(Check out our other player card posts here.)

It has become trendy in recent years for major sports teams to “tank” in order to set themselves up for on-field success a few seasons down the line. It’s a controversial practice that fans seem to either hate or accept as part of the price of winning — eventually.

For collectors who remember the early swamp-dredge days of Seattle Mariners baseball cards, though, watching any team bottom out is a painful reminder that, sometimes, tanking is not really a choice.

1984 Fleer Update Mark Langston

It’s an unavoidable way of life.

From the time they hit the American League standings as an expansion franchise in 1977 through 1983, the Mariners lost 100 games three times, dropped 95 two other seasons, and never finished better than 10 games under .500.

During that stretch there weren’t many individual highlights to ease the growing pains, either — no batter reached 30 home runs, and no pitcher hit the 15-win plateau in a season. (To be fair, DH Willie Horton did smack 29 bombs with 106 RBI in 1979.)

But as the 1984 season dawned, the Mariners were finally starting to pull together a cohesive group of youngster whom they hoped would help turn the team into a winner.

At first base, 23-year-old Alvin Davis was ready to make his Major League debut after a sixth-round selection in 1983 and two years in the minors.

1984 Topps Traded Alvin Davis

And on the mound, former second-round pick Mark Langston was ready for The Show after three years on the farm, topping out with the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts in 1983.

Langston struck first, whiffing five over seven innings to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers in the Kingdome on April 7, 1984.

Four days later, Davis saw his first Big League action, smacking a home run in two at-bats.

Auspicious debuts for two guys with a lot of pressure on their shoulders, but they hardly let up the rest of the season.

By September, Davis had collected 27 home runs and a gaudy 116 RBI to go along with a .284 batting average. All that rolled up to a 6.0 WAR, ninth best in the American League.

For his part, Langston ran his record all the way to 17-10, supported by a 3.40 ERA. He also led the AL in strikeouts, with 204 — and in walks with 118. Still, that performance was good enough for 4.4 WAR, third on the Mariners behind Davis and veteran hurler Jim Beattie (5.2 WAR).

1985 Fleer Mark Langston

Mariners fans finally had something — two somethings — real to cheer and the feeling that they were watching some of the best young talent in the game. Baseball writers confirmed that notion in November of 1984 when they named Davis the AL Rookie of the Year, with Langston finishing a solid but distant second.

That same month, the duo made their MLB baseball card debuts, landing in both the 1984 Fleer Update and 1984 Topps Traded sets. The next spring, they made the cardboard rounds again, with rookie cards in the 1985 Donruss, Fleer, and Topps issues.

If it hadn’t been for the hoopla surrounding Dwight Gooden and the 1985 emergence of Eric Davis and Bret Saberhagen — along with the intrigue of the 1985 Topps Olympic cards — Davis and Langston may have made a run at hobby superstardom.

As it was, they did pretty well, with collectors seizing on Davis cards in particular. Hobbyists always have loved the longball, after all.

1985 Topps Alvin Davis

Alas, even with all the excitement over these young guns, the Mariners continued to struggle and didn’t break .500 until 1991. By that time, Davis was in his last year with the M’s and one year from retirement. Langston had long since departed the Pacific Northwest, first for the Montreal Expos, and then the California Angels.

And there was also another Kid involved in that move over the hump in 1991. You know, a youngster named … Ken Griffey, Jr.

Thanks to Davis and Langston, Mariners fans knew what to do with Griffey when he arrived, and when he broke out.

After all, they had seen a phenom once or twice before.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

 

 

 

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