If It Goes Right

Please forgive me for the jumbled, scattered talus slope of words below you're about to scramble over and parse for meaning. I haven't planned any part of this out, so this'll basically be a long stream of consciousness, and I don't know where it's going to go or how it's going to get there. It might seem arrogant of me to sit down and assume that I can do this without preparation, but to be honest I don't prepare for most of the things that I write, and this way we all get to explore. Who knows what connections my mind might make! I know that I'm a full-time paid writer, but nowhere in my contract does it state that I have to come up with a well-developed thesis on the day that the Seattle Mariners win the American League West. Not that that would've come even close to mattering until now anyway, but trust me, I just looked at my contract, and all it is is a bunch of sentence fragments reading "money while you blog". There wasn't even anywhere for me to sign. This company has like the world's worst legal team.

I told you this would be scattered. I've barely even mentioned the Mariners. I'm about to continue barely even mentioning the Mariners. This feels weird to write about now, now that another NHL season is just beginning, but there's something I wanted to write about for a long time that didn't feel just right until today. It has to do with the Ottawa Senators, because of course it has to do with the Ottawa Senators. Long-time and probably short-time readers know that I like the Ottawa Senators. If you dislike the Ottawa Senators so much that you can't stand to read about them for a few minutes on the Internet, I recommend you skip a few paragraphs. How many paragraphs? We'll see!

Last season, the Ottawa Senators were supposed to be cellar-dwellers. Not because they were an absolute wreck of a franchise, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, but because they were a franchise in the middle of a rebuild. I'm not going to bother pulling up links, but the Senators were not expected to make the playoffs. Few suspected they'd be relevant after January. They had talent, but every team has talent, and they looked to have less and lesser-developed talent than most.

It was in the spring that I started to see some parallels between the Senators and the Mariners. The Senators were once a very bad team. Then they became a consistently good team. There were a few years they might've been the best team. Then they fell on hard times and started to make things over. They didn't fall on hard times for quite as long as the Mariners had, but we're just looking for general similarities. Let's not mind the particulars.

In 2011-2012, the Senators were a younger team with a few established older players. They got destroyed early on. Real bad. Embarrassingly bad. All of their flaws were exposed. Then the weirdest thing happened - they started to win. Quite often! The wins weren't always the best wins, but they were wins, and the Senators were collecting points at a rate exceeding the projections.

The Senators generated attention, which is something the Senators have never really done, like the Padres or somebody else a lot like the Padres. I remember a front-page article on our own SBNation.com titled something like "What Is Going On In Ottawa?" that caught me off guard because people were talking about the Senators, and they were talking about the Senators winning. The Senators weren't supposed to be winning, not yet.

This is going on longer than I intended it to, so to shave an expansive story down - the Senators cooled off, and the Senators had some slumps, but they also had some winning streaks, and they remained relevant for the duration. They remained more than that, actually, unless relevance is a binary thing which you either are or are not. The young, rebuilding Senators put themselves in position to claim a playoff spot. And with a couple weeks left in the regular season, they clinched. The supposed-to-be-last-place Ottawa Senators set themselves up for a first-round date with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

For a surprise team, the Senators were carried in what I consider to be an unusual way. They weren't one of those surprising teams that leans on depth and unanticipated breakouts. They were a surprise team carried by the players everybody knew were the team's best players at the start of the season. For a full year, the best players played like the best players. The players behind them played well enough. It turns out that's a recipe for success in the National Hockey League.

And it turns out that's a recipe for success in Major League Baseball. In the spring, when I started to notice potential parallels between the Senators and the Mariners, I drew mental links between players on each roster. Then you look at the way it all shook out...I apologize if this is going to leave you completely lost, but Ichiro's like Daniel Alfredsson. Felix is like Jason Spezza. Dustin Ackley is like Erik Karlsson. I guess Jesus Montero is like Milan Michalek. And Justin Smoak is like Craig Anderson. General similarities, again. Not particulars.

If you've waded through all of that hockey talk, and you don't give two shits about hockey, congratulations, and also thank you, I appreciate it. The point, distilled into far fewer words, is this: when the Senators made the playoffs, they made me believe in the 2012 Mariners. They blazed a mental trail along which the Mariners could find their way to the ALDS. Now the Mariners are going to the ALDS. Two teams in similar places before their respective seasons; two teams in similar places six months into their respective seasons. They did it in much the same way, but with the Mariners facing and beating even longer odds. I've never been so lucky. Hell, forget about Ottawa. Even considering just the Mariners, I've never been so lucky.

