The other day, my buddy Caleb S. emailed me the following*:
"So when you say the Mariners are just a couple years away from relevant baseball, do you mean .500 baseball or compete for our division baseball? I trust your expertise on the sport more than most but it seems like its assuming a lot that the Angels and Texas will fall off enough in the next two years to give us a chance. Also if a couple of our players do pan out what makes you think we can keep them here? Felix stayed and we don't deserve him. I'm looking at some stats right now and, young team or not, we don't have one guy sniffing a .300 batting average. Like nothing consistent offensively. Felix kills it every year and his numbers are stupid but we can't get him more then 10 wins. I want so badly to understand and care about this sport but watching us get shut out at home all the time is brutal."
What my friend wrote is a pertinent, coherent string of thoughts encompassing what so many Seattle Mariners fans are feeling. There's frustration with waiting for the team to be good again, frustration with how far behind other teams in their division they are, frustration with the sense that one of the greatest Mariners ever is wasting away in our city, frustration with the team's t-ball offense, and finally, frustration with feeling like we're supposed to care about this team but that at some point, they've got to give us a reason to.
*Printed here with his approval.
My immediate reaction was to respond defensively. You've got to have faith. It's a rebuilding process. The team is really young but they're building towards something great. Their pitching has been excellent, they just need these young hitters to keep developing.
Then I stopped and hit delete. It wasn't because I disagreed with what I was writing, at least not outright. I erased my response because I was just typing it without even stopping to think about the questions he was asking. It was a knee-jerk reaction, like some kind of auto-Pavlovian response to doubts about my favorite baseball team programmed from years of hearing the same criticisms. I mean, did I even believe those things anymore?
Yes, this team is young and yes, they are rebuilding. But young is only good when those guys show signs of developing into legitimate, Major League-quality players and just because the team is rebuilding doesn't mean that the new model will be any better than the one it replaced. I mean, ask a Royals fan how their rebuild has gone over the last couple of decades.
As of this writing, the M's are 36-51 -- worst in the American League and fifth-worst overall. They're scoring fewer than 3.8 runs per game, and their collective batting average/on-base percentage/ slugging percentage ranks 29th/30th/29th out of 30 teams at .230/.291/.358.* Sure, their pitching's been alright, but despite the pervasive feeling that they've lost every by a 2-1 score, they're only 7th in the AL in team ERA and just 10th in FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching). They've had stretches of great outings, and Felix Hernandez has been fantastic but generally speaking, the Mariners staff has been very average, only looking good in comparison to the impotent performance of the hitters.
*Tyler Greene, the St. Louis Cardinal's backup second baseman with a career .221 avg, is hitting .226/.285/.377. The 2012 Seattle Mariners are Tyler Greene.
And it's not like they're just a bunch of kids struggling with long road trips and compensating for it with better play at home, either. If you've watched many M's games this year, you've seen how much they've been swallowed up in Safeco. At home, Seattle is only managing 2.8 runs/game, and their line plummets all the way down to .195/.273./.289. Yep, the Mariners have treated their fans to hits in less than 20% of their home at bats.
There's been a lot of talk about whether management should move Safeco's walls in. That is a discussion for another place, but I'll say this since I mentioned it: in 2001, the Mariners led the majors in runs scored, despite playing 81 games with Safeco's walls exactly where they are now. The point here isn't whether the park is too big, and focusing on that is like treating a cat scratch on a man that needs a kidney transplant. The point is that right now, the Mariners can't hit and even worse, they really can't hit in front of fans who pay money to watch them.
Sure, there are known quantities that are struggling, like Brendan Ryan (.563 OPS*), Miguel Olivo (.575 OPS), and Chone Figgins (.521 OPS), but much of that was to be expected. The real rub is that the young hitters -- the ones we're supposed to be excited about -- aren't doing much better. Jesus Montero is only hitting .245, Justin Smoak has a worse slugging percentage (.332) than Everth Cabrera, (who has 5 HRs in 752 career ABs), and Dustin Ackley has looked about as capable as a mouse in a piranha tank.
*MLB average OPS (On-base-Plus-Slugging-%) is .720
Last year's team was historically futile at the plate and the consensus was that even if there were struggles this season, common sense and simple regression to the mean would dictate that the 2012 offense would be markedly improved. Well, in 2011, the M's OPS was .640. This year? .649. It's one thing to be bad, but it's another thing entirely to be bad and boring.
This is my hang-up. I've suffered through losing seasons before -- the pre-Piniella teams were lousy and, after a mostly wonderful nine-year ride from 1995-2003, I watched helplessly as Bill Bavasi took apart Pat Gillick's Mariners brick by up-and-coming brick. For the last eight and a half seasons I've watched the M's play largely terrible ball, all the while hoping for a turnaround and justifying that hope with statements like "once Bavasi's gone, it'll get better," "as soon as this Ackley kid comes up...," and "just wait until they have (Danny) Hultzen, (Taijuan) Walker, and (James) Paxton pitching behind Felix." I have gotten very good at convincing myself to get excited about what lies around the corner, but what happens when you peek around the corner and it looks an awful lot like the street you've been walking on?
