It was May 18th, and the Mariners were trailing the Twins by two runs in Minnesota. Corey Hart was standing on first base, having just earned a walk, and he was staring across the diamond to perceive the noble visage of Robinson Cano only ninety feet away from home plate. Kyle Seager was at the plate and there was one out.
None of us have any real idea what was going through his mind at the time, but for some reason, the $6 million dollar free agent coming off a season lost to double restorative knee surgery decided right then and there that he was going to steal second base.
And then, it was all over.
It wasn't completely over, though. He would still go on to appear in 31 games for the Mariners, although it seemed quite clear that the team didn't exactly miss his production during his absence. And it wasn't even the knees that did him in this time. But out of all of the bizarre mishaps in Hart's single season in Seattle, it seems fair to say that the decision to steal second on the afternoon of May 18th changed everything for both Corey Hart and his team, leading straight to his eventual DFA and election of free agency after passing waivers in early October and, in a way, setting off a series of events that led to the Mariners being competitive up until the final day of the 2014 MLB season.
None of this is to say Hart would be signing an extension for 2015 had he not stolen second base that afternoon. By May he was already only a mere reflection of the Corey Hart that Jack Zduriencik had hoped he was signing during the 2013 Winter Meetings, wearing his .209 average like a black eye covered up by wearing sunglasses at night. He was off to a slow start, lamenting over his plate timing to reporters in post-game interviews, and had only three appearances in the right field that he was supposed to be frequenting with his brand new knees. But with a wRC+ of 88 and five dingers under his belt, there was at least a faint possibility that he would start seeing the ball right by the time the weather warmed up enough to carry his fly balls past the fences. And then, the hamstring.
The effect on the club would be long lasting. With Hart down, and Morrison also missing time with a hamstring injury of his own, the M's had a glaring hole in their DH spot that seemed to demand immediate attention. It may seem weird to think of this after the September we all just enjoyed, but after (and before) Hart went down, this team was regularly putting out Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie in their starting lineups. The initial plan seemed to be akin to covering a stabwound with a bandaid, giving almost everyone a chance to DH. Sometimes they would be hitting seventh. It should have been an unmitigated disaster. But then they started winning.
It's kind of amazing to think of all the ways this team could have fallen apart last season, from both theoretical and actual challenges they had to face. Besides the starting pitching quandary, this DH problem could have been a lot worse than it was. In fact, it could have been worse specifically because they may have kept throwing Corey Hart out, with the hopes that he would eventually start putting it all together. Instead, Lloyd started to get creative with his roster of makeshift toys, and those bizarre lineups started winning games they absolutely had no business winning in the first place.
Remember: by the time Logan Morrison returned, Smoak was gone and the M's had decided to turn him into their first baseman. The DH spot was still a revolving door of Stefen Romero, Cole Gillespie, Robinson Cano, Dustin Ackley, Endy Chavez, and the occasional John Buck or Willie Ballgame breather. This would have never happened if Corey Hart was still healthy, or at the very least, it would have started a whole hell of a lot later than it actually did. But instead of falling apart, the M's won 18 games in June. While Hart was busy trying to remember how to swing a baseball bat, the Mariners were doing it on their own without him.
Unlikely seasons don't happen on the turn of a hat. They require a series of events all falling into the right place, probably unquantifiable in their randomness. I'm not trying to find the one event that saved the season in these Saturday pieces as much as I'm trying to notice a few that are identifiable. And today, two facts seem clear. First, Corey Hart's absence, in conjunction with Morrison's injury, forced the Mariners to get creative with their DH spot. And second, it was during this exact timeframe that they really started winning games:
I could have chosen any date to cut this off, and I, of course, was a little deceptive in choosing July 2nd as the end. But regardless, it should be obvious that the Mariners did exactly the opposite of collapse in Hart's absence, and with a "missing" roster spot, the Mariners were able to get creative with their lineups to give players more comprehensive looks, with a better chance to understand what kind of team they had. That work may be some of the most important work done by the Mariners in 2014, and makes them a better ballclub in 2015 as a result.
Today Hart is out on the open market, a free agent coming off an incredibly disappointing season. He will probably be a buy-low candidate, or perhaps get a minor-league deal with incentive bonuses. Maybe he'll get a major-league deal on a rebuilding team. He seems like a great person, and I earnestly hope he figures it out and has a better 2015.
Either way, the decision to steal second base that afternoon was probably the biggest decision he made in all of 2014, even bigger than his decision to hit the open market. And it looks like it helped the Mariners more than anyone else. If that feels too cold, then watch what could have been instead: