I heard a long-time observer of Mariners’ baseball declare that Friday’s dugout incident was the absolute nadir in M’s history — the worst single moment ever witnessed by this person. I’ve had a former major-league player tell me he’s never seen a more frustrating team than the 2010 Mariners — too often displaying the wrong way to play baseball. And, every day on this blog, Geoff’s blog, other Mariners’ blogs, and in private e-mails, fans spill out their growing frustration, anger and disillusionment with the current state of the Mariners.
It got me to thinking — has there ever been a Mariners’ team that has been such a bitter disappointment? It’s a tough question to answer, because it’s so much easier these days for fans to register their raw anger. See a play you don’t like? Hop onto a game thread and let rip a venomous, emotional screed. When the game ends in another Seattle loss, grab the phone and pour forth your disgust on one of the post-game shows. Or fire off a raging e-mail to one of the media members covering the team with pleas to fire the whole lot of them and vows to never spend another cent of your hard-earned money watching this pathetic band of losers. It’s heartfelt, often anonymous, venting, and I think it can skew observers — like me — into thinking it’s never been worse.
That said, it’s very possible it’s never been worse.
I narrowed down five seasons that could qualify as the most disappointing (or frustrating, or infuriating — pick your adjective). I eliminated from consideration all the dreadful seasons in the M’s early history on the grounds that, as an expansion team, not much was expected of them in the first decade — even longer, in their case. To be a disappointment, after all, someone has to first think you have a chance to accomplish something, and that wasn’t the case with the Mariners for about a decade and a half. So here are the five candidates:
1) 1992. The Mariners were coming off their first winning season in their 15-year history. The 83-79 record and fifth-place finish in 1991 wasn’t enough to keep Jim Lefebvre from getting fired, but in new skipper Bill Plummer they seemed to have an up-and-coming young field general capable of guiding young players like Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Omar Vizquel, Tino Martinez and Randy Johnson to their first playoff run ever. Instead, the Mariners lost 98 games, and Plummer was one-and-done, fired after the season and replaced by Lou Piniella.
2) 1998. The Mariners were coming off their second division title in three years. They had four Hall of Fame caliber players in their relative primes — Griffey, Martinez, Johnson and Alex Rodriguez. And they somehow managed to finish nine games under .500 at 76-85, a non-contending 11 1/2 games out of first.
3) 2004. No one quite saw this coming, and why should they have? The Mariners were coming off seasons of 91, 116, 93 and 93 wins, and seemed capable of squeezing out another decent season, even if their core was aging. But new general manager Bill Bavasi’s additions backfired — particularly Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio — and the core aged quicker than anyone thought. The result was a shocking 63-99 season that resulted in Bob Melvin’s firing after just two seasons.
4) 2008. The parallels with this season are extensive. They were coming off a seeming breakthrough year, having gone 88-74 in 2007 and finished six games behind the Angels. Sure, they had collapsed down the stretch in ’07 after pulling within one game of the Angels with a win in Texas on Aug. 24 that lifted Seattle’s record to 73-53. What followed was an epic nosedive — 13 losses in their next 14 games, and a longer stretch of 10-21 that emphatically eliminated them from contention. Still, 88 wins was a huge improvement, and when they traded for Erik Bedard (at great cost in prospects) and signed Carlos Silva (for far too much money and too many years), it seemed like the M’s could be poised for a legitimate run at their first playoff berth since 2001. We all know how that turned out — disastrously. By the end of the year, Bedard and Silva were busts, manager John McLaren and GM Bill Bavasi had been fired (but not before McLaren let loose one of the most memorable expletive-laden tirades ever seen, or heard), and the clubhouse was in bickering disarray. Oh, and the Mariners had lost 101 games — but not the three at the end that could have netted them Stephen Strasburg.
5) 2010. Again, considerable expectations after a comeback 85-win season under new management, and a winter that netted Chone Figgins, Cliff Lee, Casey Kotchman, Brandon League, and a gamble on Milton Bradley approved of by most fans because it facilitated the departure of Silva. And now here they sit, in disarray, buried in last place in the AL West at 39-61, a whopping 19 1/2 games out of first.
