If It Goes Right
I’m sitting here right now, hating the Red Sox. Expressed like that, this is hardly unfamiliar. I remember I made the mistake of rooting for the Red Sox in 2003 and 2004, when I was living in New England, and as good an experience as it was when they won that first World Series, boy do I ever look back on that and shake my head. I haven’t been able to stand the Red Sox since the first day of 2005, and I’ve been pretty actively rooting against them for years. But this whole time, that whole decade, I’m not going to pretend like a lot of it wasn’t jealousy. Or envy. Is there a difference? I couldn’t stand them in large part because they were so successful. I was bitter about my own baseball team, content to lash out. For some time, I’ve hated the Red Sox, and I’ve rooted against them in important games. For the first time, I’m hating the Red Sox because I don’t want them to knock out the Mariners. Used to be I hated them because of what they were. Today I hate them because of what they aren’t. They aren’t us. They’re kind of in our way.
As I take this short breather to reflect, I think what gets me the most is the very obviousness of this outcome. Not that the Mariners, of course, were ever the favorites in this division, but look at the way things played out. This wasn’t a team that needed any miracles, nor was it a team that received any miracles. We had a sense this would be a talented young team, with upside given development. Talented players developed. Talented players produced and prevented runs. Talented players won games. If you forgot everything you heard about the front office, you’d almost be tempted to think, hey, this team did everything right. They entered the season with upside, and they were carried into first by baseball ability we all already knew about.
I remember paying so much attention to projected standings even weeks before the start of the year. FanGraphs rolled out its Cool Standings stuff, and then there were projections and then there were projected records. Initially, the Mariners were projected to be pretty close to the rest of the AL West best. Then they never really fell away. Not when the system was updated. Not when the depth charts changed. Not when ZiPS was included. PECOTA was saying similar things. On several occasions, I tried to figure out where the projections were going wrong. It seemed like the Mariners were being overrated, and the rivals were being underrated. Now in hindsight I feel like I was just acting damaged. The Mariners made me expect the Mariners to disappoint. It sure looks now like the projections were telling us the truth all along. The Mariners were right there with the other three from the start. The Mariners were a few player developments away from being division champs.
Obvious. The Mariners as a successful baseball team was obvious. Not obvious as a certainty, but obvious as a possibility. So many of us just weren’t ready to believe it. It was obvious the Mariners would be good in 2008, too. It was obvious they’d be good in 2010. When you’re hurt that bad, when you’re caught that much off guard, it changes your psychological DNA. We didn’t want to think that the flower might bloom, but the dirt was fertile and the sun was coming out. Flowers blossom in the right conditions, and it’s as simple as nature.
It was obvious that Felix would dominate. Felix always dominated. Why wouldn’t he continue to dominate? It’s always fair to point out that pitchers are unreliable and success and health can be fleeting, but when it comes to one’s own, there’s an over-inclination to be concerned. How often have we freaked out about Felix’s velocity? How often have we expressed worry when nothing was wrong? It never felt quite right for the Mariners to have one of the greatest players in the world, but that was on us, not him. Felix was amazing, so Felix would be amazing. That’s just pattern recognition.
It was obvious that Robinson Cano would be incredible. That’s what you pay $240 million for. Again, some of us acted like victims of abuse. We entertained notions of Cano coming apart in Seattle. One doesn’t soon forget Chone Figgins or Jeff Cirillo. One doesn’t soon forget another team’s experience with Albert Pujols. But what reason was there to be worried, actually? Cano had been one of the most consistently healthy and valuable players in baseball. Having Robinson Cano wasn’t all that different from having Miguel Cabrera. Cano was a superstar, and he played like a superstar. Yeah.
It was obvious there was other talent. One day in March, for reasons I never figured out, I flipped on a Marlins spring-training game. The broadcasters were talking about Jose Fernandez, then some guy hit a fly ball out to Giancarlo Stanton. I watched and thought, “hey, the Marlins have two unbelievable superstars, and they’re still projected to be the worst team in the league. Why should the Mariners be special?” It took me too long to realize, “oh yeah, the Mariners also have other guys.” Felix and Cano were the selling points. They were the stars, aligned. But there was always an abundance of talented support.
It was obvious Dustin Ackley wouldn’t be a disaster forever. He’d been obvious from the date of his drafting, and he’d shown signs of improvement down the stretch in 2013. It was obvious Kyle Seager would hit enough, because he was the reliable guy before Robinson Cano was the reliable guy. It was obvious Brad Miller would be a stud shortstop, even with the defensive issues, because his bat adjusted to the majors immediately and it always felt like he had a high floor. It was obvious Mike Zunino would improve from his initial, hurried cup of coffee. It was obvious Abraham Almonte would be a better player on this side of his alcoholism. It was obvious Michael Saunders would be regularly playable. It was obvious Justin Smoak would be just good enough.
