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The Seattle Mariner Experience

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This article has no preface, because it is an article about prefacing.

jub jub
jub jub
Jose Rivera

The Seattle Mariners will never win the World Series.

This is a lie. If every team started each season had equal chances, there's about a 63% chance that they win at least one before I retire. That's assuming that there's no expansion, and there's such a thing as retirement by then. And given the usual fluctuations in franchises, the swells of money and talent and impetus, it's probably higher.

The Seattle Mariners will never win the World Series, in my mind, because I don't need them to. Winning is, in a way, an ending. I don't even need there to be such a thing as winning. It's not like the rest of us can win at existence; all we can do is amuse people at dinner parties, raise vibrant children, and be generally happy. Baseball is a community, a bond. If winning has anything to do with that bond, it actually weakens it just a little bit, perverts its motivations.

I like to think of baseball as less a form of entertainment and more a force of nature. Entertainment is unidirectional; it is a service. You take what you want from it, then turn it off. It’s heartless and transactional. I prefer the idea that baseball is just something that exists alongside, like raw material, something we can make anything out of.

...

Expectations are everything. You learn this at the age of six, when the world is finite and drawn with rules and black lines. You go to school at 8:45. You fingerpaint when the teacher tells you, and you try not to get any on your shirt. You stand in line at the drinking fountain. And then you come home and your mom tells you to clean your room, and suddenly you realize that "a clean room" isn’t a Platonic form, that there isn’t one exact state the room has to reach. That all the room has to be is cleaner, a step up from what it was. You learn to set the definition of your room to a certain level, and then hover just above it.

As you learn more about the world, you learn how impossible perfection is. Your grades only have to be a little better. You only have to be thoughtful a little more often than your spouse expects. You learn to manipulate those expectations, either to stuff them downward to a life of ease, or throttle them upward to a life of salesmanship and success. Either way, you learn two important facts about the world: that people are terrible at measuring anything without comparing it to something else. And that the presentation of that something else, the sales pitch, is more important than the product itself.

Sometimes you can’t control those expectations: the kid in front of you gives a really good speech, or your new girlfriend’s last boyfriend was a total dick, or people have been waiting six years for you to create a quality product and they want answers. But even then you can twist, frame, and lean away from the punches. You can win a few more games each year, say, collect a few more draft picks, amble toward your promises. It makes you feel powerful, especially over your parents. Then, eventually, you realize that everyone else can use it against you, too.

I've been writing long enough to loop back around on myself, which is kind of sad in its way. A year ago I wrote a piece for the Hardball Times called Students of the Game, about how to bridge the gap between sabermetrics and traditional statistics, using inquiry rather than superiority. (Note: the piece had not revolutionized baseball at the time this went to print.) That doesn't relate to this article here, but what does is the metaphor I based it on, the essay "Return of the Creature" by Walker Percy. His argument, aimed at teaching, is that the experience described is never a true replacement for the experience lived: that telling someone to know something is, in its own little necessary way, an act of (often necessary) intellectual aggression. Connotation and suggestion exist in everything. When we formulate our own experiences, we compare them to the expectations built into us by our previous knowledge, by teachers and by society.

And that's where we reach the 2015 Mariners. There are so many expectations now, so many promises, that it's impossible not to feel their weight. Even the simple joys of spring are lies. The excitement we feel for every new team, every new player, is taken as credit against their future successes. And now, it's all due. The M's may well pay those debts; FanGraphs still gives them a one-in-three chance of the playoffs. That’s better than most years, most times. But it doesn't matter, because the Mariners will never win the World Series anyway.

...

I love the luck and noise inherent in baseball. I love that it flattens and rises without rhyme or favor. Our understanding of regression has tamed the ferocity of these swells, compared to the past, but they're still a ride. They prove how little control anyone has, no matter how genius the marshall or determined the soldiers. I love the Mariners, too, because they seem to amplify this: they behave erratically, frustratingly, irrationally. So many fans enjoy analyzing baseball and imagining themselves into it, like a man who plays through a chess game and predicts the grandmaster's moves. There’s nothing wrong with this. I feel fortunate that my team does not compel me toward such behavior.

Baseball is like any other media, swarming with experts, sages, and semiprofessional pseudo-intellectuals telling you how to feel. Your team is bad, and there are a hundred reasons for why you should feel bad for being pleased at the things that turned out to make them bad. Your team is winning, and you shouldn't do or say anything that takes away from that euphoria. I admit that I felt this same pressure even last year, when the team waddled toward a playoff berth. I wrote my season recap offsite, because I felt like my own feelings didn't reconcile with the community. I didn’t want to color the moment. There's no way not to.

In all the preparation for this season, all the dreams of postseason glory and roster construction, we never really talked about what would happen if it all went wrong. Nathan wrote 400 words and was nearly tarred and feathered for the suggestion. But if it does – and it could – they’ll be the darkest days for the franchise since 2004. Zduriencik will be fired, and he’ll leave far more ballast on the roster than Bavasi ever did. But it’s not losing that hurts. Losing can actually be kind of fun, if you dig deeply enough. It’s the crumbling of expectations, the realization that what you were taught was actually wrong, that hurts the most.

One of the first tenets I ever wrote at Lookout Landing is that baseball is kind of dumb. We’ve emotionally invested ourselves in this unfeeling, unconscious Mariner ballclub, ceded some portion of control to the outcomes of random events. Now is the time to take that control back, decide for yourself how you’re supposed to feel. You can’t change this stupid team and its stupid outfield defense. But you can change what it means, how it matters, how you’ll live with it. Because you have to live with it, unless you’re able to turn it off.