Looking back, the correct answer was “utterly collapse!” That’s “utterly collapse!”, selected by 2.6% of you. Good job, one out of 38 individuals. You are fortune tellers. You are fortune tellers who root for the Mariners anyway, which hints at some kind of severe psychological trauma at an earlier age. Imagine liking this team when you already know what’s going to happen.
I guess a lot of us probably feel like we knew that was going to happen, after the fact. Oh, we got caught up, how we got caught up, but now that the Mariners have plummeted not just into the ground but beyond it, it makes all the sense in the world. It feels like the thing that was going to happen all along, because we’re messed up, because they’ve messed us up, and we don’t know how to trust.
The feeling’s by no means unique to us. Fans of chronic losers all feel the same, no matter how much they want to believe that they’re special. This is how Pirates fans felt, before the team got back to the playoffs. This is how Royals fans felt, before the team got back to the playoffs, where it is presumably headed now. When you go through a break-up, you feel like your circumstances are unusually dark. The most specific details are always a little bit different, but billions of people have been through break-ups, and your situation is uninteresting to everyone who isn’t you. We don’t have it the worst. We just have it bad, like others have it bad. No need to be, I don’t know, egocentric about it, although then I suppose it’s at least an identity.
Still, something about this feels very Mariners. Which is odd, because this Mariners team has come unnervingly, uncommonly close to making the playoffs, which is a distinctly non-Mariners thing to do. Most generally it’s just about building our hopes up before tearing them down, and maybe the scary thing is that the Mariners don’t just capture one particular flavor of disappointment — all forms of disappointment feel kind of Mariners-y, as through the years they’ve let us down in every way possible. The one thing that’s almost unique to us is that at no point have the Mariners made it to the World Series. Neither have the Nationals/Expos, but there aren’t actually Nationals fans.
I’m pretty confident in identifying the Mariners’ biggest hits from the past couple weeks. The hits that just stirred something within. There was Robinson Cano’s dinger during the home series against Oakland, and there was Logan Morrison’s ninth-inning shot in Anaheim. The former was a game-tying solo shot in a contest the Mariners lost, and maybe we should’ve noted upon Morrison’s homer that the Mariners had so much trouble doing away with a Triple-A opponent even though they had Felix on the mound. It took until the last inning for the playoff-hopeful Mariners to separate themselves from many of the Salt Lake Bees, and the Bees finished 60-84.
Things were good, then they were a little rough, then they slid into disaster. On the radio the other day, after one of the Mariners’ recent embarrassing losses, Mike Blowers said he was just searching for a reason. This was after Felix got clobbered, and the M’s scored twice. This was the day after James Paxton’s ERA went up a full run, and a day before the M’s got shutout and lost because Munenori Kawasaki walked and Ryan Goins spotted a gork. Blowers settled on the pressure of the playoff race. The Mariners hadn’t been in this position, but Blowers admitted he might be reaching.
You can go with that theory if you want. It can’t be disproved. It’s also appealing in its simplicity: the Mariners simply wilted under pressure. What could one reasonably expect? The stakes were the highest they’ve been in more than a decade for this team. But then, you know, Austin Jackson’s been here before. He’s been one of the Mariners’ worst players in September. Kendrys Morales has been here before. He’s been one of the Mariners’ worst players in September. Felix was bad the other day, but he had just recently been awesome against Oakland in a playoff atmosphere at home, so it’s not like one should think nerves got the best of him. Given what we know about professional athletes, it doesn’t actually hold up to reason well to accuse them of choking.
Blowers was searching for a reason. I can tell you my reason. I don’t think it was pressure. I think the Mariners were aware of the pressure, but I don’t think it caused them to collapse. This wasn’t regression to the mean. Regression doesn’t work like this. It’s not that the Mariners weren’t actually good. The Mariners were good. This Mariners team was plenty good enough to make the playoffs. Have you seen the Royals’ roster? We’re just the victims of bad timing. Unfortunate, unbearable, unpredictable randomness. I can see why the team is 83-75. But the team was at one point 79-64. The latter team shouldn’t turn into the former team, but for an awful spate of misfortune.
It’s the same kind of randomness that’s had Morales and Jackson suck so bad since coming over. Both those moves were totally justifiable. Good, even, maybe. They’ve sucked. What’re you gonna do? Over his last five starts, Hisashi Iwakuma has an ERA over 8. He’s thrown an above-average rate of strikes, and he’s gotten plenty of whiffs. His BABIP’s been almost .400. The whole pitching staff was always overachieving a little, but lately it’s been the worst staff in the American League, and oh by the way, it’s gotten less attention, but the offense has also lately been one of the worst offenses in the American League, performing worse than it already was. Almost everything’s gone wrong, and it feels like that much shouldn’t go wrong without a better explanation, but randomness is the best explanation, like it almost always is.
Sure, some of the Mariners have to be fatigued, but every team deals with fatigue by the end. Sure, the Mariners aren’t as talented as the A’s and the Angels, but that’s not enough to explain the team-wide breakdown. You want so badly for there to be a better reason, because if there’s a better reason, it can be fixed. Randomness can’t be fixed. Randomness can strike at any moment. Randomness is a big part of why the A’s have struggled so bad since acquiring one of the best pitchers in baseball. Randomness is a big part of why the Angels have soared so high since losing one of the best pitchers in baseball. Randomness is a big part of why the Mariners have gone from in the race to out of it in a matter of days. It can be the coldest thing, but life’s cold sometimes, and you don’t grow by trying to deny it. You accept that you should never get too wedded to your plans.
The first misfortune is what’s happened to the Mariners. The second misfortune is the blend of the timing with the human impulse to try to find a pattern. We don’t actually like to think about randomness, because it gives us way too much perspective, so what’s going to happen is we’ll emerge from this with our skepticism more firmly cemented. At some level our brains will settle on the explanation that this all happened because Mariners, and that’ll make it only harder for us to trust. We’ll require even more reasons to believe in the team, and we’ll try to protect ourselves, and it’ll be that much more difficult for fans down the road to allow themselves to get carried away. You’re born with the capacity to love 100%. Life is just a series of events that chip away at the ceiling. It’s possible to restore what’s been lost, but it takes time and effort and luck in the other direction. We can’t help that we’re damaged people.
The odds of a pretty good baseball team losing 11 of 15 games are about 4%. The odds this year of Chris Young giving up a home run in a given plate appearance were about 4%. With Young, we know that sometimes the homers just happen, and maybe it was a mistake, and you move on. The Mariners are Chris Young giving up a home run. It’s just that this was a pretty important and hurtful home run. Was Young rattled by the pressure of the situation? Probably not, no. But the next time, you’re not going to trust Young to get that out. For what reason would you?