Having gone through the last six months, having lived those six months day to day to motherfucking day, I think we've all kind of forgotten how people thought of this Mariners team in the spring, and in the winter. Opinions changed during the season. Opinions improved during the season - slowly at first, faster at second. But before the season, the Mariners were given zero shot. No shot at all. Not even at the second wild card slot. The five playoff teams were going to be some arrangement of the Rangers, Angels, Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Maybe the Indians would surprise and fight the Tigers. Maybe the Royals would surprise and fight the Tigers. Maybe the Blue Jays would finish something other than .500 for the first time in 17 years. I haven't fact-checked that statistic but I can't imagine that it could be false. There were a few teams noted as possible sleepers, below the big six. The Mariners weren't one of them. The Mariners entered the season better than the Orioles, but the Mariners entered the season with the same shot as the Orioles. It wasn't a shot. Projections alternated between listing the Mariners' playoff odds as "0%" or "No".

Flash back and you remember that the Mariners opened against the A's in Japan. There were a number of reasons why that opening series was handled in the way that it was, but if you took a step back, it was fitting. The 2012 regular season began with the Mariners and the A's, but it began with the Mariners and the A's playing in another country in the middle of the night. Nobody paid attention. When the regular season resumed the next week, nobody remembered that it wasn't Opening Day. The Mariners and the A's were given the first two games, but their first two games were essentially invisible, as the Mariners and the A's were considered invisible. If either got any positive attention for its 2012 product, it was the A's, on account of Yoenis Cespedes and possibly, eventually Manny Ramirez. The Mariners were just a team that you didn't have to think about too hard to know that it wouldn't be good.

In fairness, the Mariners weren't good for some time. They lived down to expectations out of the chute. They didn't win games. They didn't score runs. We all remember the humiliation of Yu Darvish's debut. Well into April, the Mariners looked like the Mariners, and the Angels looked like how the Angels were supposed to look and the Rangers looked like how the Rangers were supposed to look. It's a distant memory now, but also a familiar memory: at the beginning of the season, we thought this would be just another unpleasant season. The word "unpleasant" comes quickly, without much thought, but it's perfect - there were some Mariners seasons that were just unpleasant to follow. The Mariners made baseball unpleasant.

The narrative, of course, is that the Mariners did a 180 when they torched Justin Verlander that evening in Detroit. I don't think that's the day the Mariners went from being a bad team to being a good team, but that certainly looks like a turning point in retrospect. The Mariners went in in a slump and emerged with the first of six consecutive wins. Sports psychology is tricky and too often worthless, but if the Mariners want to believe that's when the light blub turned on, I'm not going to argue with them.

It's amazing how ready even the most cynical mind is to embrace a potentially worthwhile team. In 2011, we wrote the season off, and then Luis Rodriguez allowed us to feel for a handful of months. In 2012, we wrote the season off, and then one game and a subsequent winning streak allowed us to feel. I'm not trying to be overly simple, here. In 2008, and in 2010, and for much of the end of 2011, I didn't feel a lot when it came to Mariners baseball. The Mariners were a thing that was on that I had to write about before I went to bed. Then they started winning, and emotion returned, emotion the existence of which I always doubted when things were going poorly. I don't know how many times I sat down and wondered if I even still cared just a little bit. Most fans of bad teams probably get to that point. Some fans probably get to that point and step off the rollercoaster. What I and all of us found was that we cared all along - we just didn't know how to let the emotion out. It was squirreled away in a safe, with DEFENSE MECHANISM engraved on the lid. The key to the lock was success. Winning Mariners baseball allowed us to remember that we care very much about Mariners baseball.

I'm looking at the little word count indicator in the editorial screen and for some reason I'm impressed instead of horrified. This is miserable writing that an editor would reduce to a fifth, but I don't have an editor so the best I can do is remind myself to get back on track. Once the Mariners started playing successful baseball, it was funny how unsurprising it felt, nevermind all the preseason expectations. It was unsurprising because the players who were good players were the players who were supposed to be good players. I'm thinking again of the Ottawa parallels. Felix was good. Duh. Ackley was good. Why wouldn't he be good? Montero was good, and Smoak was good, and Ichiro was good, and it wasn't hard to imagine in March that all of these players would be productive.

