The fun thing about sportswriting is that, when players dramatically underperform the expectations you set for them, it feels like they’re personally burning you. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed more in the past six months than stringing together words about the Mariners—and when they make me feel stupid, even momentarily, I can’t not feel a certain level of vitriol.
Honestly, I’d forgotten about this feeling, one I experienced being there at Safeco both Monday and Tuesday night. I’ve felt it before, more years ago than I wish it were. When I was in college, at the University of Montana, I wrote a blog on the Griz. The football team was quite good when I was there—and almost always, really—but they didn’t break all the way through to the FCS National Championship until my senior year.
I didn’t like that team as much as I do the M’s, not the football team at least, but I covered and followed them closely. And when they made that national championship game my last year there, my friends and I decided to thoroughly take the whole experience in—we bought tickets maybe just a couple days beforehand, loaded up one guy’s mid-90s camper van and drove the 2,050 miles between Missoula, Montana and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
We did it non-stop, and slept the night before the game in a Wal-Mart parking lot. But, after an afternoon of SEC-country tailgating, we were ready to go once gametime rolled around. The Griz were not. They played like shit, losing to Richmond 24-7.
And as I stared out at the field, in disbelief, I felt furious. After how much I’d written over four years, and how much we’d traveled just to get to this game—it felt personal. It felt, foolishly, as though this were something they’d done to me in playing so terribly.
On the drive home the next morning, still fueled by a middle-of-the-night stop at Waffle House, I penned some absurd opus on how I was glad that was my last Griz football game as a student because of the performance that was put forth. The post never went live. Before we stopped someplace with wifi, rain leaked through the roof and onto the table where my laptop was sitting, zapping the thing—fitting, and certainly for the better.
But as dumb as that was, there's one thing I can glean from that, and conclude with to wrap up this way-overly-extended intro: sometimes, in judging what the hell's going on, just look out at the field. Look at what's happening, and realize that the quickest way for it not to is for the players to do something they aren't. Nathan illustrated this point perfectly in a post earlier this week on the Mariners' best lefties flailing away against a mediocre starter—but it's one that can't be underscored enough.
I understand why some individuals are quick to pull the "Fire Jack and sell the team!" trigger. Would I enjoy a better first baseman, Nick Franklin being swapped for a center fielder and another $25 million on the payroll? Absolutely.
But in the off-season, the organization built a roster that figured to be about a .500 team. Now, they could win more, and they could win less. But that variance between the floor and the ceiling isn't there only because of black magic and bad luck. It's what the players do on the field day-in and day-out.
It's tossing a game-ending grounder over your second baseman's head. It's bobbling a ball at third that greatly reduces the other team's chances of scoring. It's not getting a man in from 90 feet away with less than two outs but freely putting an opponent in that position by handing out a walk. It's tipping your cap to journeymen starters like they were Roger Clemens.
I know this sounds a lot like "just play better!" and it partially is, with the obvious rebuttal being "Well maybe the Mariners should've acquired players capable of doing what's needed," but I'm not asking for players to do anything they're incapable of doing. I mean, Justin Smoak doesn't have to lead the league in doubles, but can't he at least get the ball out of his glove when the game's on the line?
And then, of course, how do you hedge against the Aprils currently being put up by Brad Miller, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager? Have a young talented middle infielder ready to push them? Maybe sign a cheap vet to serve as a platoon partner when an extra day off is needed? Yeah, about that.
Saying the blame for skids like the one the Mariners' just endured falls at the feet of Lloyd McClendon, Jack Zduriencik and the upper brass is to admit the players themselves were incapable of preventing it. And that's not true.
This isn't meant as some type of defense for how this team is being run, because there are certainly flaws and some mistakes being made by those not on the field; it's just a reminder that if you want to cast blame, it's good to start with those most capable of fostering change.
Really, that in itself is the biggest reason for optimism, among those who can muster it. In looking solely at the trio mentioned above—Miller, Cano and Seager—you have miles of room for improvement, and impact. We've focused so much on what they're doing now and what it means for the longterm future, but hell—I'm ready to start seeing that now, and believe we will. I'm less certain about the boneheaded plays, but you'd have to hope the luck helps there at some point.
While it's easy to say "you just described natural regression," I wonder what Kyle Seager would say about about that, having put in hours upon hours with Howard Johnson in an effort to find a rhythm that's been missing for near half a season. Did it feel natural, like something that would inevitably happen, when that second bomb of the day left the yard?
The Mariners have players capable of putting in the work and having the focus to get things pointed in the right direction. And whether or not that happens is up to them—more than anyone else.