It was obvious Corey Hart would hit, when he could play. It was obvious Taijuan Walker could overpower quality big-leaguers. It was obvious James Paxton could outmaneuver quality big-leaguers. It was obvious nothing would be wrong with Hisashi Iwakuma’s split-finger. It was obvious there was talent in the bullpen. It was even — dare I say — obvious the Mariners were in better hands with Lloyd McClendon than they had been in recent seasons past. In spring, I kept waiting to find reasons to be annoyed by McClendon as a manager. Obviously there were a few things, there are always a few things, but as managers go, I’ve been surprisingly pleased, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. McClendon was saying a lot of the right things from the beginning.
I’m saying too much about a season that isn’t over yet but I can’t really gain control of my fingers. They’re just typing at this point, happily typing about a baseball season I’m maybe trying to prove to myself actually happened. The more words I write about the 2014 Mariners, the deeper it’ll sink in that, yeah, those Mariners happened, and they’re still happening, and before long they’ll happen before a sellout October crowd at Safeco Field. People have said for years that the fan base was there — the Mariners just needed to find a way to tap back into it. Turns out Safeco can get full and loud, too. Mariners fans, Seahawks fans, Sounders fans — they’re all fans from the same city, and many of them are some loud sons of bitches.
This year’s Mariners aren’t done making memories. Maybe the rest of them will be bad, I don’t know. I thought I would’ve expected so, but these Mariners make me feel differently. Whatever happens, we already have quite the assortment of seemingly unforgettable season highlights. The 2012 perfect game made me feel deeply proud of a Mariner. The four-game May sweep of the Angels made me feel deeply proud of the Mariners, after thrashing their opponents — delightfully — 43-8. That gave me a feeling I hadn’t had in years. There were the two Walker showdowns against Yu Darvish, and it feels like ages ago we were worrying about those pitch counts. I think I remember two-thirds of the pitches Chris Young threw in his one-hitter right after Erasmo Ramirez’s elbow thing. Stefen Romero’s walk-off? Miller’s walk-off inside-the-parker? The game-ending play at the plate in Toronto? The consecutive huge rallies against New York? Every win had something. Every win always has something, but in a successful season, those somethings are connected, lifted to feel like and mean something greater than they would on their own.
I’m definitely thrilled to have finally washed the taste of Lollablueza out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe how long it had been since the Mariners played at least some later-summer games of significance, and this time they didn’t wilt. They didn’t wilt after losing the first one; if anything, it seemed to inspire them. The 2007 Mariners were never going to do anything anyway. It’s not like they could’ve been champs, had they just beaten the hell out of the Angels. But that series made me feel embarrassed, personally embarrassed by a baseball team I like, and now those demons are exorcised. Now it’s time to exorcise some other ones.
When Matthew and I would talk in the before-times, we’d often discuss whether or not we were even Mariners fans anymore. We certainly didn’t feel like it. We felt like they were just going to be terrible, and we felt like that was okay, and we felt like we weren’t even thrilled about the prospect of rooting for this team given some of the decisions it had made. I always knew I liked the Mariners the most, but for long stretches I didn’t feel like I was into them. I wanted to know how I’d feel about a successful baseball team. I couldn’t know, just imagining it.
I’m into them. We’re all into them. We were mostly all always into them — we just also had to protect ourselves. The introspective, philosophical baseball fan is a baseball fan of a bad baseball team. A baseball fan of a good baseball team doesn’t really give a shit about the bigger questions, not in the moment, because the moment is about winning the next baseball game against the next enemy baseball team. It’s just sports. You have to question yourself when you’re following bad sports. There’s nothing to question when you’re following good sports. In our defense, we couldn’t have known that.
I just want to read everything. I want to immerse myself in this, to bathe myself in this, to let this seep into every nook and cranny of my tall and awkward physical and emotional form. I always had so much trouble writing things like series previews about the playoffs for my job, because they always felt so uncreative and it always felt like no one would be interested in whatever analysis I could provide. I couldn’t in any way relate to the audience. I get it now — when your team’s in the playoffs, you never want to stop consuming media coverage, no matter how insubstantial. You just want to experience everything, and you want to force yourself to continue to experience everything. Used to be I’d feel a renewed love of baseball come playoff time, when I could watch good teams in boisterous atmospheres without the Mariners being terrible. Now the Mariners are in the playoffs. I’m not prepared for this, but I really want to try to be.
When I’m not writing about the Mariners, I’m reading about the Mariners. And right now, no matter what I’m doing, I’m also hating the Red Sox. Right now, the Red Sox are the baseball team I hate the very most. It’s not weird to be hating the Red Sox — I’ve been hating the Red Sox for a long, long time. But to hate them the very most? To hate them as my first or second thought after waking up in the morning? To hate them with every sip of hot, delicious, northwest-roasted pour-over coffee? This is all new. The only baseball team I’m used to hating that much is the Mariners.
I still don’t know what it means to be true to the blue. This season has raised a whole lot of questions, which, perhaps, is always going to be the case. I like new questions, anyway. Make me feel curious. But this season has also provided one big answer, separate from the littler ones. I know that I am a Seattle Mariners fan. And it’s October, and I know that I’m going to be an emotional wreck. How about that?