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Thoughts on the 2009 Mariners

This is not a review of the 2009 season, per se. Although I will touch on certain things that happened during the season, this is not meant to be a comprehensive review of each player, their contributions, their triumphs and defeats, steps forward or back. What follows is a collection of thoughts that went through my head after I got home after the final game of the 2009 season and just started writing. I tried to organize it into something resembling a linear flow. If it’s obtuse and unclear, blame my no talent editor.

Now then, it is not unusual to overindulge in things that we enjoy. Unfortunately that often leads to a predictable downfall, a numbness if you will, to that very thing that we are supposed to be enjoying. Baseball is no exception. Its 162-game regular season plus month of Spring Training can all reduce to becoming background noise after awhile. It certainly happens to me at times. That is why I try to take some time at the conclusion of every season to ponder and reflect on the last seven months as I head into the dark abyss of the offseason and a pattern of shortening daylight hours.

I liken the 2008 season to being a senior in high school and dealing with a long-term relationship, with the Mariners playing the role of significant other. I knew we were parting ways at the end, and by May, we had emotionally distanced ourselves, but the pure inertia of the relationship meant that we spent all summer pretending to care about each other. The whole time our eye was on the calendar, anxiously awaiting the flipping of the months. We were trying to move on, trying to ignore that you existed and prepare ourselves for the exciting and fearsome new future, but we still had a daily reminder that you were sticking around for the short-term future.

Faced with the reality that we could not speed up time, we made the best of it. Or, not really. To be fully honest, we sort of cheated on you a bit, but I swear it didn't mean anything to us, and come on, you knew what things were at that point! We just wanted to get a small taste of October play and we may have lashed out at you unfairly waiting for that to occur. We're sorry, at least a little bit. Kind of.

At the end of it all, what we desperately needed was change, any change. Yes, some of us were (rightfully) terrified at the prospect of continued, or even a completely new brand (cough, Randy Smith, cough) of mediocrity and idiocy. However, for the most part, there was a sense, despite how we joked about it throughout 2008, that we had a much better chance of moving upward rather than finding new ways to express that there really was no floor.

Still, you never can be sure and years of disappointment have conditioned some of us, certainly myself, to… maybe not expecting the worst, but to keep the hopes and excitement in check until it's a sure thing. I can give no better example of this than to relate it to other sports. For example, during Sounders away games, I would be in a lively bar and if the Sounders managed to hit the back of the net, everyone around me would go nuts instantly. Meanwhile, I stayed glued to the monitor, scoping out the body language of the players and the ref. Is offsides about to be called? Was play stopped right before for some reason? A full 10 seconds would pass before I was 100% sure that the goal stood. Then I would flip out.

Years and years of heartache from all sort of different angles go into building up a conditioning like that, and it would take far far more than just the firing of Bavasi to put a dent to it. Even through the GM search, when the names were mostly good, I held back. Even after we had our GM and the public parts of our organization named, and I was pleased, I held back. Even after I heard about Blengino overseeing a group devoted to statistical based analysis and an enlarging use of video scouting, I was melting a bit but still held back. Then I got word of who was being hired behind the scenes and I got satisfied, even a little incredulous, but I still held back.

That’s when the player moves started and perhaps that is why it seemed we here did such a turnaround from the doom and gloom of the Bavasi-era to hyperexcitability about even the more mundane of Zdurencik's moves (another injured closer candidate? Hot damn!). It's because for the first time in, well, ever, I had a peek into the inner workings of the machine controlling the team that we so irrationally devote so much of our lives toward and it was comforting instead of frightening. No longer did I have to settle into bed each night after praying for the continued employment of Brian Sabean to help spare us from Bavasi’s misguided ideas. I had confidence and that was new. See, it wasn't always us being excited about the move itself, but rather what drove the move, what the move meant about who was calling shots and what their plan was. We got to be baptized in the waters of intelligent analysis so to speak and the sins of the past administration were washed away. I was not holding back anymore.

