When I was watching the All-Star game yesterday, something struck me. Within a matter of a couple of minutes I saw playing for the National League; Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Philips. They were all wearing the same uniform – of course as you know they all play for the Reds.
But that doesn’t make sense, the Reds stink. Always have. They don’t win and they don’t have more than a couple good players at once, let alone 3 All-Star hitters (plus Arthur Rhodes.) It doesn’t quantify in my head that the Cincinnati Reds could possibly be fielding a team of four All-Stars and then you look at the standings and see that they lead the Cardinals by 1 game in the NL Central.
This also doesn’t make sense, the Cardinals are clearly a better franchise than the Reds! They’ve got Pujols, Carpenter, and Wainwright. They’ve been to two recent World Series and won one. They win the division every year, they are the Cardinals!
Then you look around the league and certainly it seems the times are changing. The Padres lead the NL West by 2 games. But they suck! They can’t score runs and they’ve only got Adrian Gonzalez. And the Rangers lead the AL West by 4.5 games. The Rangers don’t win anything!
But is it really where they "belong?" Is that what these teams truly are? Bottomfeeders?
The Pirates have a rich history that includes 5 championships. As recently as 1992, they were going to their 3rd straight NLCS and were 1 out away from making the World Series. But if you started following baseball after 1992 all you know is that the Pirates have never had a winning season. At least, in your perception they haven’t.
How about the Padres? Well they won back-to-back division titles in 2005-2006. That wasn’t so long ago. But in our minds it might feel like it because the Padres were horrendous in 2008 and very bad in 2009.
And the Royals will always be bad? There was a time, between 1976 and 1985 that the Royals went to the playoffs 7 times and won a World Series. It seems unbelievable now, but the Royals were once a powerhouse of sorts. Just like the Barry Bonds Pirates. Or the Killer B’s Astros. Or the Joe Carter Blue Jays.
Yes, every dog has its day.
Why do I bring any of this up?
Well, the thing with baseball is that it’s long. The games are long. The seasons are long. Nothing happens overnight. Nothing is easy.
Did the Cardinals start winning because they drafted Albert Pujols? Well, it certainly didn’t hurt but one person can’t completely turn around a baseball team. Before Pujols joined the team, they had already won 2 division titles in 5 years under Tony LaRussa. They had built a team of Renteria, Edmonds, Rolen, Carpenter, Woody Williams, Matt Morris, etc. It took years to build that championship-winning team.
How many years has it taken the Rangers to become this competitive? This is the 50th year of the franchise, they’ve gone to the playoffs three times, and they are 1-9 in those games. Between 1996 and 1999 they won those three division titles when their hitting was finally able to outscore their pitching. But when they got to the playoffs, they realized what mattered most.
This season feels different than 1996 though. The hitters could possibly be as talented, but the defense is better and the pitching is young and much better than those Rangers, with more to come. It appears that certainly this could be a competitive stretch for them. And our perception of them, could change. If you were an 11-year-old boy today and you just started following baseball, you’d believe that in fact the Rangers were one of the best franchises in baseball.
Maybe you’d think that the Angels were "just okay." Those same Angels that have been around the same amount of time as the Rangers but been to the playoffs nine times with one championship and five of the last six division titles.
So just what the hell does this have to do with the Seattle Mariners?
I started following the Mariners in the early ‘90s. A lot of people did. They had their first winning season in 1991. They had some kid named Griffey. They had another winning season in 1993. Which makes no sense because "The M’s Suck."
Before division re-alignment in 1994, the M’s had never finished higher than 4th out of 7 teams in their seventeen year history. They finished 6th or 7th eleven times.
But by 1994, the writing was on the wall. This team that had never made the playoffs had a roster constructed of Dan Wilson, Tino Martinez, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Blowers, Alex Rodriguez (partly,) Randy Johnson, Chris Bosio, and Jeff Nelson. That team went 49-63 in the strike-shortened season, but the players were there.
We all know what happened the next season. A couple of additions including Norm Charlton, Joey Cora, and Vince Coleman helped but this was just a team that got older together. That got better together.