So when they were productive, it felt like things were just going according to plan. Which, in a way, they were. Every single team in spring training has a plan. If things follow that plan, the team will succeed, and often reach the playoffs. Things don't often follow those plans, because those plans tend to be optimistic, but when the plans are followed, it just makes baseball feel really simple. "Oh, the Mariners' good players are playing like good players. No wonder the Mariners are rising in the standings."

The talent, it turns out, was always there. I remember one March night at a bar in Scottsdale, when I was sitting next to Dave. Dave asked me what my expectations were for Montero in 2012. My response, in so many words, was that he'd hit for good power. I thought Smoak would hit for good power, too. I thought Carp would hit for some power. I thought Ackley would hit, just. And while Ichiro's outlook was mysterious, I was feeling positive, and now I think I'm just repeating myself. This is a terrible habit. You'd think Neyer would've beaten it out of me by now.

The Mariners' good players were good players. You could say that was the easy part. What might be most remarkable is that, unlike other recent Mariners teams, this Mariners team didn't end up getting hurt by black holes. Every offseason we'd say "if the Mariners can just eliminate their black holes..." and then the Mariners would have black holes. Not this year. People were worried about Chone Figgins. Figgins has worked just fine as the new McLemore. People were worried about Franklin Gutierrez. Gutierrez has been extremely helpful. People were worried about Miguel Olivo. The bar is low for catchers, and Olivo's done enough.

Assemble a team with a group of good players and a bigger group of supporting players, and you have a contending team not unlike the 2011 Diamondbacks. Once people understood how the Mariners were doing what they were doing, it all seemed so simple. People loved the Rangers, because the Rangers were loaded with big-name talent. People loved the Angels, because the Angels were loaded with big-name talent. The Mariners had talent the whole time. It just wasn't big-name talent, yet.

I'd be a fool not to acknowledge the suspense of the stretch run, but we don't need to re-live all of the nervousness that we just a few hours ago released out the window. The August sweep in Anaheim was the best I'd felt all season. The August sweep by Minnesota was the worst I'd felt all season. Then to come back and rattle off nine wins in ten games...I don't think the Mariners proved at that point that they were resilient, but they refused to wallow, and thereby refused to let us wallow.

These last few weeks - I know the Rangers were practically crippled by their injuries, but effectively knocking them out of the race satisfied every square inch of my being. And then this series. With the division already locked up, to sweep the Angels, at home, to keep them from the wild card by the narrowest of margins...this doesn't make up for everything the Angels did to the Mariners in years past, but all of that damage is now bookended by 1995 and 2012. Congratulations on having been successful, Angels. I bet you wish Ervin Santana hadn't thrown that slider to Jesus Montero. You'll be seeing that slider in your nightmares. I'll be framing that slider on my wall. I'll be tattooing that slider on my neck.

This whole post is a disorganized heap of tattered emotions. Tattered only because I worked them all raw. The Mariners just knocked the Angels out of the playoffs earlier today, and I don't feel like I fully appreciate it yet. The Mariners won the AL West, and I don't feel like I fully appreciate it yet. I don't know if I'm ever going to. Maybe the Mariners will get swept by the Tigers and it'll all just be part of the blur of another baseball season gone by. I don't know how to make myself appreciate things more. Maybe it's impossible. Maybe you can never appreciate things as much as you want to be able to, and maybe that's our curse.

What I know is that, if this does just all end up being part of the blur of another baseball season gone by, the season will have lasted just a little longer, the blur being just a little blurrier. Because the Mariners are going to play at least three more baseball games, and as many as 19 more baseball games. I wish that I could go back and tell myself in March that this was going to happen. On second thought, no I don't.

The 2012 regular season began with low expectations, an invisible opening series, and horrible PR after the whole Howard Lincoln letter. At that point, the Mariners could've been on course for a complete and utter catastrophe. Maybe they were. But that's not the course they followed. I rather prefer the actual course instead. I'm going to go outside now and think about the Mariners without writing about the Mariners. I think that I'll wear my jersey.

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