One of my favorite things about baseball is how closely the lifecycle of the year's season mirrors the actual changes with the weather as a sort of extended metaphor for birth, life, and death. On one hand, it has led to many sepia-toned nostalgia dumps from old, greying writers who you otherwise would never have occasion to pay attention to. On the other, it actually kind of works well as a template, and acceptance isn't necessarily adherence. But we are meaning-seeking creatures, for better or worse.
A few years ago I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait Till Next Year, a memoir of the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian's childhood as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Goodwin, who was unfortunately embroiled in a bit of a plagiarism scandal in 2002, can often be seen as a bit of a card carrying member of that Old Guard who looks down at the youngsters these days disrespecting the game, yearning for the days of yore. Which is unfortunate, because out of all the talking heads in Ken Burns' fifty-seven-thousand-hour Baseball documentary, I have always found her voice to be much more thoughtful than those surrounding her, most of whom are frozen in time in the film by the warm, reddish glow of the old film stock from 1994 as if that was the year the project of baseball declared its completion.
I would imagine many of us baseball fans flocked to the internet precisely to avoid this sort of fabricated black-and-white determinism that has surrounded the game ever since they actually organized a commission to determine its creation myth. We can now feel emancipated from this sort of golden-age thinking with the advantages of living in an interconnected society, a world that gifts fans with bountiful options for how they want to enjoy the games they like to follow.
But somewhere, every winter, we all revert back to that little planted seed that Goodwin describes in her book. I don't even need to tell you what I'm referring to here with that title. And please, don't think I'm advocating for another Sure, Sabermetrics Are Great But Don't Forget The Intangibles! type of thing. I'm not. Because frustratingly, this is so much more complicated than that. We can't help feel some sort of renewed optimism each year, and even if cooler heads point to ZiPS and the likelihood of this front office suddenly producing a winning ballclub, many of us still pay attention to meaningless spring training games and try to paint narratives after the first week of the regular season because we just can't help it. It's like a sickness. Wait Till Next Year. It's Next Year.
So yes, spring is full of new life and growing plants and this and that and spring training is just the same. And here's where I want to talk about the Mariners. See, the Mariners don't look too different from last year. Well, they do, in that there are new names like Robinson Cano and Corey Hart, and missing names like Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez. But this isn't the 2012 Blue Jays. If you count the young guys who joined the club in spring training last year, the 2014 Mariners' (tentative) first baseman, catcher, shortstop, third baseman, and three utility players all were on the club last year. The pitching rotation might have a new shiny Japanese pitcher to replace Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders, but it will otherwise look pretty similar. Unlike last year, this team knows quite a bit more about all of these young players, and if 2013 was a read-the-manual year, perhaps this year will be a what-else-can-it-do one.
And this is one of my favorite things about baseball, and all sports for that matter, because it's not only about the Mariners. Every team builds in different ways, but for the most part, rosters are quite similar year-by-year, and even though we knew that the Marlins and the Texans and the Bucks were going to be terrible, we didn't know the Indians and the Saints and the Blazers were going to be great. So maybe, just maybe there is hope. Wait Till Next Year. Just wait. In fact, Next Year is coming up soon--February 27th against the Padres to be exact--and that game is going to look quite a bit different from last year's opening game. Do you remember that game?
Rotation-hopeful Hector Noesi threw 42 pitches in the first inning and gave up six runs. Danny Farquhar gave up 3 runs on 4 hits in the ninth and looked pretty bad. Raul Ibanez misplayed the first ball he saw in left field. Michael Morse was in right field for six innings and had three at bats. Casper Wells hit a two run homer. Blake Beavan was excited because he found a new delivery that was going to make him unstoppable.
I find this interesting not because the first game (or any games) of spring training actually means anything for the regular season, but because the first game is the chance to see what the roster pieces are, who is going to be capable of doing what in July, or who needs to be sent away on the first train out of Seattle. And holy shit, that game was something else for that project.
It will be exciting to see who throws the first three innings on February 27th of this year, who implodes and who surprises, and how all the moving parts of this ballclub start to work in Peoria. And the thing I've started to realize is that we have ZiPS and very good analysis and a pretty damning report card on Justin Smoak, but we are still going to be excited in February, and hope that maybe something magic happens, confirming that time we had one too many beers out with friends watching the World Series last fall and thought Wait Till Next Year.
The best part of all of this is that Goodwin's book ends with the Dodgers packing up ship and moving across the country to sunny Los Angeles, stealing her fandom from her like a thief in the night and leaving those optimistic thoughts of next year mostly unfulfilled after one World Series title in 1955. She might have intended to uplift the beating of the blood that optimism brings each spring, as if the simple hope for next year was enough to carry through the cold winter months without baseball. But then the team packs up and LEAVES. GONE. She shifts her fandom and never looks back, her moments spent with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella dissipating into memories of herself and her father, with baseball merely tagging along.
I'm excited about next year. I really am. I'm excited to see what the Mariners break camp with and I can't wait to see who surprises us in Peoria this spring. But I can't help wonder if the team is going to pack their bags and leave for Los Angeles in the end. But you know, maybe that's the whole point of waiting for next year.
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