If It Goes Right
We tend to forget all of our memes as soon as we adopt new ones. They’re ephemeral things, which can make it a trip when something comes along and jogs your memory. Like, every so often, I’m reminded of Chris Jakubauskas, and then I’m reminded that some people used to call him the Jakubaustrich, and that was as recent as 2009, and that’s always a little bit flooring. Every old meme is ridiculous. We never think of our current memes as ridiculous. Something to think about. Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up: used to be, for a few years, it was popular to compare the Mariners to the Royals. More than that, it was popular to say the Mariners were the Royals, if perhaps delayed by a year. The two organizations operated the same way, and the two organizations seemed doomed to the same unremarkable fates, the same sequences of the same fourth- and fifth-place finishes. People compared the Mariners to the Royals, and this was intended as a criticism.
Then people stopped. The comparison would’ve taken on new meaning after the Royals got to the World Series. But, well. In hindsight, we should’ve stuck with it. All the bad Mariners were all the bad Royals. The 2014 Mariners were the 2013 Royals. And the 2015 Mariners are the 2014 Royals. The comparison is still alive. It might be stronger than ever. The parallels just aren’t what they used to be, in terms of the takeaway message.
You, me, that guy, this girl, all those people who’ve been milling around SoDo — we’re fans of a good baseball team. This is important. Read that sentence fragment again, and then, read that sentence fragment again. Here, I’ll repeat it: we’re fans of a good baseball team. This is an identity we’re still working to cultivate. It’s the complete opposite of the identity we developed over the course of a long and dark decade. Thing about being irrelevant and disappointing for so long is that you get your thicker psychological skin. Your sense of humor spins off in a very particular direction, as you learn the ins and outs of coping with a pastime that only ever lets you down. We identified with failure. We made jokes at our own expense. We were the sad-sack people who rooted for the sad-sack team, the people others felt bad for, the team nobody hated. The identity we had — the identity in which we found comfort — it’s no longer appropriate. It’s a little like one of those What Not To Wear episodes where the 43-year-old mother of two dresses like she’s in junior high. The mother needs to dress her age. We need to behave in accordance with our circumstances. Nobody feels bad for us. Our team is now hated, by people other than us.
Clearly, this has been a long time coming. The regular season goes for a while. This one was preceded by several months of projections claiming the Mariners would be good. Before that, the Mariners of 2014 very narrowly missed the playoffs. This is by no means an overnight sensation, so we’ve had about a year and a half to recognize our changing situation. But a year and a half is nothing compared to the years we spent asking ourselves why this hobby was a hobby. It’s going to take a long time for it all to sink in. It’s going to take a long time for our identity to re-sequence. What’s the rule with break-ups — one month of recovery for every year you’re together? Might be there’s a similar principle, adjusting to a sports team no longer being really good or really bad. You’re forgiven if you still aren’t used to this, if you still don’t identify with this. Just, be aware of what’s coming. We’re fans of a good baseball team. If it hasn’t yet, this is going to change you.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but, gosh, it’s one thing to expect a pretty good baseball team, and it’s quite another to actually see one. You remember the preseason projections. I think, as far back as November, I wrote about why the Mariners might be the best team in the American League. The projections were encouraging, and they were encouraging across the board. Steamer liked the Mariners. ZiPS liked the Mariners. PECOTA liked the Mariners. Clay Davenport liked the Mariners. Vegas liked the Mariners. Baseball analysts and commentators liked the Mariners. Scouts liked the Mariners. The Mariners were not an underdog. The Mariners were not a surprise. The season they’ve had — this is a season that we all knew could happen. I remember a tweet from sometime in March, and I think it was posted by Peter Gammons, and he cited a scout who saw the Mariners in spring training and said they looked like the league’s best ballclub. The response wasn’t, “what on earth?” The response was, “sure”. The scout wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.
We knew the Mariners looked strong. We knew they had both talent and depth. But there’s another thing we also knew: the error bars around preseason projections are enormous. When we thought the Mariners could be a playoff team in 2008, they lost 101 games. When we thought the Mariners could be a playoff team in 2010, they lost 101 games. Those memories aren’t easy ones to dismiss. Those were the most recent years in which we began all optimistic, and they wound up with names like Tug Hulett and Chris Seddon. As baseball fans, we root for players, not projections, and sometimes players under-perform. Sometimes players develop ankylosing spondylitis. You’d think that it might be a little less enjoyable to go into a year where success isn’t surprising, and that’s probably true when you get to the point where you really do take perennial success for granted, but, none of us were actually doing that. We’ve not been in position to take winning for granted. Maybe five years from now. But the projections were always at odds with that aforementioned identity. And when there’s a disagreement between the gut and the numbers, you’ll feel the gut more than you’ll feel the data. We wouldn’t be able to accept the Mariners as a good team until they played like an actual good team. An actual playoff team. A playoff team like the playoff team they are.
It’s stark how different the feeling is when the baseball team you follow is playing for something. The games matter, every single day. Games thrill you or upset you, every single day. On the penultimate day of the 2014 regular season, I remember watching the end of a Mariners/Angels game at a bar, and then Austin Jackson hit that incredibly stupid game-winning forceout. He made contact that was too bad for the Angels to turn an inning-ending double play, and that’s how the Mariners survived into their final nine innings. It didn’t matter. It didn’t have to be pretty, and it didn’t matter who was responsible. I left that bar and just about skipped for ten blocks. It was genuine elation at minutes before midnight, and it was elation because the Mariners still had a chance to go to the playoffs, because of a game they won.