I want to tell my pal the same things I've been telling myself all along: that the minors are stocked with potential stars, that the hitting will get better, that they won't keep wearing those hideous teal uniforms*. I want to tell him that but even now it sounds hollow, forced. I've strived to be a sensible, realistically optimistic fan, but lately it just seems like I'm kidding myself.
*Seriously, Mariners, burn them. Burn them with fire until they are dead.
Watching the Mariners causes me stress, and it's not even the fun stress where you're all like oh man I hope they hold onto this one run lead because we're two games back of the division lead and both the Angels and Rangers lost today c'mon Mariners c'mon c'mon c'mon! Watching the Mariners stresses me out the way searching for my keys when I'm already late to work stresses me out; like at this point there's no good solution, but you're frantically looking for the thing that will make it a little less bad.
And it's every damn day, too.
Additionally, the aforementioned Angels and Rangers are two of the most orgasmically talented teams in the big leagues and are locked in a demi-godly arm wrestling match on Mount Olympus for control of the AL West, while the Mariners feebly try to patch their fishing raft back together with driftwood and fish guts. Even if/when the Mariners get "good", they'll likely need further improvements and a significant regression from not one, but two powerhouses in order to compete for the division. Watching every game with the hope that something will indicate a turnaround is wearisome and it wears me down. Hope sucks sometimes.
And yet, I can't let go. I can't just shake the Mariners' dust from my sandals and get on without them. I've rooted for them since I was five years old, kept newspapers commemorating Bosio's non-no and Edgar's double, spent hundreds on game tickets. It's cheering for the M's that brings me to the very crux of fandom, it's the thing that draws me nearest to the molten center of why I even bother with sports. To pull for the Mariners is to make a commitment that rooting for my other favorite teams doesn't require, a daily investment
You see, when the Seahawks struggle, it sucks too, and just as much, but they only play one game per week -- each contest a clearly marked milepost for concentrated enthusiasm in what's essentially a four-month season, each with a six-day lull. In baseball, however, there are 18,675 games in each 17-month season and all of them string together like an unending paper doll chain and to care earnestly about a team takes more than excitement, it takes resolve. Just like love does.
So, Caleb, here's your answer:
If you want to keep loving the Mariners, do it. Do it because love isn't just the feeling you get when you first saw your kids, it's the decision you make to keep loving them even when they're pissing on you and/or pissing you off. If one of your kids falls in with an unsavory crowd, or dates someone you can't stand, you're still going to love them no matter how frustrating it gets. They may exasperate you, but just because they won't take their baths without fussing doesn't mean the times you played with them at the park, and taught them to read, and saw their first steps didn't happen.
When I was 12, the Mariners made their historic 1995 run to the playoffs. I remember it so vividly, from Ken Griffey Jr's broken hand to Vince Coleman's pinch-hit grand slam. I remember it so well not because that improbable streak was so exciting, but because even though I was young, I had known (and cared) what it was like to watch them lose over and over and over. I grew to love the team, and the guys on it. I imitated Jay Buhner's stance in my back yard and slammed my chest like Randy Johnson when I struck someone out in neighborhood wiffle ball games.
I collected cheesy posters and drew cartoon versions of the players when I was bored in class. I remember bragging about how they won 116 games and how good Mike Cameron was and wondering Bret Boone was going to do a bat flip in the Home Run Derby. Shoot, I still go online and look for cool Mariners gear to get, or when I can sneak down to the Safe for a game.
You've been invested for this long, so don't sell the stock when it's low. Stay with them, not just on principle, but on promise. Yeah, it's bleak right now, but despite the misgivings stated above, there truly is reason to hope. The young hitters are still likely to get noticeably better. Ackley is, in terms of Major League service time, just now entering his second season in the bigs. Smoak is showing that he's capable of becoming the 25+ HR guy we all hoped the team was getting in the Cliff Lee trade, even if he'll never be a threat to win the batting crown. Montero is only 22 years old and already has big league pop in his bat.
Not every highly-touted prospect is Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, after all. Alex Rodriguez hit .224 with 5 HRs over his first two years in the majors. It took Buhner until his fourth full year to hit better than .224. Hell, Edgar Martinez only had 14 extra-base hits (2 HRs) over 246 ABs in his first three years. As it turns out, hitting Major League pitching is really hard, but it's something that can be learned by people with talent, and the Mariners' young hitters have talent.
There's promise in the minors, too. The M's AA affiliate, the Jackson Generals, were rated as the best minor league team in the whole sport by Baseball America this year. The heralded trio of Hultzen, Walker, and Paxton have had stretches of sheer brilliance this year, and shortstop Nick Franklin looks to be showing Major League polish as he's climbed through the farm system. Barring a trade, these are guys worth looking forward to at Safeco, guys that have legitimate potential to be the frame which holds the picture of a very good Mariners team.
And while it sucks to watch Felix lose 1-0 twice a month, it doesn't sound like he's going anywhere, or that he even wants to. Don't stress out about his relationship with the Mariners before he does. He seems to be happy here, let's be happy for him.
While we're at it, love this team because someday you may knock on the Mariners door to find that no one is home. It's happened to this city before and, while I don't think the Sonics' fate will befall the M's, I'm scared to take that, or any of this, for granted. And, finally, love the Mariners because the only thing worse than being disappointed by something you love is to stop loving that thing altogether.