That was quite the three-week ride this city just finished having yesterday, when the Seahawks were defeated by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the NFL playoffs. A ride quite unexpected for a 7-9 team. And that should give us all something to ponder when it comes to the nature of sports, the fragility of playoff opportunities and the reasons why we, as fans, cheer in the first place.
No, the Hawks did not win the Super Bowl. But I’ll tell you what: they went just as far as the 14-2 New England Patriots.
The point being: there is no perfect formula for how to get to the playoffs and thrive there.
And that’s something, I think, the Mariners should keep in mind the next time they find themselves neck and neck in the division or wild-card hunt at around the midway point. That sometimes, rebuilding plans or not, you have to call an audible and get the team upgraded — even if it costs you a prospect or two that is part of a longer rebuilding effort.
Now, this is a controversial realm in this town, I realize that.
We all remember relief pitcher Jeff Nelson getting ushered out back in 2003 when he chastised the M’s for failing to upgrade a first-place team that wound up getting beaten out by Oakland for the division and Boston for the wild-card. And that was the easier call to make, one involving a team that was practically guaranteed the 90-plus wins it finished with.
The tougher calls to make have both come within the past four seasons.
We had the surprising 88-win Mariners of 2007, who found themselves in the wild-card lead as August ticked away. Those M’s knew they needed another relief pitcher to aid a tiring bullpen comprised mostly of young, inexperienced arms. There was enormous debate on this blog — and others — about whether the M’s should sacrifice prospects Wladimir Balentien or Jeff Clement to land that arm. Former GM Bill Bavasi came close to landing Octavio Dotel, but in the end, failed to get a deal done and wound up settling for washed up veteran Rick White.
In the end, White wasn’t the answer. But neither was standing pat. The bullpen ultimately did collapse, along with the rest of the team, during a key August-September losing stretch. Hindsight tells us that probably would not have been a good playoff team. Then again, hindsight would probably have told us the same thing about the Seahawks had they lost their final regular season game to the Rams and been eliminated.
You just never know.
You never know what the addition of a solid veteran reliever might have done for the confidence of the 2007 Mariners. Never know whether Dotel’s fortunes, or those of Al Reyes, might have turned out differently down the stretch had they been wearing a Mariners uniform and not that of another team. And it’s not so much that anyone felt Dotel, or Reyes, was the second-coming of Mariano Rivera. It’s that the top baseball minds running the Mariners were telling Bavasi the season was lost if he did not add something to the bullpen.
So, at that point, you’re faced with a choice: you either “go for it” or you let the season die. By not getting a deal done for an impact reliever, Bavasi allowed the 2007 season to effectively end before September even began. White clearly was a desperation move and not the answer. Would the season have ended in any event, thanks to 15 losses in 17 games? Perhaps. But again, we’ll never know. Just remember, folks would be saying the same thing about the Hawks today had the Rams had a better second-half gameplan in the regular season finale.
Bavasi did get to keep Balentien and Clement. Both are now gone and did nothing in the majors.
Fast forward to 2009, with the 85-win Mariners battling for first-place and the wild-card as the all-star break approached. Seattle had one of the worst offenses in all of baseball that season and fans and media were wondering why little was being done in terms of upgrades as the team was scratching and clawing to contend. The standard line was that the team was still rebuilding and prospects were not going to be sacrificed for short term gain. We’ve since heard rumors that the Mariners did try to acquire Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego — a move that would have fit both short and long term goals. But that did not get done. Nothing tangible got done to fix the offense. And when it’s a do-or-die scenario, like Bavasi needing another arm, or Jack Zduriencik another bat, good intentions mean nothing. You either get it done, or die.
The Mariners died right after the all-star break when the Cleveland Indians came in and smoked them. Perhaps the Mariners were destined to die anyway. Or, perhaps, had the team acquired a bat in late June, they could have whittled down the gap with other playoff contenders just a bit so that the ensuing Indians debacle didn’t knock them out of the race.
Once again, we’ll never know. Who knew the Seahawks were going to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs?
We’re now two years removed from that 2009 playoff opportunity for the Mariners. And also now four years removed from the 2007 opportunity. It’s eight years since Nelson punched his ticket out of town.
And no post-season for the Mariners. Playoff chances in baseball don’t come along every day.
