the departure of Randy Johnson to Houston.

Reliever David Holdridge came up from Tacoma to take Johnson's place on the roster, and Bobby Ayala made him take Johnson's locker in the clubhouse.

Paul Spoljaric will replace Johnson in the rotation against the Yankees today.

But who will patch the hole in Seattle's psyche?

It won't be Carlos Guillen or Freddy Garcia, due to join the Rainiers today. Guillen will work awhile at second base then come to the Mariners, and Garcia will start for Tacoma on Monday and maybe join Seattle when rosters are expanded in September.

The third man in is another pitcher, probably left-hander John Halama.

At this point, it doesn't matter. Knowing their club originally planned to get something to help them compete this year, as well as young players, Mariner players expected more.

Even General Manager Woody Woodward said he knew there would be "a lot of disappointment because of the speculation. It's hard to believe, but there was very little interest in Randy Johnson."

The Astros talked like they had their pockets picked. "We sacrificed the future for the present," Manager Larry Dierker said.

And they claimed Seattle got two of their top three pitching prospects (Seattle got turned down for No. 1, Scott Elarton) and top position prospect.

Seattle players feel they were victims of assault and battery, and their own management people were the guys in the masks.

Twelve hours after the neutron news hit, the outrage started a half-life process. Curses were replaced by blank looks, shakes of the head and gallows humor.

"People in Houston," said Jay Buhner, who is from Houston, "must be wondering, `What's in that coffee you all drink up there?' "

Ken Griffey Jr. predicted that if the Big Unit was worth three kids with no reputations then, "They would get a bag of balls if they traded me."

"I was ordered not to say anything," Griffey said, not saying if he meant it came from Seattle management. "I'm under a gag order . . . in a roundabout way."

Hearing of clubhouse reaction, Woodward, who starting out looking for Pettitte and wound up with petite, suggested that the players concentrate on "playing the game. I spoke to Edgar Martinez, and he said he realized there is no way `We can know what all is involved.' And that's just like the fans have no way to know."

He suggested players follow his lead.

"The best deal I had available was two months ago (with the Dodgers, Ismael Valdes, Wilton Guerrero and minor-league pitcher Ted Lilly), and the organization decided not to make it. I'm part of that organization, and I abide by that decision."

The difference, of course, is that players see two months left in the season in which they must compete and they wanted help for that competition.

They also wanted answers. As Griffey put it, "What happened?"

Simply, going all the way back, Woodward waited too long. While he refused to second-guess himself, his best chances were in the offseason. Then, just before the trade deadline, Woodward had a week like the Mariners' June, when they went 8-20.

While he dickered with teams over Johnson, there were only two, Cleveland and New York, with whom the Mariners had a prime fit. While Cleveland had pieces like Dave Burba and Brian Giles that Woodward wanted, he never got close. Burba's contract has a free-agency clause if he were traded. Giles was never in. But Chad Ogea was and minor-leaguers were. And the Mariners did not like that package.

In fact, Woodward's focus was on the Yankees all along. He had a single demand: a pitcher, more likely Hideki Irabu than Ramiro Mendoza, Columbus third baseman Mike Lowell and another minor-league player.

"We absolutely sat on one demand all week," Woodward admitted. "One particular player was a deal-breaker for us."

It was Lowell, whom the Mariners had planned to send right to Florida for second baseman Luis Castillo, reputedly a brilliant defender.

At least one Yankee official was amazed the Mariners never came off that stance, taking outfielder Rickey Ledee instead of Lowell, for instance. But not getting Lowell, plus the Yankees' demand that Seattle pay Irabu's final signing bonus of $2.8 million in January, was enough to make the M's head for Houston.

"I played with Mike Lowell since I was 10, starting in Little League," Alex Rodriguez said. "I heard he'd improved a lot recently, but if he was the guy they had to have, I don't understand."

The shortstop was clear on one aspect of the mess, however.

"I think Cleveland and New York worked together to see that Randy did not go to either of those teams," Rodriguez said. "All they cared about was the other didn't get him. They thought, `We'll play even-square in the playoffs; neither of us has Randy.' "

George Steinbrenner played the Mariners, no doubt, as artfully as David Segui plays first base. He did string out the play, knowing that while he fiddled Seattle was burning its chances to move Johnson elsewhere.

Steinbrenner apparently has changed. Impulse amazingly was tempered by sound counselors who merely pointed to a 77-27 record and asked when presented with Seattle demands: Why?

Woodward knew that, he said. "I told our people George was going to do that, and he did. It was a good game plan. Heck, I was trying to do the same to him."