This is my first attempt at a FanPost... a reaction to the low attendance numbers at Safeco this year.
On April 19, 2010, the Mariners set a new record for the lowest attendance ever at Safeco field, in a year in which they will possibly be in the playoff hunt and in the middle of a hot streak. After thinking about the reasons for the low attendance, I’ve settled in on a couple of main factors; relatability and recognition. Diehard Mariners fans know that the Mariners will in all likeliness have a winning year, and some people are still showing up to the park. People who follow the Mariners know the magnitude of acquisitions such as Chone Figgins, Cliff Lee, Casey Kotchman, and Milton Bradley. The 10,000 missing from the stadium don’t follow the Mariners as closely, and probably are only able to identify Ichiro and Griffey as members of the current squad. I talk to some of my friends and members of my family, and they could recite nearly the entire roster of the Mariners of the late 1990s, but are barely able to name a few of the current members. Here’s a position-by-position comparison of 1996, when the Mariners were 3rd in the AL in attendance, and this year.
Catcher: Dan Wilson vs Rob Johnson
Dan Wilson was acquired via trade from the Cincinnati Reds before the start of the 1994 season and had been the majority starter at catcher in each year since 1994. He had established himself as a defensive force behind the plate and shown decent hitting stats, hitting .278 in 1995. Wilson had reached his prime and was a solid catcher, and people became familiar with him.
Rob Johnson was drafted by the Mariners in 2004, but the most games he has caught in a year has been 80 in 2009. Johnson has never been considered an elite catching prospect, and has shown poor defense with offense to match. Wilson had shown himself a consistently above-average catcher, while Johnson has never shown anything but below-average talent.
First Base: Paul Sorrento vs Casey Kotchman
Sorrento was a newcomer in 1996, being signed from free agency and taking over for the recently departed Tino Martinez. Sorrento was one of the few names on the roster that didn’t generate a buzz, but there were plenty of others to make up for him.
Casey Kotchman is also a newcomer, acquired via trade from the Boston Red Sox for Bill Hall. Kotchman was once named the best high school player in America, but has not lived up to expectations and has jumped around the league, playing for 4 teams since 2008. Kotchman is one of the best defensive first basemen in the league, but defense goes highly unnoticed by the casual fan, as it is not listed on FSN next to AVG, RBI, R, and HR.
Second Base: Joey Cora vs Chone Figgins
Joey Cora was arguably one of the most beloved Mariners of the 1990s. He had been newly acquired, having signed as a free agent before the 1995 season. Cora put up decent numbers in 1995, hitting .297 and stealing 18 bases, but his stats by no means were enough to completely win over the fans of Seattle. What Joey Cora will perhaps be best remembered for was what he did after the Mariners 1995 season was over. After the Mariners lost to the New York Yankees at the end of the ALCS, Joey Cora, a grown man of 30 years, cried on the bench. In that one image that is ingrained on the retina of every Mariners fan, Joey Cora did something that not many athletes today have shown interest in doing. He connected with the fans. He showed the world that he, too, was human, and in that, Seattle grew to love Joey Cora.
Chone Figgins is yet another new member of the Seattle Mariners in 2010. He was signed as a free agent after spending a number of productive seasons with the Angels, both offensively and defensively. Mariners fans may grow to love Figgins as they loved Cora for his ability to flip a ball out of his glove to the shortstop, but Seattle hasn’t had the opportunity to get to know Figgins as they did Cora in that one short year.
Alex Rodriguez was drafted first overall by the Mariners in 1993. He took over the starting role from Luis Sojo in 1996 and had all the potential in the world. He was a phenom, and everybody had to go see what he was all about. He could hit, field, and Seattle was excited to see what they had in Alex Rodriguez.
Jack Wilson is in his first full year as a Mariner in 2010. Obtained from the Pirates via trade in the middle of the 2009 season, Wilson has shown himself to be injury prone in Seattle, and just like Figgins, Kotchman, and Johnson, there is no real connection with the fans. Wilson has already peaked in his career, and while he is still one of the best defensive shortstops around, defense alone is not enough for a city to become enamored with a player.
Third Base: Russ Davis vs Jose Lopez
Davis was beginning his first year as a Mariner in 1996. Along with Paul Sorrento, he was one of the few unknowns on the roster; Mariner fans weren’t flocking to the Kingdome to see Davis play.
Jose Lopez has been around with the Mariners since being signed in 2000. He made his first start with the team in 2004, and has been one of the few mainstays of this roster ever since. He has remained relatively productive throughout his years as a Mariner, but he has been known to make defensive errors in the infield. While it seems like he may be close to being an almost completely recognizable name in Seattle, he might not break through because of the lack of a connection with the fans.
Right Field: Jay Buhner vs Ichiro Suzuki
This position is an interesting one to analyze. Buhner was acquired via trade from the Yankees in 1988, and became the main starter in 1991. Buhner consistently put up a batting line around .270, and his openness in interviews and unpredictability made him a fun Mariner to watch. Buhner Buzz Cut nights certainly added to his popularity, and fans found him a goofy player they could relate to, which made it easy to cheer for him.
Ichiro is without question the most well-known starter on the Mariners roster (unless you count Ken Griffey, Jr). He arrived as the most hyped prospect to ever arrive from Japan in 2001, and he far exceeded any expectations placed on him. In his tenth year in the United States, Ichiro still uses a translator, which adds a level of mystery to his personality. This makes him an intriguing person to follow, but it also may hurt him as it is yet another disconnect between a player and his fans. That being said, Ichiro is the most unique player the Mariners may ever see, and his popularity is just about the only common knowledge between all Seattlites.
Center Field: Ken Griffey, Jr. vs Franklin Gutierrez
There will never be a player that means as much to the Mariners as Griffey did in the late 1990s. Griffey was the Mariners’ first superstar, a number one pick in 1987. He came up as a rookie in 1989, and The Kid had been an All-Star for 6 straight years going into 1996. Mariners fans were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime talent in Griffey, and his passion for the game combined with immense talent led Griffey to become arguably the most popular Mariner ever.
Gutierrez is a young player in his second year with the Mariners, who has continually improved over the last few years, and it is yet to be seen how high his ceiling can be. He had one of the best defensive seasons of any outfielder ever last year, and his batting stats were also impressive, finishing the year with a .283 batting average. Gutierrez has the potential to become a fan favorite within the next couple of years, as his contract has been extended and he will remain a Mariner for years to come.
I’m leaving left field out of this because in 1996 there was a rotation of a number of players, and it looks to be the same scenario in 2010. Mariners fans were able to grow up with first round superstars in Ken Griffey, Jr and Alex Rodriguez in the 1990s, but the same cannot be said about baseball in Seattle lately. The casual fan was able to relate to players like Dan Wilson, Joey Cora and Jay Buhner, but those personalities don’t exist on the team today. Something can also be said about physical connections within the community. In the past, Jamie Moyer, Dan Wilson, Edgar, Buhner, and Griffey were all known for community service including working with Boys and Girls clubs and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was easier for the casual fan to become familiar with and support the team in the 1990s because of all of these things, and one can only hope that these people will become interested in the stories of newcomers, and hopefully the Mariners of today can begin building a relationship with the fans. With the arrival of another highly touted prospect in Dustin Ackley within the next few years, the Mariners might be able to bring back the magic that was felt throughout the late 1990s.