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The last time September mattered

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It's kind of hard to believe it matters again.

Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

September baseball.

You don't even have to be a Seattle Mariners fan to know that baseball in September is irrelevant for most teams. If you are a Seattle Mariners fan, you know how unique it is to have relevant baseball in September. If by chance you've been a Seattle Mariner fan for only 10 years or so, you've actually never known what it's like to pay attention to the standings in September. And in fact, for half of the Seattle Mariner franchise history, you could probably stop caring about the standings by the All-Star break. That's bleak.

But September baseball. Relevant September baseball.

Their odds of making the playoffs currently stand at about a coin flip. Every game takes on increasing importance. Back in Spring Training we had to admit to irrational exuberance. Six months later, we get to be exuberant.

This is fun, isn't it?

The last time the Mariners fans were paying attention to baseball in September was 12 years ago in 2003. Their manager was Bob Melvin, his first managing job with the thankless task of attempting to replace the loved and legendary Lou Piniella, who rather inexplicably chose to manage a fledgling Tampa Bay franchise. The Mariners had actually been good for a few years, even great. From 2000 to 2002 they won 91, 116, and 93 games, respectively, and made the playoffs twice.

They hadn't made the playoffs in 2002, finishing third in a tough division where Oakland won 103 games and back when they just lived in Anaheim instead of being "of" Anaheim, the Angels won 99. But the Mariners had reason to be optimistic.

They wouldn't need to rely on the likes of Paul Abbott, James Baldwin, Ismael Valdez, and John Halama to start games anymore. They had mercurial Gil Meche coming off shoulder surgery who ostensibly would plug back into the rotation given the avoidance of any arm related hiccups. All Ryan Franklin needed to do was beat out Ken Cloude and Giovanni Carrera to cement his spot in the rotation. Returners Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, and Freddy Garcia would anchor the rotation. The bullpen was solid behind Shigetoshi Hasegowa, Arthur Rhodes, Jeff Nelson, and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.

They didn't even need a left fielder since they got Randy Winn in trade for their manager. Eight of the nine offensive starters from 2002 would be returning for 2003 -- Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Jeff Cirillo, Carlos Guillen, Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki, and Edgar Martinez. If the 2002 Mariners were capable of winning 93 games, the 2003 version had a chance to surpass that.

By June 8, they were 42-19, eight games ahead of the Oakland Athletics. Bret Boone had 24 home runs by the break. Edgar had 19 HR and was hitting a robust .304/.408/.546. Jeff Cirillo wasn't hitting, but it didn't matter. Mike Cameron was doing a lot of this (enjoy the Neihaus here):

Their starters were ironclad. Moyer was 12-5 with a 3.02 ERA at the break. Pineiro was 11-5 with a 3.28 ERA. Meche, 10-5 with a 3.61 ERA. The pennant was a presumption, my oh my.

But after the break, they struggled. Gil Meche fell apart. Pineiro and Garcia had ERA's near 5.00. Cirillo was so bad he was benched and their alternative was Willie Bloomquist. Mike Cameron and John Olerud stumbled at the plate. Kazuhiro Sasaki had luggage-gate. Even Ichiro only hit .259/.301/.383 after the break.

Their eight game lead turned into four by August. They lost eight of nine games in late August while Oakland was surging. By September, they were a game back. But the race was on. Each game took on amplified significance and the fan base rallied. Weeknight games in September were selling out at Safeco. Two and a half games back on a Wednesday night on September 13 drew almost 40,000 fans to see Freddy Garcia's gem beating the dreaded Angels.

With just nine games to go, the Mariners were five games back but they would face division leading Oakland six times. As they say, they controlled their own destiny. They won the first two and dropped the third to finish four games back. On September 23, a walk-off home run by Tim Salmon off Shigatoshi Hasegawa in the 11th inning would mathematically eliminate them from the playoffs.

They returned to Seattle for the series against the Oakland Athletics, and although they were technically out of it, that three game series drew over 136,000 fans. They swept, outscoring Oakland 25-10. They would finish in second place at 93-69.

Why tell such a sad tale? Because it's not sad, really. Because baseball is fickle. And even if the 2003 version of the Mariners didn't make it to the playoffs, fans sat on the edge of their chairs until game number 158. They were worth the effort of getting excited about, to care so much about. And when they were eliminated, all fans did was pack the place and scream and yell, because you just never knew when you'd get the chance to care this much about baseball again.

Right now, the Mariners have a chance. A bonafide chance to make the playoffs. Nobody predicted they would be here (well, maybe somebody). Honestly, a chance is really all we could have asked for. Not only does every game matter for the Mariners, but every game matters for the Detroit Tigers, the Oakland Athletics, the New York Yankees. The Toronto Blue Jays. To be here as a fan is nerve wracking, it's extraordinary, and it's all too rare around here.

It's September baseball, and it's relevant in Seattle.

Be exuberant, Mariners fans.