I complain a lot* about work preventing me from watching baseball.

* In the real world. I try not to bitch at those of you I only communicate with electronically. But sometimes I gotta.

Sunday, for the first time ever, I was grateful to work for making it impossible for me to watch the Mariners’ play.

It’s no secret that the Mariners can’t win against Houston, at least not since the Astros switched to the American League. Even when Houston sucked, they could count on picking up ten or so wins against hapless Seattle. This season has been no exception: with two games against Houston remaining, the Mariners have an astonishing 1-16 record.

And it all came to a head Sunday night in Texas.

After three innings–three!–the Mariners were down 13-0. (Remember that number. It’s significant.) The Astros added another eight runs before the game was over.

The most frustrating part of the whole affair? Seattle managed exactly one hit and no walks. That’s right. Had it not been for Shed Long’s second major league home run, the Mariners would have been on the losing end of a perfect game.

Sure, if he hadn’t hit it, things might have gone differently. That’s not the point. By the time Long put the Ms on the board, those fans unlucky enough to watch the game had seen ten batters accomplish nothing. And after Long’s hit, the fans watched another seventeen batters do nothing worthwhile.

That’s frustration, concentrated, bottled, and ready for sale. Not that you could find any buyers, but that’s beside the point.

You can’t hope for a rally if nobody gets on base. You need some kind of a tag to attach your dreams to.

A little while back, Jackie talked about doing the math. No amount of math could have helped this one. Sure, the Mariners would only have needed five grand slams to tie the game and force extra innings (where History suggests they would have lost anyway, this being Houston), but you can’t even hope for a grand slam when your batters are whiffing like Little Leaguers.

Yes, the Astros beat Jackie’s Orioles 23-2 earlier this season. But the Os managed six hits in that game. Six! And three walks. That’s nine base runners. An average of one an inning. Enough to build a dream on.

I’m not trying to one-down the Orioles here. Their current record (46-98) leaves plenty of room for depression. And both teams have had some good times this year.

Remember back in April when the Mariners looked like the best team in baseball? And remember those two glorious days in June, the 28th and 29th, when the Orioles set a major league record by beating the Indians 13-0* twice in a row? Wonderful days, those.

* Like I said, thirteen has significance.

But past glories only sustain you so long. Optimism needs a cause.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having a religious crisis. I’m still watching all the games my work schedule permits. I’ll still be watching the Ms next season.

It’s just…I’d like to be able to say “Just wait until next year!”

Come on, guys. You’ve got seventeen games left–including three against the Orioles. Show me something. Something I can use to pin a little hope on.

Hope that I’ll be watching “Because victories!” not “Because baseball!”

Tugging the Bandage

Ah, Mariners, how you tease me.

(Full disclosure: this post was written Monday afternoon and updated to include the results of Monday’s game. Be prepared for rapid changes of emotional overtones.)

Last Tuesday, I said that the Mariners could gain a measure of redemption for their embarrassing defeat in their previous game by beating the Red Sox on national television. That would put them back over .500 and provide a measure of hope for their ability to overcome adversity.

As it turned out, they did win that game. And the next one. They lost the final game of the series against the Red Sox, but then won three straight from the Angels, coming from behind in all three games.

5-1 is nice. Not a sign that they’ve turned a corner, much less that next year has arrived. But, combined with Houston’s 1-5 record over the same stretch, it put the Ms into second place in the division. Even more interesting, it means there’s only one team ahead of them in the fight for the second Wild Card. Amusingly, that’s the Red Sox.

But the thing is, the last fifteen years–and especially the last three–have conditioned Mariners’ fans to, as Mel Brooks put it, hope for the best, expect the worst. Before Monday’s games, the Mariners were three games behind the Red Sox in the standings, but they won’t play again this season*. Even if the Ms exceed that expectation of “the worst” they–and we, their fans–have to rely on others to beat the Red Sox.

* That’s “play each other,” naturally. If both teams were done for the year, there wouldn’t be much point in this post. That said, there’s always the chance of a one-game match-up if the two teams are tied for a playoff spot at the end of the season. But be honest: even though MLB would consider that a regular-season game, would you? I doubt I’m the only fan who would think of it as a playoff game.

That’s one way to look at it. Another is that we don’t care about how the Sox do; the important foe is the Tigers, who currently hold the second Wild Card slot. Since the Ms’ can’t control the Red Sox, ignore them and concentrate on beating the Tigers.