Between 1995 and 2001 the M’s made the playoffs 4 times and the ALCS 3 times. That’s when I started following baseball intensely. So what’s my perception of the Seattle Mariners? They’re good. They’re great. And any season in which they aren’t good, they’re simply underperforming.
This season the Padres and Rangers are overperforming, and the M’s simply aren’t doing what they are capable of. What’s the truth of the matter? The Rangers and Padres have better players than we do. How about other teams with better records than us. The Marlins? Yeah, they have better players than we do. The Blue Jays? Better players. The Giants? You guessed it, better players.
It’s not as simple as a team not doing what they’re supposed to do. Is Chone Figgins this bad? No. Is he a lot better? I’m not seeing it. Is he getting unlucky? Sometimes. Is he playing like shit sometimes? Yes.
No matter how you slice it, the catchers, DH’s , second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, first basemen, and left fielders have hit like crap. Love OPS or hate it, the Mariners have just 1 regular player (Ichiro) with an OPS+ over 100 this season. The addition of Russell Branyan as a regular gives us 2. Yippee.
The planning wasn’t poor however. The Mariners could have definitely struck lightning in a bottle this season and be in first place. The addition of Cliff Lee was genius. The additions of Bradley, Figgins, and Kotchman weren’t so bad. If we had gotten career norms out of them, we wouldn’t be in such a big hole. But we didn’t, so we move on. Plan for next season.
The sad part to me would be the kid that started following the Mariners in 2004. "M’s suck!" he or she might say. A last place finish in 5 out of the last 7 years can do that to somebody. They might not be so hopeful year in and year out, like I am.
I remember 2001. That can be a problem. I remember losing Alex Rodriguez and basically replacing his bat with Bret Boone and thinking "this is going to be a tough season."
116 wins later and my entire perception of what’s possible was fucked. Every season is going to be the season we get back on the horse. 2007 fucked us too. Because 2007 showed you can compete for a whole season without really deserving it and then 2008 happens and you’re mind-fucked all over again. And now we sit in this whirlpool of expectations year in and year out.
Expect good from the M’s and you get bad. Expect bad and you get good.
I don’t expect this cycle to last however. I think we can start to expect good, and get good. The Mariners successful teams were in place before they started to actually win. I think our next great stretch run is already in place.
Look at our best players now. Gutierrez is 27. Saunders is 23. Felix is 24. Smoak is 23. Our best players coming up? Ackley and Pineda. Two potential stars. We don’t bank on potential, but I’m fine with filing it away as a "maybe." Vargas and Fister certainly have the potential to be better than any starting pitcher on the late-90’s Mariners this side of Randy and Jamie. While Ichiro is 36, he certainly doesn’t seem to age.
If the Mariners take a decade to turn it around, that’s almost "quick" in baseball terms. Perceptions are being challenged this season with the Reds, and the Rangers, and the Padres. The Padres are almost pulling of an "NFL move" by getting better immediately when nobody expected it. Parity just doesn’t exist in the MLB like it does in the NFL. I mean, the Yankees and Red Sox will always be good right?
Except that the Yankees weren’t very good at all between 1982 and 1992. And between 1919 and 1966 the Red Sox finished in 1st place one time.
I think I bring all of this up because this season is tough. I truly believed that the Mariners would win the division, I really did. I’m the eternal optimist that refuses to quit during a season until I’m almost positive its over. I didn’t give up when we were 8 games back. I always see the 10-game winning streak right around the corner. So it’s especially surprising that I gave up over a month ago and was just praying for the Cliff Lee trade to happen soon so I could look ahead to next season. To the future. And looking to "the future" in baseball is a daunting task because of how long it takes to turn around.
But I believe this turnaround is right around the corner. I believe the Mariners have pieces in place today unlike any that they’ve had since the early ‘90s. Nothing between 2002 and 2008 really suggested we were looking ahead or rebuilding. We had it set that the time was now, that we were good enough, that we had Ichiro and Felix and we don’t need to look ahead. But while we should fight for today, we should also prepare for tomorrow. This is what Jack has been doing since he arrived and while todays fight seems lost, tomorrows fight is hopeful.
I think if there’s an 11-year-old kid that starts watching the Mariners in 2011, he’s gonna say "M’s rule."
I agree kid. The M’s do rule.