First of all, if you are a regular reader of this site, scoot along with yourself. This is for the newly-minted Mariners fan; the questioning, the curious. Sit down, my loves. I will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Mariners but were afraid to ask.
"But Kate," I hear you saying, "how can someone be a bandwagon fan of a team that consistently loses?" Well, first of all, I’m writing this in late March. Right now the weather is drizzly and the nation lies under a stack of blankets, sweating out the last of college basketball fever ("my bracket," the patient mumbles, deep in the clutches of a vengeful dream). But perhaps by the time you’re reading this, future Platonic Ideal reader, perhaps the Mariners will be making a late-season push. It will be August, and the air will be heavy and still, and everyone at Golden Gardens is wearing Mariners gear, and you, my sweet naif, will find yourself all out of whack with the zeitgeist, faking your way through conversations about Richie Sexson and rally fries as you pick your way around the strange geography of Safeco, trying to figure out where your friends got those good nachos. Although maybe this won’t be the case; maybe the team will find itself mired in mediocrity again, because this dumb rock insists on rolling back down this dumb hill every dumb year.
However, even if the Mariners are doing poorly in this potential future scenario, if you are new to the city, you should know something about the team, because, although the Mariners aren’t a traditional candidate for a bandwagon team, Seattle sure as heck is a bandwagon city. In 2015, Seattle was the third-fastest growing city in the nation, and Washington State overall is seeing an uptick in population. If you are a recent transplant to our fair state, welcome! You should become a Mariners fan. Safeco is an actual baseball cathedral, and yet the ticket prices will not force you to pull a bank job, unlike a certain other franchise in town. Summer is long and usually beautiful, and the ballpark is a great place to go on awkward first dates or for forced socialization with your co-workers, for there is beer and distraction aplenty ("So sorry I can’t talk to you about your recent dream/child’s allergies/WOD right now, this Dae Ho Lee at-bat is requiring all my powers of concentration").
"But Kate!" you cry, "I was born in Oshkosh and to the Brewers shall I ever be loyal!" Fine, great, understandable. Also, my apologies. But to be honest, I have never met a transplant Brewers fan. Or Marlins, Rays, or Padres. However, I have met plenty of Red Sox, Yankees, and (curiously enough, just recently) Royals fans. Due to geographic overlap, I have also met many Giants, Athletics, and Blue Jays fans. Look, I get hometown loyalty. But I will tell you a secret. Seattle Nice dictates that people will tell you to your face they’re totally cool with your rooting interests, while silently judging you for not knowing how to spell "Paciorek." You can go to the game with your co-workers, and think to yourself how open and accepting everyone is, and not know that we all secretly want to put you and your ilk in a barrel and roll you out to sea. This is probably not your fault! I’m sure you, dear reader, are lovely! But the Mariners have been bad for so long, and we have dealt with your ancestors coming into our house and tearing up the furniture and eating all our chips and not using coasters for so long. So it would be good for you, and possibly for your career, to at least cultivate a facade of Mariners fandom. (None of this applies if you are a Cardinals fan, by the way, for Cardinals fans do not move away from Saint Louis on pain of death. Somewhere there is a cardiologist-turned-landscape artist driving a snowplow with a bumper sticker that reads BEST FANS IN BASEBALL.)
But perhaps you have come to the Mariners for a different reason. Perhaps you have come to the Mariners for the best reason of all: love. You didn’t put a ton of stock into it when your date showed up in a Mariners cap; it was summer, after all, and a cap is free sunscreen. But then came the fall, the crisp air and slow burn of the leaves, and the retro beanie. That’s okay, beanies are cute, and that royal blue and mustard color scheme was really working on them, you know? Then fall deepened into winter and instead of participating in Blue Friday and donning a 3 jersey like everyone else in this city, your beloved was robed in an official on-field three-in-one Northwest Green Starter Jacket and you, you poor fool, were robed in their love. Welcome, my Mariners-in-law. It is truly for you, you pure-hearted angels who walk among us and have agreed to support this team out of a sheer sense of duty and deep indulgence of your beloved, that I have put together this guide to understanding the Mariners of the past, and those who love them.
The 70s/Early 80s: Like Major League, But Worse
The Mariners in their current incarnation were founded in 1977 and were essentially the team from the movie Major League, cobbled together from the scraps of other people’s lineups and minor league players with virtually no experience. Unlike the team in Major League, they did not win. They lost 400 games out of a possible 646 in their first four seasons. It’s a miracle they didn’t pack up like the 1969 Pilots, who played one lousy season in Sick’s Stadium before Bud Selig abracadabra-d them into the Milwaukee Brewers, and it says a lot about baseball fans of that era that the team was able to stick. If you are lucky enough to be acquainted with an OG Mariners fan, know that underneath that crusty exterior is a loyal heart. It just takes some digging.
