I only made it up to one Mariners home game during their successful Safeco era around the turn of the millennium. It was this game against the Rangers in July 2000, and the Mariners led 12-0 after three innings. They coasted to victory before an electric, sellout or nearly-sellout crowd. I remember Jay Buhner going deep, I remember the Refuse To Abuse giveaway t-shirts, and I remember there being a lot of the Vengaboys. I remember it being loud, enthusiastic, crowded. Safeco was new. The Mariners were good. What other kind of crowd would there be?
It hasn't been like that for a very long time. I'm given to understand it was like that pretty often, once. I went to a game years ago with Dave and Derek from USSM, and Derek told me about what the Safeco crowds used to be like. They weren't as loud as they could've been, sure, and that gave Safeco a reputation, but people always turned out and the atmosphere was good if the ballgame was good. That went away when the ballgames turned bad. There have been a lot of bad ballgames.
It was in 2004 that I was first able to watch the Mariners on an everyday basis. It was in 2004 that the Mariners came completely apart, and it's taken at least this long to recover. There have been good moments, absolutely, and there have been ups and downs, but for the longest time, if you bought tickets to see the Mariners at Safeco, you'd go home having seen the Mariners lose to the A's 4-0. It never failed. You'd buy tickets and you'd swear the Mariners were playing somebody else, like the Angels or the Blue Jays, but the other team would always be the A's, and the A's would always win by four in a shutout. You would buy tickets to go to Safeco and be actively disinterested in the on-field performance for three hours. Sometimes two and a half hours, if you were lucky. Sometimes three and a half hours, if you were damned. It's not fair to say that Mariners games at home were torture, but people would go to them, spend money to go to them voluntarily, and they'd get zero reward. I've spent many a dreadful night at Safeco, and I honestly haven't spent that many nights at Safeco.
For so long, there wasn't a compelling reason to go to Safeco, unless you were just really into the game of baseball without caring so much about the quality of performance. Felix Hernandez helped, and the King's Court helped, but Felix came around just once every five days, and even then there was the distinct possibility that Felix would pitch his ass off and the Mariners wouldn't support him, and I don't know if that's better or worse than losing with a shitty Ian Snell. I have turned down opportunities to go to Mariners games for free. So have people I know who actually live in Seattle. Given a choice between going to a Mariners game and doing something else, or even doing nothing, few would've opted for the Mariners game, and seldom would they have regretted it.
Dave referred to tonight as a possible turning point. I'm always hesitant about using that term, because "turning point" implies a sudden change in direction and these processes are almost always gradual, but if the Mariners are truly getting better, and if the Safeco atmosphere is truly on the rebound, tonight's is a game people are long going to point to. As we continue to exorcise the demons of Lollablueza, tonight the entire city of Seattle was reminded of what it's like to go to the ballpark and just have a really awesome time. To cheer for a quality team, to feel a vibe like they're playing in the playoffs.
I can't in good conscience not include this paragraph before I go on. The Mariners just beat the Indians 5-1, and right now the Mariners are just four games under .500. They have a better record than the Red Sox. They have a better record than a bunch of other teams too. They seem like they can't lose, and so of course we feel fantastic about everything that's happening. You can't feel cynical on a winning streak. But the Mariners went into the break at 36-51. That was only last month. Only last month, many of us were just waiting for the season to be over. We're still close enough to those feelings that we have to recognize we could end up feeling that way again. Maybe a month from now. Improved play comes with no guarantee of sustainability.
But I can't in good conscience dwell on the substance of that paragraph here, not tonight, not after that game. I've written before about how a winning streak is like a baseball vacation from the baseball norm. That's absolutely true, because the feelings around a winning streak are unrealistic and fantastical. But there are elements of this that could be a part of the new norm, were things to go well. The baseball norm doesn't have to be dreary or tedious. You can take a vacation from a shitty job or a wonderful job, and while the vacation's better than both, it's possible to like the routine, too. It could be routine again for the Mariners to play decent baseball. It could be routine again for the Mariners to draw substantial crowds that make substantial noise.
I can't imagine a better promotion than the Supreme Court tonight. It went over great in theory and in execution, and the Mariners managed to sell nearly 40,000 tickets to a Tuesday night game in August against the Indians. People lined up, people stood up, and people chanted. People gave Felix his due ovations, and remarkably, the crowd remained almost as enthusiastic after Lucas Luetge took over to finish things out. Generally, the King's Court becomes markedly less raucous after the King has been removed. That wasn't so tonight, as the King's Court was much larger, and as we're all getting the sense that the Mariners might actually be playing for something. There were "K!" chants for Lucas Luetge. There was never any letdown. The only problem with the Supreme Court is that they can't just do it over and over and over again, but the Mariners can draw fans on a regular basis if they keep doing what they're doing.