As the start of 2009 neared and rosters began to take on a semi-solid shape, the projections trickled in and wouldn't you know it, but the Mariners, a team that lost 101 games the season prior, were not that big of an underdog. Sure, a big reason for that was that at the time the AL West looked decidedly mediocre. I didn’t care. Ask Padre fans (if you can find some) if they cared about getting to the playoffs with 82 wins, or Cardinal fans about 83 wins. Just get in, that's what mattered, and the numbers showed the Mariners to be closer to that possibility than many could have imagined just a few months before. It was going to take a magical season on the field though.

This season didn't end up having that storybook ending. Despite an early 15-10 record and a division lead, the team didn't rally behind Griffey and a redemptive Erik Bedard to the playoffs. Instead, Erik Bedard got hurt like he always does, except worse, leaving us to wonder for another year if the Erik Bedard era in Seattle is over. Now a year plus removed from the taint of Bill Bavasi, and with the greatness of Franklin Gutierrez helping to balm the sting of losing Adam Jones, I'm no longer mad about the trade and what we lost out on. I am, instead, just genuinely sad for Bedard.

I am also willing to move forward without giving it another thought, except Bedard kept issuing these seemingly well-meaning public statements about wanting to stay in Seattle. If left me to ponder; why? Yeah, Safeco is a great pitcher's park on its own, its dimensions are perfectly suited to you and our outfield can make you look even better than you did in 2007. Maybe that's all there to it. Maybe he's just blowing smoke as so many people do. I like to think though that maybe he wants to stay because he wants to prove something to people here. To prove to us and maybe to himself as well, that he was worth trading for, worth being excited about. There would be something so achingly identifiable in that.

Erik Bedard was not the only injury casualty this season. Adrian Beltre didn't have a resurgent 2004-esque season to finally get the adoration that his defense has deserved for so long. Instead, he struggled as much as ever and battled serious injuries all season. He even suffered the ignominy of a ruptured/shattered/ohmygodIhavetostopthinkingaboutit testicle caused by his own tragic insistence on not wearing proper protection on the field. Did I mention that he finished the game in which that injury occurred? And that he played through immensely painful bone spurs in his shoulder? Adrian Beltre appears fun loving from his mocking of Griffey and dancing to his own introduction music. He has quirky histrionics at the plate including his own appeals and a shuffle dance at breaking pitches. He's an art form with the glove. Who cannot relate to the person with an under heralded talent they feel is not appreciated enough? And he gives it all, every last drop, on the field. More than maybe any player aside from Ichiro, Beltre deserves appreciation from local fans for his combination of skills and effort. I just want to meet him in person so I can give him a big hug and let him know that some of us, not just Red, think he’s awesome.

Even the team's arguably biggest success story, Russell Branyan, got hurt and was unable to play the final six weeks of the season. We never got to fully congratulate him on his season or thank him for his help in keeping the team relevant so long into the season. Instead, we’re left with question marks as to his health and efficacy heading into free agency and whether we should pursue re-signing him and the gaping hole in power for our team if we do not.

On the trading front, moves for Jack Wilson, Bill Hall and Ian Snell didn't see them find their old grooves in a fresh environment. Instead, they managed to find deeper and more terrible grooves. Kenji Johjima did not prove himself worthy of his retarded contract extension but rather lost a significant amount of playing time to a guy who has trouble holding onto fastball strikes at his eye level. Jose Lopez hit over 40 doubles and 25 long fly balls to left field that cleared the wall, good to great numbers for a second baseman, but he also got on base barely 30% of the time and was thus merely an average hitter. This team had their share of hardships and plenty of flaws, some of them ultimately tragic, but the presence of those flaws also endeared the team to me.

