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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 2, 2010 at 11:04 AM

Disastrous Mariners need to stave off irrelevance

Here is today’s minor-league report.

The flailing, free-falling Mariners are in danger of taking the most frightening step in a franchise’s evolution: The one into irrelevance, marked by rampant apathy.

Right now, Mariner fans are still in the anger stage, by and large. Those who care about the M’s are ticked beyond belief. After yesterday’s latest non-competitive mismatch of a defeat to Minnesota, host Matt Pitman had an appropriate vent session on the ESPN 710 post-game show. Voices were shaking with emotion as they detailed their grievances, which were many and varied. Right now, of course, the Mariners can do no right, and so they have no choice but to take all the slams coming their way.

Funny thing about baseball – everyone has an opinion on what’s being done wrong, and how it can be done better. As long-time minor-league manager Rocky Bridges once said (and there are many variations of this quote, but the essence is the same): “There are three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else. Build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.”

In the current climate, with the team collapsing, every move by the manager and front office — even the defensible ones — are open season for second-, third- and fourth-guessing.

That being said, at least when there’s rage, it shows that fans still care. I think any sports team will take passionate anger over apathy. And yet I fear that’s where the Mariners are headed. There will always be the hard-core – found on blogs like this and heard calling into post-game shows – to vent when things go off track. But more and more I’m hearing from people who say they are simply tuning out the M’s – moving on to football or soccer, or opting to read a book or see a movie. It will be very interesting to see the attendance totals the rest of the year. I suspect it won’t be pretty. Through June 30, television ratings were down about 15 percent from last year, though interestingly, radio ratings are up, which shows the ongoing lure of the year-long melodrama that is a baseball season.

Let’s face it – this is not a compelling team to watch. In fact, far too often, it’s out and out boring. That’s a byproduct, of course, of its biggest shortcoming, an offense that’s anemic beyond belief. The Mariners currently have scored 344 runs, which ranks 30th among 30 teams – 15 fewer runs than the Pirates at No. 29, despite having played two more games than the Pirates. They’re on their way to being historically bad offensively, and that has led to far too many games in which it appears they are going through the motions. It’s awfully hard to look dynamic with no one on base, and it’s a function not of lack of effort or desire, but simply the fact that the Mariners don’t have enough good hitters. Not a real deep analysis, but there it is. You can’t “make something happen” when nothing is happening.

Some poor teams at least make it interesting for their fans by blasting the ball around the yard, only to be undone by terrible pitching. The Mariners, by and large, have had good (or great, in some cases) starting pitching this year. But with just 63 homers – again, the lowest total in the majors – they’re not going to knock your socks off with tape-measure blasts. The result is far too many games in which they’ve score 0, 1, 2 or on a real good day, 3 runs.

Yes, there’s an inherent excitement in a good pitcher’s duel, but when you lose them most of the time – the Mariners are 10-52 in games in which they score fewer than four runs – the thrill is gone pretty quickly. Monotony sets in, with equal parts frustration, especially when the team’s rare rallies are squandered by the absence of a timely hit, or even a timely ground out or fly ball.

There’s also excitement in watching the development of prospects to pin the hopes of the future upon. But that’s been a frustrating venture as well in 2010. Justin Smoak showed flashes in Anaheim, with homers from each side of the plate in back-to-back games, but generally was overmatched and out-of-kilter, and wisely sent back to Tacoma to regroup. His future remains bright, but it clearly won’t be an instant impact. Other than Michaael Saunders, who else is there on the Mariners right now to represent the Great Shining Hope? Those are all to be found in Tacoma, or West Tennessee.

It’s a giant, teeming mess, which is why the focus today is on Don Wakamatsu’s managerial status. No matter how that turns out — and all’s quiet, as of 11:45 a.m. — the challenge for the entire Mariner organization right now is to keep the team from degenerating into irrelevance, and to keep their fans from making the shift from anger to apathy.

It won’t be easy. Better times may well be ahead, although it’s hard to imagine right now. Keep in mind that the Detroit Tigers went from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in 2006. Of course, another way to look at it is they went from 106 losses in 2002 to 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in 2006; you’d hate to think that this season isn’t rock bottom.

It sure feels that way, doesn’t it? I still believe the Mariners have a large, strong, passionate fan base at their disposal. They’re suffering now, maybe even starting to tune out, but will re-emerge in full force if and when things get better. Just six months ago, the Mariner bandwagon was filled to overflowing. They’re jumping off right and left, but I suspect they won’t go far.

This season is shot, but it will be fascinating to see what direction the rebuilding takes this winter. It will be one of the most important offseasons in franchise history — and the first step to winning back the fans. But as this season proved, winter scorecards don’t mean much. The real steps toward renewed relevance will ultimately have to take place on the field.

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