There’s probably not a day that I don’t miss being in school. I love the rhythm of the school day, the school year: especially that last day before summer vacation, the melancholy of knowing you’re leaving another year behind mingled with the excitement of a series of warm, free days stretching ahead of you. More importantly, summer vacation provides a time to reflect and stretch into the new version of yourself; it is a time for reckoning, for tabulating, for tracking growth. With that in mind, here’s what stands out about the 2016 season in the minds of the Lookout Landing staffers, as we embark on our upside-down summer:
This past season, while not over for the lucky few, still hasn't fully settled in my mind. I am unsure how to process it entirely, being honest. Maybe that's what this season taught me more than anything else: lack of processing. It's very difficult to cover a team that is in the thick of competition. It's even more difficult when the season looks lost and won four times over. I think, more than ever, I'm more disillusioned by advanced statistical measurement than ever in the climate of the current league. Teams are stealing outs with video replay in a sort of reverse-small ball. Talent is becoming harder and harder to find. Watching home runs reach a peak that makes the Steroid Era look weak while K rate keeps climbing poses a lot of issues for me.
I've talked to multiple people in the game that it has never before been so polarizing to watch. A 5-2 game could see all the scoring on just three swings of the bat and 20 K's between the 54 outs. I learned to trust my eye more, especially if the ball is indeed juiced. It's become more apparent than ever what swings will translate into a legit tool, now that 20 bombs feels somewhat commonplace. The way I'm seeing the game has changed a lot, and in ways that I'm still unsure of, and I hope it has for you, as well. The sort of baseball that is happening now hasn't really ever happened before.
I also remembered that it's really just fun to win more than you lose.
There is a song by Dustin Kensrue of Thrice when he decided to make a solo record called "Blood and Wine" and the chorus is essentially, "Once you taste blood, wine is too thin." Vampiric visuals aside, I feel like this is appropriate for the outlook of this 2016 season. We got greedy. This is the first year of this regime and I feel like a lot of us ended up pretty disappointed to miss the playoffs when we were initially going to be happy with a season over .500. I believe that I had the M's slated for 86 wins in our season prediction piece (I said I believe, don't @ me!) and there's a lot to be pleased with what we saw this year. The farm system feels like it's being rehabilitated, and turning around quickly. The major league product was very good considering the shaky pitching staff and some pretty gnarly slumps.
Bottom line is that there's a lot to look forward to in the upcoming seasons. I feel like this was Dipoto's first snowball being rolled off the top of a mountain and it's quickly becoming an avalanche. In a good way? In a good way.
More than anything, I think Jerry Dipoto defined the 2016 season. With Ocean’s Eleven-level heists like the Leonys Martín or Ariel Miranda trades balanced out by deals giving away Mark Trumbo and Brad Miller, the returns have been mixed. But he has undeniably put his own spin on this organization, and it’s exciting to imagine what he’ll do this offseason. I doubt we’ll see any major moves—no Robinson Canó signings or Cliff Lee trades—but Dipoto & Co. have proved that even minor tweaks can be just as effective.
So, in other words, I’m excited at the abundance of competence in the front office. It would be folly to attribute this all to Dipoto, as a front office is made up of many different analysts and scouts, but it is under his leadership that they have been able to shine. This team still features stars acquired during the Jack Zduriencik era, from Canó to Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and many others (including, of course, Félix, a holdout who signed way back in 2002). And the Mariners are certainly defined by those players. But their playoff future will be determined by the Dipoto acquisitions this winter and in the years to come.
Two days after graduating from college, and moving three thousand miles home, I found myself sitting in a green plastic seat along the third base line at Safeco Field. It was a Tuesday night against the A’s and, despite all the changes Jerry Dipoto had made in the offseason, it seemed like the same kind of Tuesday night game against the A’s that Mariners fans have watched for years. But then, with a single swing, Leonys Martín changed the game, and my perception of this team.
For all the angst of June, and the agony of Game 161, I will always associate the 2016 season with some of the most purely fun baseball in recent memory. In my sample recap to write for this site I covered Adam Lind’s inexplicable (first!) walk-off against the White Sox, and I wrote about a moment of triumph becoming great enough to overshadow a period of defeat. Subsequently, rather than remember this season as another close-but-not-quite year, my memory of this team will always be shaped by the dozens of gloriously exciting moments they gave us.
I have not been party to a great deal of winning in my athletic career. My high school and college teams were not championship contenders. I played for a very strong select program for several years, but that has a different sensation than a team you are communally connected to. I love to win, and take no joy in losing. Baseball is just individual enough of a sport to make every moment you yourself could have possibly changed the outcome remain vivid in your mind, yet demands collective competence to the point that Mike Trout has only made it to the playoffs once in his six-year MLB career. Learning to handle frustration with failure while simultaneously enjoying pieces of positivity has been a lifelong process for me. It felt redundant and perhaps patronizing to write, in recap after recap down the stretch, that "this team is/was the most fun Mariners team since the early 2000s," particularly as the postseason slipped, mathematically, further and further from our grasp. Nonetheless that remains a true sentiment in my mind as much as it was at the time. This season was fun. It may not have been a success for them or for the front office or the ownership, because a significant part of their job is to create a baseball team that will win enough games to be the champion. The more basic job they have, of course, is to provide quality entertainment, and in that, they were a success. By being a more successful team, of course, it was easier to appreciate them. A playoff berth and a championship, however, are variables in the equation of baseball happiness, not the sum. They are highly valuable, and would easily be enough to produce immense joy, but they are simply a couple of many possible solutions to an equation that was undoubtedly solved this year.