See, I was nine years old when the movie "Little Big League" came out and I, being a huge baseball nut and a retarded child, demanded to go see it. The ending to that movie, when Griffey makes the leaping catch to prevent the Twins from reaching the playoffs*, always stuck with me. Not just because it involved the Mariners, it was 1994, and here was a movie showing a Seattle team actually winning something at a time when all anyone talked about was the upcoming strike that would kill interest in baseball while our home park was doing its best to literally kill us off. No, it stuck with me because even at that age, I could tell it was different. That wasn't how kid-geared movies were supposed to end. It was like if 101 Dalmatians had ended with Cruella De Vil skinning 20 of the puppies while the rest escaped. Yeah, most of them were unharmed, but that's still a downer. "Don't care," said this movie, "we're not having your sepia-toned dripping with sentimentality family-approved ending." I loved it for that, but I might be wired weird.

(*You finally got your win, Twins fans! Hope it was fun.)

This team was an underdog coming into the season and in the end it came up quite short; it was not to be. They needed an absolutely perfect season to dent late October play and didn't get it. So it ends, but none of that matters right now. For all that went wrong, so much went right. It wasn't perfect, but part of me is happy about that*. I'm not sure what it was like to go through what Rockies fan went through in 2007 when they reeled off that insane beyond-Hollywood end to the season, but part of me thinks that it must have felt a little fake, a little scripted. Right up until the point where they got utterly demolished by the Red Sox in the World Series. Then, yeah, it must have felt a lot like how I feel now.

(*Do not mistake this to mean that I would not have been overjoyed had the 2009 Mariners won a World Series. Don't be stupid, of course I would have been.)

It's funny that in retrospect, the most controversial move discussed the entire offseason might have been Ken Griffey Jr's return. We here were pretty pleased by the J.J. Putz trade return, many of those from not 'round these parts were not. There was not much to say until the season started on that matter though and once it did begin, it became quickly apparent just how much of a steal that trade turned out to be. And the various budget free agent signings were mostly ignored.

But the debate and the ensuing drama surrounding the whole Griffey saga was ever-lasting and drove people to emotional depths I doubt some of them even knew they had when it came to Mariners baseball in 2009. Whether they were nostalgia for the times gone by, hope for a renewed season of glory, hatred of already present sentimentality, distrust of the personality or any of the other myriad of possible reactions, there was no more talked about move, well before it was official even, this winter.

What I find fascinating is just how the whole process ended up. Could anyone, I mean literally anyone, have predicted the effect that Griffey would have on this clubhouse?

"He's the only teammate I would ever let do that. In Japan, all relationships are respectful, so no one would ever do that to me," Ichiro said. "If someone else did it here, I'd probably punch them in the face."

-Ichiro Suzuki, on Ken Griffey Jr tickling him during stretching routines.

It broke me down a little inside to see Griffey bring Ichiro to a completely new level of happiness. We knew that Ichiro cared a whole lot about team success; nobody who gets an ulcer during a team competition, national or not, is getting one because he only cares for himself. However, it seemed like Ichiro had built a wall around him in Seattle, buffered with bizarre and fanciful media quotes that only acted like a moat to keep really substantive looks inside Ichiro the person at bay. It was clear though from his demeanor during the WBC, his livelier attitude when in Japan, his famed All-Star speeches and other small clues that there was this version of Ichiro in there. We just hadn't seen it in Seattle before.

Along comes Griffey and right away, things start to radically change. He goes out of his way to have Ichiro's back, directs probing questions to himself and demands reporters stop pestering Ichiro about last year's clubhouse. Rather than never hearing anything about Ichiro and other teammates in the beat stories, suddenly we had an almost endless stream of interaction between Junior and Ichiro.

It was as if Ichiro had been waiting his whole career for Griffey to come along and be in the same clubhouse as him to bring this out. And Griffey had needed his whole career for it to sink in how much he meant to this city. A perfect match at a perfect time, it seems so surreal in a way, and that's incredibly tough to give up as a fan. It was a connection to not just the team, but to two marquee players, one present and one past. It was a connection to a history that has been over-commercialized to death and turned many of us cynical about any references to it, but that history still exists and is wonderful and was somehow made tangible again. To acknowledge that said connection has likely ended is difficult. I was just beginning to appreciate it. For however hard it is for me, it's probably 100 times harder for either of them to acknowledge. I am just so glad that should it be now that it ends, that it ended with them riding off together, on the backs of their teammates, wearing grins and at least one of them fighting back tears.

