(Mariners reliever Bobby Ayala after giving up a three-run homer to Cleveland’s Brian Giles on April 13, 1998)
Note: We will have a live chat with original Mariner Ruppert Jones today at noon on seattletimes.com. Check it out:
When I arrived in Seattle in 1996, it didn’t take long to figure out that Public Enemy No. 1 when it came to the Mariners was relief pitcher Bobby Ayala. For some reason, fans had a visceral negative reaction to Ayala that seemed to me, anyway, to go beyond the realm of poor pitching and blown saves. We’d get letters at the newspaper (this was before e-mail and blogs and reader commenting on the internet, which was a huge blessing for poor Bobby) on a regular basis wondering if Ayala was related to Lou Piniella (or asserting that he was; it became something of an urban legend. He wasn’t, by the way).
Ayala was the first Mariners’ player of my experience that fans loved to hate, but he was far from the last. This is hardly a phenomenon unique to Seattle, by the way. At my previous stop in San Francisco, there was a shortstop, Johnny LeMaster, so reviled by fans that one day he came out for pre-game warmups with a jersey that had “boo” stitched on the back instead of his name. LeMaster, at least, had a sense of humor about it.
I bring this up because it’s rapidly becoming evident that the new player emerging as the focus of fan’s wrath is catcher Miguel Olivo. It’s not surprising, because all the classic elements needed to fuel the turbulence are present — an under-performing player, a rookie (Jesus Montero) waiting in the wings to replace him (not to mention a backup, John Jaso, who has done well in his sporadic use yet withers away on the bench), and a manager who doesn’t seem to see the deficiencies that are so apparent to everyone else. And as I mentioned, nowadays there are so many more ways for people to band together and express their displeasure, which just seems to fuel more grumbling.
Last year’s victim, overwhelmingly, was Chone Figgins, but he’s off to a decent enough start to quiet the naysayers (I didn’t say “silence them”; the volume is just turned down. For now).
In past years, the role of the Mariner player fans love to hate has been served, at various times, by Heathcliff Slocumb (who had the unfair burden of coming here in perhaps the worst trade the Mariners ever made — one part of which, Derek Lowe, was the losing pitcher last night at Safeco), Jeff Cirillo, and Richie Sexson (latter-day Sexson, anyway. When he was hitting 73 homers and driving in 228 runs his first two years in Seattle, he was a lot more popular). Those are the ones that elicited the strongest reactions. Certainly, there was vitriol for other players over the years, such as Carlos Silva, (and his replacement, Milton Bradley), Scott Speizio, Jeff Weaver, and Yuniesky Betancourt. Sometimes, the player himself is innocuous, but becomes a symbol for the faults of the GM (Jose Vidro and Horacio Ramirez spring to mind).
I’d offer that there is a separate category for polarizing players — ones that some people loathe, yet others love. Certainly, Ichiro is the most polarizing Mariners’ player during my time here — increasingly so as his numbers decline. Ken Griffey Jr is an interesting case, the most beloved player in franchise history for a stretch, yet quite polarizing during his second stint, especially in his final days. Randy Johnson is another Mariners icon whose messy departure changed the positive perception of many fans. (And we don’t even need to get into A-Rod, who is in a unique category as the most reviled ex-Mariner ever). Erik Bedard was very polarizing, both for the spirited debate over the wisdom of the trade that brought him to Seattle, and then for his performance when he got here. Raul Ibanez was also polarizing because of the schism between those who loved Raul for his slugging and persona, and those who dug more deeply, especially defensively, and saw someone whose virtues were overblown. Willie Bloomquist was oddly polarizing for a utility player, one camp believing he was vastly underrated and the other hating what they felt was excessive praise for intangible qualities like grit. Olivo, for that matter, has his own share of supporters who point out that he led the team in both homers and RBIs last year, has a great arm, and should be awarded patience this early in the season.
Debates like those are what make being a fan so much fun. The passion is great. I worry a little bit about the “piling on” aspect that can sometimes make vendettas against a particular player get out of control, and the vitriol become excessive. I understand why people are down on Olivo, but I don’t think he warrants the single-minded focus on his day-to-day playing time that seems to taking on a life of its own. This will all sort itself out soon enough, however. And eventually, there will be another player that fans wlll focus their venom on.
There always is.