The last in a four-part series
Sometimes in life you become so accustomed to things working out in one way that you forget what surprises feel like. Sometimes it gets to the point where you forget that there are even two potential outcomes, instead of just the one that sucks. You get caught in a rut of bad luck and start expecting more of it at every turn. Maybe it's doing poorly on presentations. Maybe it's having lousy first dates. Maybe it's one illness constantly turning into another without offering the slightest bit of relief. Bad things start happening one after another, and before long you're left dejected and pessimistic, always assuming that the next seemingly hopeful opportunity will inevitably lead to another letdown.
It's a terrifyingly vicious cycle, and one with which we've become all too familiar as Mariner fans over the past several seasons. From the stream of busted pitching prospects to the 2001 season that ended too soon to the three consecutive last place finishes, we just haven't had much reason to expect good things to start happening to us. It usually reads like a joke - "watch Bavasi turn around and trade Felix for a reliever haha" - but deep down, at its most fundamental level, it isn't one. It's an observation of how poorly we've had it and, if history's any indication, how poorly we'll continue to have it. Mariner fans have been conditioned to expect disappointment wherever they look, and coming into the season, there was never any indication that the trend was about to reverse.
That's why so many people were hesitant to get excited after the team won its first four series. That's why Safeco remained below full capacity when the team finished May in first place. That's why hordes of fans lined up to say "I told you so" when Felix had the elbow scare in that game in Toronto. And that's why, down the stretch, even with the team in favorable position, there was still a feeling of imminent disaster. Mariner fans are always preparing for the worst. It's not our fault - it's just how we've been raised, and you know what they say. People don't change. There was a quiet, unspoken confidence that somehow, some way, the Mariners were going to break what was left of our hearts all over again.
And sure enough, they came real damn close. Going into September three games up on both Anaheim and Oakland was nice, and sweeping the Angels in four games on their own turf to push them out of the race gave the team a much better shot, but even still, the lingering apprehension was almost suffocating, and our fears became realized when almost at the drop of a hat, everyone on the roster forgot how to play. A 4.5-game lead over Oakland turned into 3.5, which turned into 2.5, which turned into 2, which turned into 1. All of a sudden, with two left to play, the M's were ice cold and the A's were on fire, and it looked like God was playing a horrible joke by 1995'ing the team that invented the term. That's how it has to happen, right? There are always newer and crueler ways to taste defeat, and the Mariners have been particularly creative in letting us sample them all.
Surely, we said, the A's would win game #161. And they did. Handily. The pressure was on the Mariners to snap their four-game losing streak and keep their division lead, and surely, we said, they'd find a way to choke.
But they didn't.
On the final Sunday of the season, both teams had 1:05pm start times. Surely, we said, the A's would jump out to a big lead and put all the pressure on the Mariners to prevent an epic meltdown and a one-game playoff. And they did. Leading 7-1 after three innings certainly counts as a comfortable cushion. The M's game, meanwhile, was still scoreless. Surely, we said, Washburn would fall apart and give the Rangers the lead.
But he didn't.
Surely, we said, the offense would keep swinging through everything McCarthy put near the plate.
But they didn't.
Surely, we said, Putz'll find a way to struggle for the first time all year long and blow this save.
But he didn't.
And surely, we said, there must be some electronic mistake with the Safeco scoreboard, because at that very moment it read "SEATTLE MARINERS, 2007 AL WEST CHAMPIONS!"
But there wasn't.
And slowly, ever so slowly, it began to dawn on us that this is what it feels like to be pleasantly dumbstruck. No reason to be cynical. No reason to be despondent. No reason to be snarky. The automatic defense mechanisms we'd all developed over the previous several seasons were nowhere to be seen; it was almost as if the entire Mariner community was gathered in a huge room looking at each other, shrugging and speechless, everyone wearing the same stupid expression of gleeful confusion. And it stayed like that for what felt like an eternity until one guy in a Felix jersey in the middle shouted "CHAMPIONS! WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" and the party started.
Looking back, and conditioning aside, it was the perfect ending. The fans who stuck with this team through all the pain and all the agony were given an incredible reward, the sort that'd make you say "it's totally worth all the losing" if it weren't so cliche. To pull out the division title just when it seemed like everything was slipping away is almost inexplicably amazing, sort of the team-wise equivalent of striking out Albert Pujols with the bases loaded to end a game. There weren't many people who stayed with the Mariners for every pitch during their run of last-place finishes, but for those who did, this feels like a World Series, even if it's nothing close. Just because there's only one final champion in this league doesn't mean there's only one thing to celebrate, and if you ask the city of Seattle, they're going to be enjoying this for a while, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks.
There'll be plenty of time to reflect on this summer's individual successes after the playoffs are through, so I'll leave most of that for another day. That said, this team wouldn't be where it is today if not for the progressive and exciting development of many of its young players, who carried the roster on their collective back when it seemed like the veterans were wearing down. I'm not just talking about Felix's Cy Young-caliber performance or Lopez's 21 homers, either; I'm talking about Betancourt cutting his errors in half, Morrow coming up huge in the eighth inning, and Reed seemingly delivering clutch hit after clutch hit off the bench. For the most part, youth was able to fill all the gaps on the roster and make this an effective and rock-solid unit. In this day and age of trading and market inflation, being able to solve your problems internally is huge, and portends extremely well for the future.
Of course, for the first time in forever, the only future we have to worry about right now is the future that comes this October, instead of next April. The Mariners may not be favored against the Yankees this time, but maybe it's better that way - they've been underdogs all year long, and what better way to exorcise the demons that've been haunting us since 2001? Just like the last game of the regular season, this is the perfect setup, and where a week ago any one of us would've predicted a Yankee sweep, now things are different. Now there's actually a reason to hope, a legitimate reason, one other than hoping for hope's sake. Our cold, bitter world's been turned upside down, and all of a sudden the sun is shining again, and none of us is quite sure yet how to respond.
Maybe people don't change. Maybe, once the initial shock of winning the division wears off, we'll all go back to predicting doom and gloom in time for the start of the ALDS. But circumstances do change, sometimes for the better, and for the first time in years we might be able to bitch and complain all the way to a championship.
Here's to the playoffs.