This isn’t so much an indictment of the choices made by the team. More of a call to consider things from a different angle if, say, the Mariners find themselves two games out of first place this coming July. Do you give up one of your better prospects to upgrade the team and “go for it” now? Or do you hold steady and hope for a more odds-friendly shot in 2012, or 2013?
Remember, nothing is guaranteed. The Seahawks went just as far as the 14-2 Patriots this season.
I’ll let some of you in on a dirty little secret.
Photo Credit: AP
Some of you already know this. And some of you, especially younger readers, do not.
The stuff that this city just lived through with the Seahawks? That’s about as good as it gets cheering on your favorite sports team.
Sure, some of you want to see the Hawks win a Super Bowl. Or, the Mariners a World Series.
And that would be great. But I’ll tell you, it won’t be that much better than some of the highs you just experienced. Because those of you who have lived through a title with your favorite team know the reality: that about 90 percent of the fun is the journey itself. It’s the anticipation of waking up the morning of the big game. Of living and dying with every play.
The championship itself can be a bit of an anti-climax. Sure, you feel elation for a day or two. But it’s not like you’re getting any playoff bonus shares. Not like the President is inviting you to the White House.
Sure, there’s a parade and all. That’s fun. But trust me, the thrill subsides. In some cases, it subsides quickly. In most cases, the ride itself is what provides the real joy.
My favorite hockey team has won only two titles the last 32 years, so when they do capture a championship, it’s memorable. I used to sit glued five feet from my TV set as a teenager during the NHL playoffs, afraid to move a muscle or let my focus stray from anything going on during the game because I knew that I alone controlled the fate of my club. And that the hockey gods would punish my team if I deviated from my focus.
My favorite NFL team has two Super Bowl titles the last 31 years. I live and die every down they play, believe me.
But when those teams win their rare titles, do you know what I’ve felt — both as a boy, a teenager and now an adult?
Relief. That’s it. Not unbridled joy and happiness. OK, maybe for a few days. But mostly, it’s relief. Knowing that the team is one championship notch closer to the pack, or maybe one title further ahead. Reflecting back on it, the biggest joy wasn’t in seeing them hoisting the trophy in the air. It was remembering how they got there. Remembering the anticipation that this could be the year they went all the way.
Once the title is secured, the anticipation stops. The focus shifts to the coming year.
I believe athletes when they say that winning a title just makes them hungrier for the next one. Because that’s exactly how I’ve felt as a sports fan. Winning it all rarely leaves you satisfied. It just leaves you wanting more.
Take a look at Red Sox fans. They went nine decades without a title. Do they seem any less stressed now that they’ve won a couple? Believe me, that honeymoon ended real fast in 2005. Sure, there were folks in their 80s who were glad to see the Bosox win it all before they died. And I can fully understand those of you who want to see a major sport Seattle team win it all during your lifetime. But most of you aren’t in your 80s. You have a little time.
And I’m telling you, that once your team wins it, the most enduring emotion will probably be relief. You won’t have much more fun than Seahawks fans just did dreaming of the possibilities for a Super Bowl.
So, something to keep in mind.
Were the last three weeks of fun in this city worth sacrificing for a higher draft slot? Was the playoff experience gained by the Hawks less valuable than securing a draftee who could help give you a “better” shot in two or three years? I don’t think so.
And I do think, at times, that we as non-pro athletes tend to undervalue the whole playoff experience. We tend to consider the championship itself as the Holy Grail, even though our own experiences as fans may suggest that the journey of trying to get there is the most lasting thrill we can attain.
Because in the end, there’s no perfect way to enter the post-season. No guarantee that the 14-2 Patriots will go any further than the 7-9 Seahawks. Or that the heavily-favored Philadelphia Phillies will go any further than the now-champion San Francisco Giants. You can’t enjoy the playoff ride if you don’t get there first. And sometimes, a few weeks of living it can be worth three years of hoping for it.
Something to ponder as the Mariners go through another rebuilding year. Because we just don’t know when the next surprise chance to “go for it” may pop up. A chance that may come before many of us feel the “long term plan” has reached fruition. Just like in 2007 or 2009, it may come sooner than we think. And we’ll once again have to wonder whether to sacrifice some of the future for the present.