This was an outwardly emotional team even beyond those two. I suppose last year was too, but it was 90% negative emotion and nobody except Hot Topic feebs enjoy being around that much negative emotion. We mention frequently that above all else, we want a team that wins. Damn the players, attitudes, etc that goes into it. We want to win. I'm not going back on those statements, but this past season has made me open my eyes a little more to the positives that come from being able to enjoy the season even with an unlikely postseason berth.

Even without the almost overbearing amount of happiness and funtainment this team produced, enough to single handedly power away the autumn rains until October, the change that I mentioned earlier was enough to produce a group of players that I found myself constantly energized to follow. The bullpen was one giant new question mark, we had new hitters all over the place and remarkably some of them were quite good. There was a time when our rotation consisted of Felix (Whoo!), Washburn (how long can he keep this up?!), Rowland-Smith (whoo), Bedard (please stay heal-aw dammit) and Vargas (… I like your changeup…). There was no Batista, no Silva, no Horacio Ramirez, no Joel Pineiro, no Ryan Franklin; nobody that I hated. There were even four lefties to boot, always a plus in my left-handed book.

That would have been good enough, but they went above and beyond all that with a display of solidarity and camaraderie so opposite, so completely turned around from last year that you would have thought they were filming an infomercial for some hokey hemorrhoid relief cream or something. All that pain Before and now here's After! What a difference. It drew me in because as much as I love winning (I really, really love it), I also love seeing a team that enjoys being together, especially a group that inhabits so much of your life because then you get to feel like you are a part of it as well. From Sweeney and Griffey getting everyone involved on the bench, to the bullpen's 300 fetish and line dancing antics, to Miguel Batista's lonesomeness, they acted like a group of guys that regardless of it being their job, liked hanging around each other*. And that's an infectious attitude, it can make things brighter just being on the periphery.

(*Well, except for the Miguel Batista part)

Which brings me to Felix. I cannot say anything better than Jeff can and since he just recently wrote several thousand words on Felix, I'll try to keep my thoughts a bit pithier.  One angle that I personally think was understated concerning the emotional connection with Felix is when it comes to his very prominent emotional side. I love it and it connects him to me in a way even beyond what others have mentioned. It's the same reason Freddie Ljungberg is my favorite Sounder. It's why I could never get seriously upset at Felix for losing his cool so often when he was younger and why, when he records a monster strikeout and just lets loose with one of those battle roars, I want to go out and conquer Greenland or something. It's passion, and to me, that's the whole point of sports, as a relatively harmless way to release those passions.

There's something magical when a pitcher dominates. It's greater theater than when a hitter is on a tear since the hitter still has eight other teammates that have to take their turn in order. The pitcher stands there, tall on the mound, the center of attention and he dictates the game. It gives him the opportunity to carry a team on his back as Felix has done at times. He has given us tastes of some incredible experiences and glimpses into what the future might hold. I don't want to give that up. It's Felix Day dammit, it's special.

Much uncertainty lies ahead; let us not act as if it does not. A winter of questions about Felix, Beltre, Bedard, Griffey, Branyan, Lopez, our pathetic offense, the left side of our infield, our rotation, etc looms. Change brings another year of age on Ichiro, whatever that might actually mean. Change sucks.

But change also brought us these past 12 months. Just as change has, and uses, the power to destroy, change has the power to create. It is why, with one eye holding just a hint of tear for the fun and entertainment that made up 2009, I am turning my other eye toward 2010. May it bring us just as much joy and perhaps even end with the same walk around Safeco Field, a little later in the calendar year.