This has to go to Lenny Randle blowing the ball foul in 1981. On May 27, the Mariners were down by three runs when Amos Otis, whose name probably made you hungry for cookies, boinked a ball up the third base line and Randle threw himself onto the turf beside the ball to blow it foul. The umpire, rather than rewarding Randle’s creative spirit, awarded the runner first and banned altering the course of the ball. Parents just don’t understand.
A Name to Celebrate:
Actually, two—one is Ruppert Jones, and one is Julio Cruz. Julio Cruz is a precious darling who was at FanFest this year and told me I have pretty hair. He is also one of the best base-stealers the Mariners have ever had, playing his first seven seasons for the Mariners and swiping almost 300 total bases in that time. His batting average may have hovered in the low-to-mid 200s, but thanks to his prowess in the field he was a constant positive WAR player (WAR = Wins Above Replacement; basically, how many wins the player added—or cost—his team). Ruppert Jones, selected first in the expansion draft in 1977 from the Kansas City Royals, was the first Mariners star. Literally: he was the first Mariner to ever be named an All-Star, hitting 24 homeruns and putting up a WAR of 4.1 in his rookie year. He patrolled center field, where fans greeted him with cries of "Roop!" and changed the words of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to "Roop, Roop Roop for the Mariners."
A Name of Agony:
Mario Mendoza. Mendoza only spent two years with the Mariners, but his name is etched into the record books here and across baseball, for all the wrong reasons. In 148 games, Mendoza hit .198 for the season, and since then the mark of sub-.200 hitting has been called The Mendoza Line. His performance was historically awful, with his batting average the worst in Mariners history. By a combination of metrics, however, it’s pretty clear that Mendoza has the dubious distinction of being the pointiest, most cankerous barnacle on this wayward ship.
Understanding the Fan of the Era:
If someone has been there since the early days, they should be treated with the care and understanding extended to a veteran of a war that took place somewhere remote and wild, a war that was brief and did not accomplish much, but left its mark on the soldier nonetheless. If this person was a drink they would be whiskey, straight, served alone in a dark room. If this person were literature they would be David Foster Wallace’s essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again," combined with the sense experienced by Jay Gatsby’s neighbors that somewhere nearby, madcap fun was being had, before turning off the light and going to one’s own narrow bed.
The mid-80s/early 90s: Like Moneyball, But Bad
As the Mariners accrued mileage, expectations for their success began to rise, expectations to which the Mariners responded with a delightfully perverse burst of failure. They placed last or second to last eight out of ten times in their first years, failing to post a winning record each time. Part of this failure was the notorious cheapness of the owner, George Argyros, who owned the team between 1981 - 1989. Argyros, a California real estate developer, forced players to fly commercial, kept salaries at a level Oliver Twist would consider meager, constantly threatened to move the team, and argued for drafting George Harkey over Ken Griffey, Jr., which isn’t necessarily cheap so much as it is powerfully wrongheaded (luckily, scouting director Roger Jongewaard was able to convince him otherwise). The Mariners had talent; they just wouldn’t pay to keep it around. Dave Henderson, Danny Tartabull, and Phil Bradley are all among players who performed well in Seattle before being traded so the team wouldn’t have to pay their higher salaries, who then went on to be major contributors with other teams. If you know a Mariners fan of this era, don’t mistake their reticence for disinterest. They’re just so used to being left, you see.
Fun was thin on the ground during these early years, but there was a moment in 1985 that those who were there recall fondly. The Mariners had started the season 4 - 0, for the first time in their history.* On April 13, they were trailing the Twins in the bottom of the ninth, 7 - 4 when Phil Bradley stepped up with the bases loaded. Bradley, a lean and speedy defender, wasn’t known for being a power hitter. All he wanted to do was get a hit and keep the inning going. What he did do was delight the crowd of about 25,000 with an "Ultimate Grand Slam," defined as a walkoff homerun in the bottom of the ninth when a team is down by three runs. There have only been eleven of those in the American League, and thanks to Phil Bradley, the Mariners possess one. (*They would eventually get to six wins in a row to begin the season, which remains the best start in Mariners history).
A Name to Celebrate:
Alvin Davis. Known as "Mr. Mariner," Davis was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1984, batting .284/.391/.497 with 27 homeruns. A four-tool player (he was only missing speed), Davis played eight seasons with the Mariners, finishing with a career .280 batting average, and was the first inductee into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame in 1997.
