(Seattle Times file photo)
When I arrived back in Seattle in 1996 after a decade away, the region was awash in Mariners mania. As one who left town just after the lackluster Chuck Cottier years, when the organization was still looking for its first winning season, it was startling to see the frenetic interest in the M’s.
There’s nothing quite like it when a city falls in love with one of its sports teams – or re-ignites that passion. That’s one of the big reasons I have loved covering the World Series, beyond the intrigue of the games themselves. Wherever you land – Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Toronto, Denver, Houston – you were guaranteed to feel the buzz, to witness a pleasantly insane atmosphere of folks living and dying with each pitch. And if it was a spot where the team had been dormant for years, well, just ratchet up the level of excitement. Atlanta is known as a blase sports town, and it would later come to take the postseason forays of the Braves with something of a collective yawn, particularly after numerous times reaching the brink of a title with just one World Series to show for it. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city as turned on as Atlanta was in 1991, when it shockingly reached the World Series, a worst-to-first transformation after averaging nearly 100 losses the previous six seasons.
You probably see where I’m going with this. Seattle has one of those love affairs blooming again right now, with the plucky, resurgent Seahawks. I’ve been re-inserted modestly into the Times football coverage team this year, giving me a keener sense of the team and the atmosphere. But you’d have to be under a rock not to feel it in all corners of town – people proudly wearing their gear, fanatics in a good-natured battle to show the world they’re bigger Hawks honks than anyone else. Heck, I’m writing this post on a plane home from Atlanta filled with geared-up Seahawks fans who made it out to watch Sunday’s playoff game.
The Seahawks lost, of course, in one the more thrilling and heartbreaking games I’ve ever seen. Our Seahawks beat writer, Danny O’Neil, and I were talking after the game about what the scene in Seattle would have been like had the Seahawks’ comeback from a 20-point deficit stood up. The words “insane,” “hysteria,” madhouse” and “bonkers” came up, and that’s just for starters.
But sometimes the gallantry of a defeat even elevates the affection for a team, at least until the near-misses become too frequent. In 1995, when Mariners mania was born amidst the “Refuse To Lose” rally, Big Unit coming out of the pen, and Edgar Martinez’s heroics against the Yankees, the fact they didn’t win the World Series, or even make it, barely dented the enthusiasm. It just seemed to endear them more – little Joey Cora crying on the bench. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single more captivating, galvanizing sports moment than Edgar’s double scoring Junior from first base.
But it’s often a fleeting relationship, this torrid love affair between a city and team. The Mariners, with a few fits and starts – lover’s spats – kept it going through the early 2000s. They got some bling out of the deal – a new stadium – and filled it to capacity. But now, a decade later, the same youngsters who are wearing their Russell Wilson jerseys to elementary school have gone their whole lives without experiencing a Mariners pennant race. Not a genuine one, anyway. In the ever-shifting sports hierarchy, the Mariners have plummeted from its perch at the top of the food chain. The disenchantment with the organization right now is monumental, and the contrast with the Seahawks’ success is only driving home the point of how far the Mariners have to go. Or, put it another way, how far they’ve fallen since the golden days.
The Mariners have made their own bed, of course, through awful personnel decisions, and stewardship from upper management that has been the opposite of visionary. The great thing about sports, and the heartbreaking thing about sports, is that any state of being is temporary. Great, compelling teams eventually get less so. Unappealing, losing teams eventually get good. Yes, even the Pirates, who have had 20 consecutive losing seasons, will be in the playoffs again one day (yeah, they will), and eventually the New England Patriots, as close to a dynasty as we have in modern sports, will be stumblebums again. You can even see the end of the Yankees’ dominance close at hand, as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera reach the end of the line.
And, yes, all you beaten down Mariners fans, breathing fire about the incompetence of the current management, it will happen again for them, too. I didn’t say it will necessary happen soon, but it will happen. Maybe it will take a regime change, or an unexpected rookie sensation like Russell Wilson. These sorts of things are organic and unpredictable, as the building of the 1995 Mariners showed. A couple of shrewd trades, a couple of emerging young stars, a few surprises, and suddenly, the right mix is there. The love affair is reborn.
Right now, the Seahawks have it, and by it, I mean, “It.” The Mariners are near the end of a clunky winter in which they’ve mostly struck out so far in their attempts for a bold strike to re-energize the fan base. The one cause for hope remains the farm system that Jack Zduriencik has built to be one of the most prosperous in all of baseball. Theoretically, at least. Prospects aren’t worth anything unless they become productive major-leaguers, or trade bait to bring productive major-leaguers to the team. But the sheer volume of highly rated young players at least suggests that better times are ahead.
There is obviously no guarantee that it will translate to contention, pennant races,and the renewal of Mariners fever. But they have all the elements for the sort of mania that now dominates the region. Downtrodden franchise? Check. Frustrated fan base? Check.
Now all that’s missing is the fairy-tale Mariners team to make them forget all that.