Guess who came to town last night? Yup. Detroit ambled in, owners of the best record in baseball since the All-Star Break, ready for a three game series. Since the Mariners were 3 1/2 games back, even sweeping the Tigers the same way they did the Angels wouldn’t put the Ms ahead. At most, it would close the gap while putting the Red Sox into the lead for that last playoff position. And–not-so-odd coincidence–this is the last time the Ms will face the Tigers this season, so they’d be depending on outside help to make up that last half game*.

* For the record, the Mariners have just three games remaining against the Blue Jays, the current first Wild Card team–and as of yesterday, the Ms were five games back. Help needed, no question. And, just to wrap up the possibilities, the Mariners are seven games behind the Rangers for the West title with (gee!) seven head-to-head games left. Help needed there, too.

But a sweep–or even just a series victory–against the Tigers would show that the Mariners are capable of continuing something they’ve started. Maybe it won’t show that they can finish what they start, but at this point, we’re not honestly thinking about anything as long-term as the end of the season. Show us they can put together a winning streak longer than three games*. Then we’ll talk.

* As of Monday, they’d won three in a row six times this season, including the weekend sweep of the Angels, and four in a row twice.

Any rational person would consider the Mariners’ playoff hopes dead along about now. But as Mel Brooks showed–yes, we’re back to him again–sometimes all it takes to bring the dead back to life is an abnormal brain and a bunch of leftover special effects. And you know what? A 5-1 record works just as well.

The preliminary results of the Mariners’ attempt at resurrection? A 3-0 victory. Can they make it a five-game winning streak and clinch the series win? Tune in tonight.

Now What?

When do you stop hoping?

I’ll suggest that it’s when your willing suspension of disbelief falls down.

We’ve all got our tipping point. Maybe it’s when your team is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention*. Maybe it’s when you find yourself thinking “If they can just win four–or five, or seven, or ten–games in a row, they’ll be right back in the race.” Or maybe it’s when you realize that you expect them to lose, and you’re overwhelmingly delighted when they surprise you with a win.

* If that’s you, no matter who you’re rooting for, you’ve got a couple of weeks of hope left. Even woeful Philadelphia has an elimination number (combination of their losses and victories by the second wild card team–currently the Giants) of 38, so, double-headers aside, they can’t possibly be eliminated for at least nineteen calendar days.

Inevitably, fans of two-thirds of the teams are going to reach their own personal thresholds of disbelief between now and October 4.

When you read that sentence, did you find yourself thinking “October? That’s two months away–plenty of time!”? If so, consider yourself lucky: you haven’t reached your threshold.

But if you have stepped across the threshold and seen your disbelief smash on the tile floor of failure, what do you do now? You can give up on this season, but you can’t just turn off the TV, delete your baseball bookmarks, and go into hibernation until Spring; baseball doesn’t work that way–fans don’t work that way. So you find something else to hope for.

In the short term, you can hope for respectability. Maybe they won’t make the playoffs, but they still might crack .500. Some of you will even be rewarded–last year four AL teams and one NL team finished the year over .500 but didn’t make the playoffs. But a good chunk of you will eventually trip over your fallen disbelief there too.

Sure, there’s always next year, but that’s passive hope; next year will be there when the calendar rolls over. Until then, you need something to actively root for, a reason to watch the games, to follow the blogs, to stay awake.

So you start looking for the player who’s going to make all the difference for the team next year. Not via trade or free agency: it’s too early to predict who your GM will be going after–heck, in a few cases it’s too early to predict who your GM will be! You look for the guy who’s already in your team’s system, the one who’s going to fill that last hole in the lineup.

Every team has them. Outfielders who get a September call-up and hit over .300. Back end starters who try a new arm motion or grip and suddenly look like Nolan Ryan in August and September. The reclamation project who might, just might, have finally figured out which end of the bat to hold–and when not to swing it.

Pick one. Heck, pick a couple, why not? Obsess over their every at-bat. Cheer when they get their first hit, and first RBI, make their first diving catch, or strike out the side. Project their stats across a full season. Buy jerseys with their names and numbers.

Maybe they’ll work out, maybe they won’t. You’ll find out next year. But that’s then. Right now, they’re hope.