A Name of Agony:
Rey Quinones. Quinones came over from the Red Sox in exchange for Dave Henderson and Spike Owen. Owen would go on to hit .426 in the 1986 ALCS and play in the World Series. Dave Henderson would go on to win a World Series with the A’s and became a beloved figure in the baseball community whose untimely passing was mourned across the nation. Rey Quinones, per Wikipedia, "had a short career in Major League baseball." He is probably most well-known for being unable to pinch hit once because he had already returned to the clubhouse to play Nintendo. Oh, and he has a World Series Ring, too—he got it in 1996 as an administrator with the Yankees.
Understanding the Fan of the Era:
Similar to the fan who’s been around since the team’s inception, the fan of the 80s has acquired comfort with failure. It is the flavor of their daily bread and without it their hand trembles a little as they raise their Rainier tallboys. If the 80s fan was a sandwich, they would be a bread and butter sandwich because that’s nourishing enough, peanut butter is for winners, don’t you even think about asking me for jelly. If the 80s fan were music they would be Beck’s Sea Change or perhaps Bach’s "Come, Sweet Death." No amount of affirmation or affection can be too much for this human Pound Puppy; lay your beloved’s head in your lap and let them tell you all about Maury Wills.
1995 - 2001: The Golden Era
Okay, not all of these years were golden. And not all the years prior to 1995 were bad: the Mariners posted their first ever winning record in 1991, just fourteen years after the team’s inaugural season (they followed that up with a 64 - 98 record in 1992, those wily devils). And while the 1995 Mariners get all the glory, the success of that team begins in 1993, when the Mariners brought in former Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella. A large, often angry man obsessed with winning, Piniella was tough on his ballclub, once pulling over the team bus to make his players watch a youth baseball game while questioning their ability to beat either team. "Sweet Lou" is famous for his epic temper tantrums, throwing bases and kicking dirt in the direction of umpires who had scorned him, but he’s also a man who once, on a road trip to Chicago, took a single mother begging outside his hotel to the store and bought her $300 worth of groceries to feed her kids. He is a complicated, fiery, passionate, competitive, singular individual, and under his stewardship, the Mariners of the mid-90s to the early 2000s enjoyed a run of successes that have yet to be replicated in Seattle baseball.
The Double, obviously. If you are new to Seattle, or like the idea of a Halloween group costume where you can essentially lie on the floor and take a nap, commit the scene at home plate here to memory. It's that important.
A Name to Celebrate:
There are too many to list. Thanks to new ownership that was willing to spend more than a handful of Chuck E. Cheese tokens on players, Seattle was graced during this time with a parade of players who ranged from superstars to talented role-players: Ken Griffey Junior, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Tino Martinez and Dan Wilson all played on the 1995 team that won the AL west, along with the youngest player in MLB at that time: a nineteen-year old shortstop named Alex Rodriguez. Some of these players would remain with the club throughout the late 90s and into the early 2000s, and in 2001, its 25th anniversary, the team would win an AL-record 116 games and again win the AL West (they were helped out in this by signing Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, who played for the team for twelve years). Each time they made it to the postseason, the Mariners were defeated in the ALCS, by Cleveland in 1995 and by the Yankees in 2001, making them one of two franchises to have never appeared in the World Series. (The Mariners also finished first in the AL West in 1997, but lost to Baltimore in the ALDS.)
A Name of Agony:
Paul Assenmacher. Paul Assenmacher was a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the ALCS on Sunday, October 15, 1995, a day which is definitely not a day seared into my brain for all time. Cleveland held a 3 - 2 lead in the 7th inning when Griffey stepped up to bat with one out and runners at the corners. Assenmacher then proceeded to strike out both Griffey and Jay Buhner to help the Indians on to a victory, and force a Game 6, which the Mariners would lose. Assenmacher was entirely respectful when he walked off the mound after ending the Mariners’ threat. I will hate him until the end of my days.
Understanding the Fan of the Era:
Picture Miss Havisham, but wearing a 1995 AL Western Division Champions t-shirt. This fan took a peek into the landscape of the early 2000s, both in Mariners fandom and out of it, and firmly closed the door and locked it. Then nailed up some boards over that door. Then pushed some furniture in front of it. Then decided a bank vault wouldn’t be such a bad place to live, would it? This fan is very gratified that Doc Martens and denim shorteralls are back in fashion. If you are acquainted with a fan of this era, do not be alarmed by the BEEE BUUUUM KSHWAAAAAH sound they make every time they turn on a computer and connect it to the internet, but do make sure you have Safe Search enabled to cut off all results regarding Alex Rodriguez after 2001. If the person asks, say the Y2K bug got him.
