It's the dawn of a new season and everything looks bright from here.
Yesterday afternoon, I made a special trip to Lafeen's Donuts in Bellingham. I was meeting a group of old friends there to plan the biggest event of our summer. It's called Reclamation of Youth Day, and it's dedicated to the casting off of adulthood's coils and spending one whole day doing all the stuff we liked to do when we were ten.
Originally, RYD was a simple day of running through sprinklers and playing wiffle ball, but the spirit of the day has spread rapidly. What started out as a farewell to childhood day that me and my buddy Caleb threw together before leaving for college 11 years ago has grown into an all-day festival celebrating our inner kid.
Each summer, nearly 200 guys (no girls allowed... suckers) show up from all over the state to partake in RYD and the progeny of an idea a couple of kids teetering on the brink of adulthood had has grown into a raucous event that includes bike riding, tree fort building, waterballoon-fight having, dodgeball playing, Frisbee catching, glory capturing, and rope swings*.
*All of which you can see here.
Awesome, I know. But it's not just about playing a bunch of games, it's about the spirit of the day, about taking time off of work to forget all about deadlines, bills, general responsibility, etc and replace them with kites, Calvin & Hobbes, fireworks, and whether or not you dare me to eat that bug. In short, it's about reminding yourself how it feels to have everything in front of you and be too innocent to know it.
Last season the Seattle Mariners were bad. Historically bad, actually. Not only were they bad, they were boring and bad. They ambled their way through last year's disastrous grind with tired arms and balsa wood bats. When the curtain finally closed on the baseball version of an Ed Wood film, the Mariners were 67-95, 29 games out of first place and still six games better than they were the year before. It was another soggy stretch in the decade-long quagmire the M's have found themselves in.
Consequently, fans have been not-attending in droves and the Mariners brass seems intent on lowering operating costs (read: payroll) even further for this year.
And yet, in early April, when the cherries on the cherry blossoms are blossoming,* the beginning of the Mariners season is exciting. The next six months stretch out before them and the sun in the sky is too bright to see exactly what the path looks like. Sure, the last few years have been a struggle through torched ruins in a barren land, but who's to say that the next leg of the journey doesn't end up in an oasis?
*Further research indicates that cherries don't blossom. Or exist on cherry blossom trees.
Listen, it's tough for me to describe the eagerness with which I look forward to the start of the baseball season without spilling enough poetic wax to haunt a luposlipaphobic. The fact of the matter, however, is that this Mariners team does truly look different than the novacaine squads we've been subjected to in recent years. No longer is it a roster dragged down by terrible contracts (well, maybe one).
It's not a bunch of "gritty veterans" with "locker-room presence" who whose best seasons are four years behind them. Nor does it have non-chalant players or guys whose meteoric rise through the organization flatlined inexplicably. It's not absent of young talent resulting from nuclearly. Bad. Trades. It's none of those things.
That's not to say that everything is all rainbows and sprinkles and late-night Family Guy reruns. This year's M's team doesn't have many All-Stars or household names. It doesn't have a ton of guys with gaudy stats or Hall of Fame resumes; but it does have youth -- highly-touted, highly-coveted prospects that have either had a chance to acclimate to the bigs, are just breaking in, or are knocking on the door. In fact, new catcher/DH Jesus Montero (#6), right-handed flamethrower Taijuan Walker (#20), and second-overall draft pick Danny Hultzen (#21) make up three of Baseball America's top prospects heading into the 2012 season.
Recent members on that list include Justin Smoak (#13 in 2010) and Dustin Ackley (#12 in 2011) and infielder Nick Franklin (#77) ain't far behind. It used to be that when you opened the Mariners' farm system cupboard, you saw cobwebs and Gogurt. Now, while there may not be cake in the cupboard today, all the ingredients are there, nicely lined up and within reach.
Youth is the future for the Mariners, but it's also the present. Their best player, Felix Hernandez, is 25 years old and recently signed an extension with the Mariners for far less than what he was likely to receive in free agency. Mike Carp (25 years old), Trayvon Robinson (24), and Casper Wells (27) have shown the ability handle major league pitching at a young age, a healthy Franklin Gutierrez may still be the best defensive center fielder in the game, and Brandon League is coming off a terrific year closing out games. There's a decent chance that come this summer, Mariner fans will be treated to a four-game home stand with Hernandez, Walker, Hultzen, and rising star James Paxton (#52 in BA's Top 100) taking the mound on consecutive nights.
There are a lot of experiential joys beyond prospect watching to look forward to this season as well: mutton in the King's Court, sunsets over the left field bleachers, jostling with bros in the beer garden, Dave Sims on the radio, Bill Krueger's gigantic hands and inane Keys to the Game, and reading some of the best baseball-related writing on the internet at Lookout Landing.
Besides, it could all go right this year. Heck, the Arizona Diamondbacks improved by 27 games last year and while the 2000 Mariners were good, no one saw 116 wins in the forecast for the following season. What if, instead of being bad again this year, the Mariners were good? What if it's just that simple?
The anticipation of a new baseball season parallels the feeling I had in Lafeen's with my buddies yesterday, talking about things that wouldn't come to fruition for months, laughing at each other's expense, slamming doughnut holes by the handful, and daring to dream about what lie ahead. As M's fans, we have the opportunity this April to shuck the bonds of banality we've suffered with lately and embrace the possibility of something exciting happening in SoDo.
For now, the Mariners are 1-1, simultaneously holding the best, worst, and most middling record in the league. On Friday, Felix will take the ball for the second time in the team's first three games, and everything will be possible.