Finally. We're here. Just think: there was a time when we were looking ahead to the end of the playoffs—because after that, free agency and a pursuit of Victor Martinez would begin. A countdown that stretches back through the Winter Meetings, through December's dead period, pitchers and catchers reporting and the slow march of spring training has reached its final hours. If you're over-exuberant, or reading this late, its final minutes.
While there have been many times when the wait was excruciating, this offseason, to me, felt shorter than most. It could be that we started looking forward to 2015 in October, and not mid-June, but there's more—something of a natural progression from 2014. This team has been gradually getting better since the day it stopped playing, and today is but an extension of what was started last year.
Very shortly, I'll be taking the D line into downtown Seattle from Ballard. I'll walk through Pioneer Square, and in through the 'Pen gate, drinking $5 beers while waiting to watch Felix get loose. After that, it's up to the seats, sitting high above the infield beside the same close group with whom I attended game 162—that, as this is, a day-long celebration of Seattle being home to a good baseball team. Really, it's all the same as that day—almost like we never left—with the only difference being we're sitting high above first, and not third.
It'll be very near a spot I sat with my dad and two brothers now almost 15 years ago—when Carlos Guillen pushed a pop-bunt past a diving Frank Thomas, sending the Marinerss to the first of two consecutive ALCS appearances. And when you talk about how long we've been waiting for this particular day, it goes back to then, that era.
Last year, I met a guy who was a bat boy for some of those early-2000s teams. An usher at Safeco now, he told me he was on the field for that very play, standing there as the players streamed out to swarm Guillen just past the first base bag.
It resonates with me how long ago that was—how we're all so different now, but most of us still very much connected to this team. Well, different, but the same. Every one of us has experienced a great deal since then, learning—through bad and good—valuable lessons over the years. But at our core, we're still us.
And while it's enjoyable to think about how much this organization has changed, and how far it's come in recent years—it's still the same too. Executives and players move in and out, but as a person does, franchises have experiences, ideas and lessons.
Boy, has this franchise learned some lessons.
It learned you can't throw payroll at problems in search of a quick rebuild—though spending is important to consistently contending in this league. It learned you can't burn down the farm trying to add the player who could put you over the top, especially when you're not anywhere near the top, and he's not that guy. It learned that building a balanced and sustainable contender takes time, loyalty to a ground-up plan and a belief in it from the higher-ups, the manager's office and (content removed).
More recently, I'm sure the Jack Zduriencik regime has learned plenty of lessons since it took over at the end of 2008. But just as much, we fans might have learned some valuable lessons about this front office—or, at the very least, been corrected on some misconceptions.
We had assumed they could not recruit top-tier free agents to play in Seattle, and now there's Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz rolling out 3-4. We had assumed this front office couldn't develop talent, but there's an All-Star Gold Glove third baseman in Kyle Seager, with his $100 million extension. We had assumed Jack Zduriencek was incapable of building a complete well-rounded major league roster, but there are the 2015 Mariners—widely picked as the American League's best team.
And it isn't difficult to see why. This is the type of team we envisioned Zduriencik building when he first came on board, especially after things went south following the honeymoon. If it was going to happen, it was going to take some time, built around Felix and plethora of young players—with key acquisitions sprinkled on top through free agent signings and nifty trades.
This is a complete team, and while the idea of them being good—or at least decent—feels probable, we don't know yet how good they're going to be.
On sites like this, we talk a lot about projections—the types of projections that affirm prognosticators' beliefs that the Mariners are one of the best teams in the AL, if not the very best. And when we talk about projections, we frequently mention the error bars that accompany them. "While this team is projected to win 80-whatever games, they could also win X less and Y more."
The Mariners have wide error bars, just like every team. But unlike many teams, theirs don't extend that far down—but they do stretch high up. If things do go just right, we don't know where the ceiling is.
In Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, they have young starters with front-of-the-rotation stuff. In Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, and even Logan Morrison and Dustin Ackley, there's position talent poised to enter its prime. For years, the Oakland Athletics built division-winning teams around these types of players—but now the Mariners add on some of the best vets available.
This team, it's playing for a title. And while it isn't World Series or bust—there are levels short of that where we'd all still be happy—that's in play here, for the first time in a long, long time.
I like to talk about how long it's been, just for the fact that there are so many people who have been waiting to see this all come together, some since the day the Mariners came into existence—if not longer. But lest we forget, there are kids entering high school who were barely sentient the last time this team made the playoffs.
While I myself started following this team when I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1999, that's nothing compared to so many. And, admittedly, my fandom didn't reach the levels it's at now until before 2010 season—when the Cliff Lee trade allowed us to fantasize about the types of expectations we have now. For so many people, this is their version of that team, the one that brings them all the way back, or starts a love affair that could last decades.
Now, I know there are those who fear this team for what happened to the 2010 squad. And while I'm working to get past the point of being upset with fans who don't have hope and optimism in a sport that's made for it, I'll tell you now: this is not that team. This team was capable of making a deep postseason run last year, and now it's only better.
I read something recently around why people who buy experiences are better off than people who buy things—and a big part of it is the mind-state before you actually have that experience. It said that waiting for an experience elicits considerably more excitement and happiness than waiting for a thing.
Now, I'll be honest, this waiting hasn't been all happiness and excitement—certainly. But that waiting, that anguish and the disappointment, that's why there are sports. Baseball wouldn't be baseball without the heartache. And teams like this, years like this, wouldn't be the same without all that came for before it.
Teams like this, the 2015 Mariners, they're why you follow sports. No, despite the hype, we don't know how it's going to go. If there weren't a chance it all could come crashing down, none of this would be the same. But after all we've been through, after all that's crashed down around us before, this day is finally here—and we're better for it.
And it's funny, as far as we've come and as much as this day warrants a celebration, this is no finish line. In reality, there's a good chance this is the beginning of another journey—and I'm not talking only about this season. There's something building here, something we've been looking forward to for a long time.
But while it's fun to look long far down the road, to the ultimate outcome this team is no doubt aiming for, remember to slow down, to savor this. Whether we're at the beginning, the end or someplace in the middle, this is all still a journey—and, as Lloyd reminds us, you want to remember to enjoy it.
I get the sense that these guys are going to make that easy—and make the wait worthwhile.
So once again, let's do this, let's have some fun.