Bradley landed on the restricted list after asking for help in dealing with emotional stress; Ken Griffey Jr. made an unsatisfying departure in early June after revelations of sleeping in the clubhouse and rumblings of a tense relationship with manager Don Wakamatsu; Lee was traded; and now Figgins and Wakamatsu got into it in the dugout on Friday after Wakamatsu yanked him from the game following a lackluster effort on an overthrow — the latest in a long line of lapses by Mariners’ players.
So there are the candidates — the Frustrating Five, the Querulous Quintet.
Right off the bat, I’ll eliminate 1992. For one thing, expectations weren’t all that high, I’d have to imagine (though I wasn’t around). Mariners fans were probably too jaded to pin their hopes on a team that had crossed the .500 mark for the first time — and just barely. But mainly, I crossed it off because it was so obvious that, even in the midst of 98 losses, this bunch was teeming with talent and on the verge of breaking through in a big way. Just the opportunity to watch a burgeoning, 22-year-old Griffey, an erratic but still electrifying 28-year-old Big Unit, and emerging geniuses like Edgar and Omar removes this bunch from the realm of epic disappointment.
Secondly, I’ll elminate the 1998 Mariners, for similar reasons. This team hit 234 homers — not quite up to their 264 in ’97, still the major-league record for homers in a season — but a hefty total nevertheless. Griffey hit 56. A-Rod went 40-40 with 42 homers and 46 steals. Edgar hit .322. Johnson had a train wreck of a season and was traded to Houston on July 31, but he was still the Big Unit. For all its faults — pretty dismal pitching beyond Jamie Moyer and the occasional Johnson flashes — this team was far, far too watchable to qualify as an all-time disappointment.
Third, I’ll eliminate 2004. Yeah, it was ugly — real, real ugly — but I recall that the prevailing feeling at the time was that it was an aberration. The psychic pain of sustained losing had yet to take hold. The Mariners were viewed as a solid, winning franchise that just had one of those years. Maybe the perception would have been different if fans realized that two more last-place finishes were in store over the next two seasons, but at the time, the level of vitriol was simply no match for what was to come. Remember, Ichiro set the all-time record for hits that season, and Edgar , after announcing his pending retirement, had his farewell tour. Those two elements alone brought some pathos to the ’04 season that removes it from the realm of the all-time bad.
That leaves 2008 and 2010 as the top contenders for the most disappointing teams in Mariner history — a pretty sad commentary on the current state of M’s baseball. I’ll allow for the possibility that they seem worse merely because they are so fresh, and also because, as I mentioned, the forums for expressing rage are so much more prevalent, and immediate.
Yet both seasons have had few redeeming qualities. Yes, any season that offers the opportunity to watch the likes of Ichiro and Felix Hernandez isn’t all bad, and it was indeed a privilege to view Cliff Lee every fifth day for two months. There’s always a few young players that are compelling to watch — Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak this year, with the possibility of Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley on the horizon.
But those are fleeting bright spots amidst the numbingly joyless baseball produced in each of those two years. And in a close call, I’m going to give the nod to 2010. At least in 2008, there was the promise of a new regime in the offing, accompanied by the relief felt by many fans that the Bavasi era had come to an end. Fans could dream of what things would be like if the right people were brought on board as GM and manager.
And that’s what has made this season so excruciating — because after last season, it appeared the right people had indeed been brought on board. And I’m certainly not ready to condede that Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu aren’t the right people, despite the disaster of 2010 (but that’s a whole other post). Last year was so refreshing in so many ways — a dynamic new manager, a GM who seemed the perfect blend of old-school scouting sensibilities with the open-mindedness to embrace sabermetrics, that the sky-high expectations didn’t seem unreasonable at all. I think the optimism of 2008 was tempered by the collapse at the end of 2007 and the ongoing frustration with Bavasi. But I think after 2009, we all bought into the limitless possibilities that seemed at hand under the capable new brain-trust guiding this team. Even those who were skeptical that the Mariners had enough hitting to seriously contend never saw this total collapse coming — at least I’ve got to believe that not many did, despite all those who like to claim now they saw all the warning signs.
Yes, I suppose there’s enough time for this team to salvage something of this season and change the negative perceptions. But it’s hard to see where that’s going to come from, frankly. The fact that the genuine, almost giddy optimism of February has devolved into the angst, anger and outright hostility of late July makes this my most disappointing Mariners’ team ever.
What do you think? Here’s a poll: