The Statement Game
Ordinarily, in sporting circles, when people talk about statement games, they talk about big games, important games, games where you can send a message to the competition. They’re coming-out games, games of intimidation, games of deep, meaningful triumph. The Mariners, against the Tigers, just played a game that made a statement. But it was a different sort of statement game — a game that made a statement about the very state of the Mariners.
Somebody asked me not too long ago whether I’d ever write a book about what the Mariners have been through over the last decade or so. My answer was something to the effect of “no”, because the book would be almost immediately irrelevant and certainly immediately uninteresting. But let’s say that there were such a book. Let’s say that the book somehow became so popular it led to the development and filming of a major motion picture. Something really Hollywoody, something as nuanced and subtle as a sheet of hot pink construction paper. The movie, without question, would have to feature a baseball game. The baseball game would have to weave together as many story elements as possible. The baseball game would be played toward the end of the movie, at the climax, and that baseball game could look an awful lot like tonight’s baseball game did.
Here’s the message with which the movie slaps you in the face and then slaps you again, on the other side, just to drive home the point: the Mariners, for a while, have had Felix Hernandez. Felix Hernandez can’t do it all himself, no matter how much he tries, bless his heart. Success always seems just right around the corner, and you’re always able to talk yourself into believing the team is on the way, but over and over and over again, heartbreak. Maybe not heartbreak, because people have become desensitized. Dejection. Renewed disappointment.
Felix is the bright side. He’s the superstar, he’s the guy without whom there might not be any emotion at all. There are people who want the Mariners to win for Felix more than they want the Mariners to win for themselves. Felix sometimes feels like the only certain link between the Mariners and Major League Baseball, and Felix can be impossible when he sets his mind to it. Felix was impossible tonight, which is how he struck out 12 Tigers in eight innings. It’s how he allowed just four hits over that span, with a single unearned run. The Tigers are probably the best team in the American League, and Felix didn’t just flatten them — he made tortillas out of them, and he made filling out of some of the leftover bits, and he served a heaping helping of Tiger tacos. For eight innings, Felix played video-game baseball.
And he left with a no-decision. The team was dealt a loss. There was zero support anywhere in the lineup. The game could’ve been managed better, strategically. Because of Felix, things were always close, and the Mariners were never that far away from a victory. It would take but one simple swing of the bat, and the most loyal of followers stuck around to see if their faith would be rewarded. Because of the Mariners, that swing of the bat was never swung. Other swings of the bat were swung, instead, and the team wasted Felix’s brilliance by plating one run over 42 outs.
Felix gives the Mariners such a high baseline. He always has, at least ever since he blossomed into the ace he is today. The rest of the Mariners just can’t combine to get the team over the top. Some of them disappoint because they screw up. Some of them disappoint because they just aren’t good enough. Almost inevitably, they disappoint, if not to a man, then as a collective. Felix keeps going, perhaps perversely fueled by the challenge, but the outcome’s the same. The outcome’s pre-determined. The Mariners are going to have Felix, and the Mariners are going to fail.
Given Felix’s outing, this was a game the Mariners should’ve won. Of course, from the other side, you could say that given Max Scherzer’s outing, the Tigers should’ve won. And they did, and that’s valid. But fans get to be self-centered, and in fact they almost always are, and this game said so much about the organization in 267 occasionally spellbinding minutes. Here’s Felix. Here’s what the Mariners have. Here are the rest of the Mariners. Here is the intervention by the people in charge of the Mariners. Here’s the familiar outcome we approach every time as if it’s less familiar than it is. There are glimpses of hope, there are sparks, but nothing fully ignites. On the off chance something catches, it rains.
The story of the Mariners is that they’ve had a neat guy and they’ve sucked. Let it not be forgotten that on Felix’s most magical of days, last August, he was given one run of support. He was given the bare minimum, meaning the Mariners came close to wasting perfection. They didn’t, and maybe now that’s the lesson: you can win, Felix, so long as you’re perfect. And Felix takes up the challenge every time, never stopping to look around and see if anyone else has to meet the same impossible standard. A healthy pitcher looks at a game like tonight’s and concludes that there just wasn’t enough support. An unhealthy pitcher looks at a game like tonight’s and wishes he hadn’t given up a run. There’s no way, at this point, that Felix is healthy. Not between the ears, not after what the Mariners have put him through.
I think a good, appropriate team slogan would be Seattle Mariners: Almost. I just can’t tell if it conveys too positive an impression.