It's a testament to Felix that, after he threw his perfect game, we started considering the possibility that he would come out and throw another perfect game. It's a testament also to human insanity and insatiability. Of course Felix wouldn't throw another perfect game; he's thrown only the one perfect game, and it's also the only one the Mariners have ever had. But a week ago, Felix had zero perfect games, and he's streaking like a motherfucker, and with the whole crowd behind him, yellow like the god damned reflection of the sun off a skyscraper, who knows? "Felix could do it," we said jokingly, and not jokingly at all.
The first batter singled. He singled on an 0-and-2 curveball that got too much of the zone, and he singled on a grounder just under Justin Smoak's glove. In a way it was kind of a relief, as it released any pressure and allowed Felix to just throw a normal ballgame. It was also an indication of just how truly spectacular Felix's last outing was. In a two-strike count, Felix could've made a minor mistake, but he never really did. A grounder in play could've narrowly eluded a defender, but one never did. In that first inning, Felix gave up a groundball single and a flare single to left. Neither was struck authoritatively, and they were singles that just kind of happened. Singles can happen very easily, even when the pitcher does just about everything right. Last week there were no baserunners for nine innings.
What we saw tonight was not dominant Felix. This wasn't the Felix that threw the perfect game, or the Felix that embarrassed the Indians some months ago. This Felix had a walk and five strikeouts; this Felix generated ten swinging strikes. What we saw tonight was merely terrific Felix, throwing a lot of strikes and generally staying ahead, and Felix was one break away from keeping the Indians scoreless into the eighth. Given the history of guys following up perfect games and no-hitters, Felix did better than one might've expected. There easily could've been a letdown and there just never was.
It was funny in a way that the Mariners went and tried to get themselves no-hit by Roberto Hernandez. It wasn't until there were two outs in the bottom of the fifth that the Mariners got their first hit, and it was a home run from Eric Thames. The home run was destroyed - if Thames has just one strength, it is his strength - and I thought about the possibility of the Mariners beating the Indians 1-0 while getting one-hit. I like my baseball to be both entertaining and hilarious, and that would definitely qualify as hilarious. I'm willing to accept the way the Mariners actually went on to win, though. It's less hilarious but more entertaining.
It looked like that one run was going to hold up until the seventh. With one out and men on the corners, Casey Kotchman bounced a double-play grounder up the middle, but the ball took a weird bounce just before it arrived at Brendan Ryan and it escaped into center for a single. The Indians tied the game and they were still threatening to do more, to spoil the evening almost entirely. Wouldn't you know but Felix wouldn't let them do it. In large part because of the Indians themselves. A throwing error by Felix put runners back on the corners. Then Brent Lillibridge pulled back on a suicide squeeze and he instantly remembered why it's called a suicide squeeze. The Indians clusterfucked their way to a second out, and then Lillibridge swung his way to a third out. The Mariners had to try to score again, but it could've been a hell of a lot worse.
And it took minutes for the luck to even out. After Michael Saunders led off the seventh with a walk, Kyle Seager pulled a single off of Kotchman's glove. Kotchman missed hitting into a double play by inches; Kotchman missed turning a double play by inches. John Jaso followed with two-base heroics, because heroic is the only way he knows to be, and then Jesus Montero allowed everyone to feel comfortable by clearing the bases in the way that wasn't hitting into a triple play. Against a fine righty reliever in Esmil Rogers, Montero took a pair of sliders for balls, he took one on the inside edge for a strike, and then he blasted one in the low-inside corner for a three-run dinger that was gone before Montero even got around to making contact. A righty reliever threw Jesus Montero four sliders and Montero ended up with a hitter's count and a homer. It's always best when a rally can achieve its ultimate, empty-bases conclusion, and Montero caused Safeco to explode. Not literally, because then this recap would be way more somber.
That was it. Felix walked a guy in the eighth, but he barely walked him, and he was removed with two outs in part so he could receive a standing ovation. Luetge got out of the jam when Dustin Ackley made an incredible diving stop on a grounder up the middle. Luetge handled the top of the ninth with little problem. The Mariners won their seventh in a row, they moved ahead of the Red Sox, and they even moved up in the wild card standings. I'm personally not paying any attention to those, because I don't even want to introduce the possibility of being disappointed by an encouraging finish, but some of the Mariners are looking at them, and that tells you how the team is feeling. The team feels unbeatable, it thinks it actually has an outside shot at the playoffs, and when I wake up it'll be Wednesday, August 22.
The Mariners didn't hit all that well, but they hit well enough, with Jaso coming up big, Montero coming up big, Thames coming up big, and Saunders coming a terrific Lillibridge catch away from having a solid game of his own. Felix was outstanding when he easily could've been excused for an underwhelming performance. We all would've understood. The ballpark was the best the ballpark has been in years. A lot of them. It's almost football season, it's still Sounders season, and people are talking about the Mariners, with hints of excitement in their voices.
I don't know if this is all going to happen the way we want it to, but it feels like it could, and it feels like we're actually on the way to a destination. A destination of the organization's own design, a destination determined from a plan. The Seattle Mariners could go right back to being a giant pile of crap. Or they could be turning a corner. They've turned some corners before, but they were always just on the same block all along, going in a loop. It feels like this could be a different corner, across the street.