Sure, it ultimately didn’t work out, but 2014 gave us a few glimpses of what 2015 would be like. There was more than occasional elation. There was a very real sense of hanging on just about every pitch, and while it would be romanticizing things to say that was always the case, when the games you’re watching are important, you’re less likely to notice how slow they might be going. You’re less likely to notice if it’s, say, Willie Bloomquist driving home the run instead of Robinson Cano. All you want is a win, and it doesn’t matter how it happens, and a slow pace might be appreciated so that you can give your heart a breather. You remember, last offseason was the offseason of speeding up the pace of the game. A noble goal, absolutely, but the people to whom that matters most are professional baseball writers and fans of bad teams. Fans of good teams don’t have complaints. The biggest complaint might be that the next game isn’t here yet.
To get more personal for a paragraph, I moved to the Pacific Northwest in February 2010. Like many, I’ve fallen in love with it here, and more than anything else, I’ve been delighted by the summers, and the opportunities they’ve afforded for incredible hiking and other-worldly camping. Some summers, it seemed like just about every weekend I’d be leaving the city and leaving the grid to get lost somewhere in the woods or the rock. I never feel more centered than I do when I’m out there, and in no time that developed into my primary passion. This became the summer of staying in. More and more, I found myself torn, choosing between getting outdoors and watching the Mariners. This was my least-active summer of all my summers here. Hiking was always the excuse for abandoning the Mariners. The Mariners became an excuse for abandoning the trails. Now, I don’t think that’ll be long-term sustainable — one needs to go into the world — but that reflects the appeal of the ballclub we were given. The Seattle Mariners are an entertainment venture, and this year they’ve actually looked it.
I remember being so annoyed by the obvious marketing. All the ploys I’d see on Twitter to get you to go to a game and hand over all your money. The team’s a business, and businesses succeed by collecting what you’ve earned, and when you start to see through it, it’s repulsive. Out there, there are so many agendas. But then, people generally do know when they’re being marketed to, and it didn’t seem to diminish any of the enthusiasm. The Mariners are always trying to sell themselves, but this has been a baseball team people wanted to be sold. There was nothing sinister afoot. No one had to be convinced to go to a game and get a beer and a hot dog, because beer is delicious, and hot dogs are delicious, and games are where you can watch the Mariners win around 40,000 other people. Sometimes some of them wear yellow and they’re loud as fuck.
The King’s Court gave us our first glimpse of a kind of playoff atmosphere, even within dead seasons. Felix was a draw — watching Felix pitch was an experience. This team has delivered other experiences, more often than once per five days. Nelson Cruz really does hit the ball differently, like a full-season version of pre-injury Michael Morse. James Paxton isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but we’ve been able to see the influence. Robinson Cano is the kind of steady hitter we hadn’t seen since Edgar Martinez, and it seemed like he had two hits every day. Every time Fernando Rodney came jogging in, it felt like a rock concert. All Brad Miller did was develop into the best all-around shortstop in the AL. And there was, you know, the general team experience. Cheering every run, every out, and every win. Didn’t matter whether Felix was pitching or not. Felix didn’t start any of those four games against the Angels that the Mariners swept going into the All-Star break. Didn’t mean it wasn’t maybe the most enjoyable series of baseball the Mariners had played in, man, I couldn’t even tell you. Felix helped to get us through the darker days. In the brighter ones, he was always going to be just a part of the whole.
It’s been months of baseball at the best that baseball can be. Which, if you step back, is kind of amazing, if you consider what we’ve talked about. Right around when the Mariners signed Cano was when Geoff Baker published that article bringing down the front office, and we’ve all previously pondered the question of whether we wanted these people to be in charge anymore. We all felt like, even just a few years ago, the Mariners were stuck in the bottom tier. At that point, if you recall, the Mariners seemed almost hopeless, and the Rangers seemed like a model franchise. It’s not that everyone was totally wrong. Baseball will surprise you. For their part, the Rangers have been undone by a few bad decisions and a lot of bad luck. But, front-office evaluations and organizational summaries are things we talk about to fill the time between baseball seasons and baseball games. All we care about is the baseball team we like the most winning more games than it doesn’t. This team has. Things were unquestionably dark. It can just be hard to appreciate how soon the light of dawn can arrive. Baseball moves quicker than a five-year plan.
Five years ago, the Mariners wrapped up a 61-101 season they began with title dreams. They began it with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins before Chone Figgins was a bad name to invoke in a sentence like this. It was more than just a damaging season — it was a season that forced the organization to go back to the drawing board. It was a season that, reportedly, altered the way the front office operated. It was a season we wouldn’t be able to forget if we tried, even though it was also a season we stopped paying attention to by the time it was half of the way over. It was a season that made success feel more distant than ever.
As this season has wrapped up, this season also has not wrapped up. It’s simply given way to a later season, a special season, a season the Mariners get to begin by dealing with the Blue Jays. And maybe that’s the way it’ll end, who knows, but getting here was the point, and the season has been a success, no matter what happens. First place is first place, and most good teams fall short of the World Series. For years, Safeco has been invaded by Blue Jays fans traveling down from the north, and they’ve been loud and Mariners fans have tried to be loud in response, as if the teams or the games even mattered. This is going to be a little different. There won’t be so many opportunities to think about being as obnoxiously loud as possible. The fans’ll be too busy being as obnoxiously loud as possible.