SEATTLE — The familiar sense of decline quickly returned, in the first inning of Game 1 of the Mariners’ most anticipated home stand in a long, long time.
The team entered the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on a 14-game winning streak, a team devoid of expectations and suddenly turned into a bully. After the break, last weekend’s three-game streak against the western-leading Houston Astros should have been a litmus test.
Could there finally be real hope for the Seattle sailors?
Strike. With one clean hit, the Astros’ home run confirmed the answer.
In the first match of Friday, the starting lineup of the Mariners southpaw Marco Gonzalez threw a four-seam fastball that José Altuve couldn’t resist: too slow, too close to the heart of the strike zone.
It was like an omen. As if the Mariners’ miraculous and unexpected winning streak was about to end, and it was soon replaced by well-founded doubts.
This is baseball. It breaks your heart. In the 21st century, no team and no city understands this better than Seattle.
Twenty seasons without a playoff appearance, the longest drought in major American professional sports. The only MLB franchise to never make it to the World Series.
Baseball fans in Seattle have two traits in abundance: a stubborn, unrequited devotion to the Mariners and an athletic version of PTSD. As a Seattle native and longtime Mariners fan who has spent way too many evenings watching losing baseball in the dark dampness of a bygone kingdom, I can attest to this. In the Pacific Northwest, defeat is usually polite. And when it comes to sailors, with deep humility.
Things got even more ominous on Friday after Homer Altuwe when the Mariners went into action, determined even in this tense affair – a home game played to a rare mid-season sell-out crowd – under their own power.
The attractive striker Moryakov, whom almost everyone wanted to see in the stands, did not appear. Julio RodriguezThe 21-year-old center phenom, who just hit 81 over the fence at the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles, has retired from the squad with a sore wrist.
Walking through the stands of T-Mobile Park, I heard a collective gasp of exhalation coming from the crowd.
“It’s so important to the brand,” Evan Riggs, a longtime fan, told me. “Of course, they will leave earlier. Of course their best player won’t play because he just got injured, probably in the All-Star Game.”
“These are sailors.”
I couldn’t have put it better.
Until June 20, the Mariners struggled to hit a record 10 games under .500. But then they suddenly became baseball’s hottest team – winning 22 of 25 games – and trailing Houston by 10 games in pursuit of the AL West crown.
Out of nowhere, the Sailors suddenly hung on the edge of an abyss of hope.
So it hurt, deep but not surprising, when the Astros pulled off an easy 5-2 victory on Friday. The pain intensified on Saturday as 39-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander propelled the Astros to a second win, 3-1.
On Sunday, with Rodriguez still injured and out of the starting lineup, Seattle lost 6-0 after three innings and succumbed 8-5. The big series turned out to be a painful sweep. Just like it’s ever been.
A brief overview for those who don’t understand the level of suffering this team has suffered.
In its 46 years of existence, no organization in baseball has been worse. Some of the game’s most iconic stars have worn the uniforms of Seattle in their prime – Ken Griffey Jr. at the top of the list — but the Mariners only made the playoffs four times, all in the short span between 1995 and 2001.
But these are supposedly new Sailors. A team trying to break the ground and get rid of a past that most of the current players didn’t participate in. Fans in Seattle want to dare to dream big. But we can’t quite let go. We expect the boot to fall – or the butt of the wrist to start a new vicious spiral.
Fans of the show over the weekend echoed my concerns:
“Cautious optimism is the best I can do.”
“It’s like we’ve been here before, but we get burned every time.”
“Looks like they can finally make it to the playoffs. It also seems like they are likely to start losing.”
Then there was this from Dusty Baker, the Astros’ manager, as he stood by the batting cage before Friday’s game, asking me how the city was feeling. They’re ready to win big, I told him, but I’m pretty sure your team will have something to say about it.
Baker smiled. “Yes we will.”
He is not so much a predictor as he is used to leading a real opponent. His Astros are 5-2 this season against the MLB-leading Yankees after hitting a doubleheader in Houston last week. Against the Mariners, their tireless precision was reminiscent of the great champion I saw at Wimbledon two weeks ago. Like Novak Djokovicwhen Houston lowers the clamps, they won’t let go.
I almost dread to dream that the Mariners are close to becoming such a team. It’s funny how sports can turn “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called hope, in the weight to be shouldered.
In April, I was wary that Seattle, by building this team with smart off-season moves and one of the best minor league systems in baseball, could do better than the 2021 record they were eliminated in the final game. season.
A winning streak followed, in which they outperformed the slow and steady progress befitting the charming underdogs.
Now I’m thinking about what needs to be done to completely destroy Seattle’s reputation as polite misfits dressed in celadon jerseys. Guts. Bold. Words that no one used a month and a half ago.
Management should be encouraged by how close the Mariners seem to be to breaking the long cycle of hopeless defeat. Lay out your chips and go all-in. The deadline for a major league trade is August. 2. Washington Juan Soto traded is a rarity because 23-year-old superstars are the most coveted asset a team can have in any sport.
Do something big, something similar to how the then 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki winds up in the early 2000s. It’s time to break what seems to be a curse. All these talented players in the minor leagues are nothing short of potential. Pack a bunch of them into a bushel, throw in a quality major league starter, and make the National an offer they’ll be foolish to turn down.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been talking for weeks about the drastic, exciting move ahead of the impending deal deadline. What he won’t say, keeping a secret that only reinforces the fans’ control over the doubts that define us.
“We haven’t been in the playoffs for 20 years,” Dipoto told me this weekend. “We’re a franchise that didn’t compete in the World Series.”
“The fans shouldn’t trust us until we get it right,” he said, praising his team’s carefully calculated path of improvement with his next breath.
But one of the great things about being a sports fan is that games allow us to hope for the impossible, even the irrational. The outfield of Rodriguez and Soto is exactly what I dream about anyway, and I’m hardly alone.