No moment better sums up this season for me than this inning right here:
These inconsiderate bastards had me sitting in a cabin, having deleted several potential recaps already, watching for 15 innings before they finally, assuredly, had lost it. Ah well. It's early August, there's another game tomorrow at least. And what did we really expect putting this Ariel Miranda kid against that lineup? He's barely pitched at all. Might as well start writing the recap, too bad for all the LL folks I know are still at this one, extra inning losses are tou--I'm sorry Mike Zunino did what now with a runner on third?
Mike Zunino flew out. Adam Lind outran a throw to the plate by Tyler Collins. The Mariners were a few stars and a bunch of nonsense this year, and they won this game and 85 others. I expect there to be several different position players on the roster and a number of new relievers, but there is only so much change to be made with a roster locked into its core as the Mariners are. We will sink or swim with the players that nearly lifted us into flight this year. I'm in.
Did the 2016 Seattle Mariners meet my expectations? Honestly, pretty much as long as any future Mariners team isn’t losing 100 games, they are probably bettering my expectations. That is the result of a decade plus of drudgery and despair. As long as we aren’t at the lowest of the low, things are looking up. This year was different. This year, the Mariners grabbed me by the seat of my pants, poorly strapped me into a roller coaster I was not tall enough to sit on, set the number of laps on infinity and just went for it.
And oh boy did they (we) ever go for it. I don’t recall experiencing a season in any sport where I have felt so defeated and so elated, so often, and so separately. This team was fantastically entertaining at its peaks and enragingly stupid at its valleys. The loops and the corkscrews and everything in between made this season enjoyable in the weirdest way possible. Honestly, I can’t wait to build from all of this mess.
As someone who has studied pedagogy extensively, this year my biggest takeaway from the Mariners is how much better they got at teaching. We saw that early in spring training, with Kyle Seager and others remarking on how different clubhouse culture was under the new management. Trading out inflamed blister Andy Van Slyke for the genial Manny Acta says a lot about the quality of leadership that is prided in the organization. Also, as opposed to trying to press every player into the right-handed power hitter model, or insistence that pitchers throw with a club-approved arm slot rather than that which feels most natural to them, or completely discounting the importance of defense, this regime seems to understand how to maximize the strengths players have, which has caused an incredible turnaround in the minors. The Mariners farm is no longer regarded as the nuclear wasteland it once was, and while the players themselves deserve the lion’s share of the credit for that, the coaching staff and new hire Andy McKay were instrumental in individual players finding a new path to success. I was disconnected from the Mariners during the Jack Z era; I didn’t respect the way he ran the club or talked about players or appeared to shift blame for the club’s shortcomings onto his underlings. Dipoto’s vision for the club is more transparent, grounded in theories that are pedagogically and more sabermetrically sound, and it’s a club I feel good about cheering for, from the top down.
On August 5th, I walked through the gates of Safeco Field for the first time in over a decade. Things were different and yet, the same. There were Griffey jerseys everywhere, the scent of garlic fries evaded the crowds of people and wafted their way through my nostrils, and the sights—from the field to the backdrop to the clear, blue sky—were so stunningly perfect. Felix was on the mound. I had never seen him throw at Safeco before. The roar of the crowd as he walked to the mound sent shivers down my spine. It's one thing to watch it on television; it's another to not be able to hear your own scream because there are 40,000 other people nearby screaming with you.
The Mariners fell behind 3-0 in the first. I didn't care; I cheered every pitch. When Mike Zunino golfed a two-out, three-run homer off of Tim Lincecum to give the M's a 6-3 lead a half inning later, I screamed, hugged my fiancée, and had to wipe a couple tears from my eyes. Only one more run was scored the rest of the game, but I was hanging on every pitch like it was Game 7 of the World Series. When Edwin Díaz finished the game off, I vaulted into the air and into an "I don't give a fuck; I am happy" type of dance. I was home. I was in love.
Baseball is a beautiful game. It's beautiful in its big, tie-breaking home runs. It's beautiful in its short delays as the pitching coach wades over to the mound. It's beautiful in its lemonade vendors pacing the stands, searching endlessly for thirsty patrons. But mostly, baseball is beautiful in the way it can make a 25-year-old man feel like a child again, watching his heroes take the field for the first time ever. When a red carpet was rolled out and Ken Griffey Jr. came strolling on the field for a surprise appearance, I smiled. My face broke out into the goofiest smile I've ever felt and I looked at my fiancée and my jaw dropped and for a moment I swear I was ten years old.
Players will come and go. The Mariners are going to win a lot of amazing games in the future. They're going to lose some heartbreakers. I will watch all of them and I'll eventually forget about most of them. I'll never forget that night, though, and I'll never forget re-falling head over heels in love with baseball. That is my biggest takeaway from 2016, and I am thankful.
What are you taking along with you over the lean offseason months? What player or stat or fact or moment really tells the story of the 2016 season to you, and what do you see coming in 2017? Remember, the positive side of the ceaseless march of time that imprints itself upon us, body and soul, and grinds our bones for its bread is that February will be here faster than you think.