My mantra over the past rough week has been the notion that caring about the Seattle Mariners this late in the season means something, because it is something that hasn't happened in a while.
There was a lot of excitement going into this year. The Mariners had signed Robinson Cano to an incredible amount of money. Logan Morrison and Corey Hart arrived so Justin Smoak wouldn't be slotted in at first base every day forever. Fernando Rodney arrived to deliver his trademark "experience" at Safeco Field.
People were excited about the development of the young players like Brad Miller, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Mike Zunino. After years of being the laughing stock of the American League, the Mariners looked like they had enough pieces to be just part of the stock of the American League.
At the same time, there was plenty that could go wrong. We've all gotten excited about youngsters before only to watch one surefire high draft pick not be very good, the centerpiece of a trade involving Cliff Lee be a painful reminder that once we had Cliff Lee and then whatever the hell happened to Jesus Montero. Then there were the holes like the defense. Morrison and Hart aren't exactly known for anything other than their bats. The pitching was also supposed to be a bit suspect. After Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the starting rotation was three big question marks. Everyone pegged the Mariners for improvement, but not enough improvement to make the playoffs.
Now, we sit here on Thursday, Sept. 25. The Mariners have lost five straight. We aren't mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, but realistically it is time to look towards next year. The fact that we were able to talk about the second Wild Card in the last week of the season is an amazing feat.
On Sept. 25, 2013 the Mariners were 70-89 and a very solid 18.5 games out of the race. 2012 - 72-82 and 13 games out. 2011 we were 66-93 (ugh) and 22.5 games out. 2010 we were even worse than 2011. That is enough for the history that everyone knows about. The Mariners have been unapologetically bad for a long time, and what comes with that is a sort of ghosting through the season. As the season turns to fall, the Mariners play games and sometimes you turn them on or sometimes you tune into the radio broadcast. Even more rarely you actually show up to the game. This year, everything has been different, and as we are collectively either finding out or remembering, being emotionally invested in a team this close to the finish line can be excruciating.
The Mariners, of course, did their best to make it excruciating. Everything was going swimmingly. We were either leading or within striking distance of the second wild card spot and closing in on that sinking ship known as Oakland. Then the past five days happened. The cog in the machine that made it all work started to look human. Pitchers forgot how to pitch and hitters forgot how to hit all at the same time, humbly reminding us that a baseball season is a long go.
The key thing is, that despite how hard it has been to watch the Mariners lose, it has also been great to watch the Mariners lose. The last time I can think of a Mariners game I watched in September and honestly cared whether they won or lost was in 2007. Those Mariners were sitting at 73-61 on Sept. 1 and two games behind the Yankees for the Wild Card. Flash forward 11 days and those same Mariners were 75-68, 6.5 games out of the race and basically done for the season.
On Sept. 13, 2014, Felix Hernandez took the mound against the Oakland Athletics. The atmosphere in Safeco was unlike any atmosphere I had ever witnessed in Safeco. It was playoff atmosphere. People weren't just going to the Mariners game just because their parent's, neighbor's uncle gave them free tickets. People were going to the Mariners game because, after all these years, it was finally the ticket to get.
Just compare the number of comments in the game thread from last night to games played on the same day in previous years. Here is Sept. 24, 2013. Here is 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008. Granted, the ebbs and flows of a community on the internet aren't definitive proof that there is more interest this year. Think of all the random people at the office, or random friends, that you have talked with about the Mariners. My guess is that it is more. My guess is that we all bemoan the losses and celebrate the wins.
This is what rooting for a good team means. We are forced to care again. It wasn't that we didn't want previous incarnations of the Mariners to win, we just knew they couldn't. The 2014 Mariners were different. They were hopeful, exciting and entertaining to watch. I haven't had emotions about the Mariners late in the season for quite some time. Losing is an emotion and feeling that emotion means I care. I went in telling everyone a .500 season would be enough improvement for me. Instead, we got meaningful baseball to the very end. All the promises of the future that is coming, well, let's hope it is finally here.