It’s been a weird year for the Mariners. You can take that as an explanation of why I haven’t been posting much about baseball. But, yesterday was the “Trading Deadline” and a few words seemed in order.
Last year was…well, disappointing. Having so many pundits picking the Ms to win their division and get back to the playoffs for the first time in living memory* was a thrill. But the team made it clear very early on that there was no way that was going to happen. By August 2, they were ten games under .500 and clinging to a one-game lead over Oakland to avoid the division basement.
* OK, I exaggerate. There are still a few old fogies around who remember 2001. But, lest you forget, that’s the longest current playoff drought in MLB. We’ll come back to this shortly.
When things are that bad, you just sit back and take it one game at a time. Enjoy the victories, and hope for something unusual to happen to distract you from the pain of the losses.
Then came this year. The predictions were rather more modest. FiveThirtyEight, for example, gave the Mariners one chance in three of making the playoffs, and suggested they were looking at finishing two games over .500.
On June 1, they were eight games over, and there was much hemming and hawing among the prophets. By July 1, the prophets were sighing in relief as the Ms had fallen back to three games over. Since then, they’ve gone 11-13 and are, thanks to last night’s loss to the Red Sox, exactly at .500. Thanks a lot, FiveThirtyEight, for setting the bar so high.
Sunday’s game was absolutely typical of the way they’ve played for the past month: group a bunch of runs together, then tell the offense to go home while the defense races the opponent to the end of the game. On Sunday, the Ms put up six runs in the first three innings–one two-run home run in each inning–and then took a solemn oath not to score again. They almost broke that vow in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with no outs, but managed to keep their honor intact when the next three batters went strike out, strike out, pop out.
Meanwhile, Chicago picked up two runs in the fifth, one in the seventh, and three in the ninth, thanks in large part to a catcher–traditionally among the slowest of runners–beating out a potential game-ending double play, and a wild pitch so bad that, had it been a movie, it would have made Plan 9 from Outer Space look like a potential Oscar winner by comparison.
My point is not that the team is bad. Far from it–they are, after all, still at .500, the minimum baseline for respectability. But they’re showing a frustrating lack of ability to finish what they start.
And frustrating is the word for it. They’re not doing well enough to allow one to hope for a turnaround, but they’re also not doing so poorly as to force one to give up on the season. So when something unusual happens*, it’s hard to revel in the weirdness.
* Such as, for example, the Cubs pitcher getting three outs with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, playing an inning and two-thirds in left field (and making a damned impressive catch), then returning to the mound to get the last out of the eighth by picking a runner off first base. For example.
What’s a fan to do? Hang in there, keep watching, and don’t give up the faith.
And, of course, remember that, while the Mariners have gone longer than anyone else without a playoff appearance and have never won a World Series in their thirty-nine season existence, there are others arguably worse off. The Chicago White Sox survived a thirty-nine year pennant drought (1919-1959). The Mariners will, barring a miracle, surpass that this year, but there are nine teams who have gone forty or more seasons without winning their league and going to the World Series. The Washington Nationals’ forty-seven year drought (which includes their time as the Montreal Expos) pales beside the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers dismal forty-nine year stumble that finally ended in 2010.
And even that’s nothing compared to the Cubs. Entire generations have been born, grown up, raised families, and died since the Cubs last won the National League pennant, back in 1945. Seventy years. Tack on another generation since they last won the Series. That was in 1908.
So there’s a certain amount of room for schadenfreude among the barely respectable. But there’s also an example there.
Those Cubs have a good shot at ending their streak this year. At the moment, they’ve got the best record in baseball. That’s no guarantee that they won’t implode over the next two months and miss the playoffs. Even if they make the playoffs with the best record, that’s no guarantee they’ll win it all–or even win any playoff games. But they’re in the hunt, even more so than last year (57-47 on August 2, finished at 97-65, taking the second Wild Card and making it to the NL Championship series before being swept by the Mets.)
Next year may be a long way away, not only for the Mariners, but for the thirteen teams looking up at them in the standings.
But the odds are good that none of those fourteen teams are looking at a seventy year wait before “next year” arrives. If the Cubs fans can hang on this long and still fill Wrigley Field on a regular basis, nobody slogging through the last part of a frustrating–or even disappointing–season has any excuse to give up.
The Mariners’ embarrassing defeat Sunday was on ESPN. Tonight they face the Red Sox on the MLB Network. What better opportunity for redemption could one ask for? A chance to beat the Red Sox–one of the broadcast industry’s darlings–on national TV to move back over .500? Sign me up!
No reason why next year can’t start today.
And now, with the passage of the ever-disruptive and increasingly resented “All Star Game”, a shadow falls upon the land, and fans look up from their work, troubled by the passage of easy optimism. Now, it’s getting real, and we can’t shrug off a lost series or a troubled pitcher’s arm as we could in June. Now the cleats are dug in a little deeper, the catcher’s signals are sent with a little more urgency; now, it’s getting real, and we gratefully welcome that “big bat” trade into the fold, in hope that the rest of the lineup will be inspired (or shamed) into more production. It’s August. Fun’s over. Play ball!