2002 - 2008: A Slow Descent into Madness
After the heady excitement of various trips to the postseason, the Mariners decided it was time to take a break from winning for a while. They finished decently enough in 2002 and 2003, with the exact same record both years at 93 - 69—I’m sorry, I’m being told I’m legally required to define that record as "nice"—before playing a little refrigerator magnet poetry with the numbers in 2004 and finishing at 63 - 99, 69 - 93 in 2005, and 78 - 84 in 2006. The Mariners scraped together a winning record in 2007, but not before manager Mike Hargrove surprised everyone by resigning on July 1 after coaching the team for two and a half years, in the midst of an eight-game winning streak. After his departure, the Mariners would go on to lose nine games in a row at the end of August, knocking themselves out of contention for a spot in the ALDS despite a strong start to the season.
A Name to Celebrate:
Raul Ibanez. Bless his heart, this man has done three separate tours of duty with the Mariners: from 1996 - 2000, 2004 - 2008, and in 2013—and hit decently each of those times. In 2013 he hit 29 homeruns and tied Ted Williams for most homeruns hit in one season by anyone north of 40. 40! I’m 36 and the other day I tweaked something in my shoulder reaching for the light switch. Supposedly he slept in a hyperbaric chamber and his walkup music was Werewolves of London, which makes him a goth fan favorite. In 2011, players voted him the second-nicest player in baseball, which I think is even better than first-nicest because it seems more genuine. If someone asks you who your favorite Mariner is of all-time and you want to give a slightly unexpected answer, Raul Ibanez would be a solid choice.
A Name of Agony:
Bill Bavasi. Potions master and Gargamel cosplayer Bavasi was the GM of the Mariners between 2003 - 2008, a time when the Mariners had one winning season. He was fired in June of 2008 when the club sat at 24 - 45, the worst record in the league. Bavasi did many things over his years with the Mariners, and all of them were bad. He traded away Rafael Soriano, one of the team’s only decent relievers, for Horacio Ramirez, who would play one season with the team and record an ERA of 7.16 before being released. He signed players for exorbitant sums who put up pathetic numbers in Seattle, including Carl Everett, who batted .227 as DH and doesn’t believe in dinosaurs or the moon landing; Scott Spiezio, who was hitting .064 when he was released by the Mariners (he was later signed by the Cardinals and then released after it became apparent he had a substance abuse problem); and Richie Sexson, the inspiration for our logo here at LL—may its reign endure forever, may its fame continue as long as the sun—who signed a four-year, fifty-million dollar contract in which he was good the first year and lamentably awful the rest. Worst of all, Bavasi consistently traded players who are still playing in the majors today for players who underachieved in Seattle before washing out of baseball entirely. He sent away Shin-Soo Choo for Ben Broussard. He traded a bunch of players and Adam Jones, now a franchise player with Baltimore, for Erik Bedard, a pitcher with the durability and work ethic of a bowl of oatmeal. In short, he was terrible at his job, and the Mariners let him do it for five years.
If you know a fan of this era:
Don’t worry, you don’t.
2008 - 2015: The Jack Z Era
Almost every issue has people who possess the superhero-like ability to see both sides, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thought the Bill Bavasi era was cut off sooner than it should have been. As a replacement, management brought in a young, analytics-loving firebrand with a keen eye for scouting and sharp trading acumen. Just kidding! They hired Jack Zduriencik, whose name I just copy-paste whenever I need to spell it. If you would like a laugh, go check out Z’s carefully curated Wikipedia page, which contains this extremely delicately written sentence:
After an 85-77 finish in 2009, Zduriencik's teams slumped to 61-101 in 2010, 67-95 in 2011, 75-87 in 2012, and 71-91 in 2013.
Just a gentle slump, then, at 61 - 101. How bad was 2010? The last-place Mariners only scored 513 runs that year, the lowest total since the American League adopted the DH in 1973. They ranked last in the AL in team batting average (.236), number of hits, RBIs, homeruns, OBP, etc. They weren’t just bad, they were historically bad.
Jack Z’s failures and foibles have been documented many places, but especially here on LL, and recently, so there is no need to go into them to any extent. Bill Bavasi was given five years to run the team, and failed to make them competitive; Jack Z was given eight, which, even accounting for rebuilding after Bavasi’s reign, seems excessive. It is still relatively recent after Z’s firing—think of where you were eight years ago, how many lifetimes away that feels—but it seems safe to say he was not a good baseball manager for the Seattle Mariners, despite what his Wikipedia page might suggest.
A name to celebrate: FELIX. Felix Hernandez is basically the only good thing about the last ten years of Mariners baseball, and don’t you ever forget it.
A Name of Agony:
This is the inverse of the 1995 - 2001 years, as it's difficult to choose which of these pebbles lodges in your shoe with the most discomfort. Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, Carlos Silva, Josh Lueke, and how is Erik Bedard still playing what is that little accent over his name now does he think he can sneak by us? But instead of just one name of agony, I might have to go with the entire 2015 season here. Hopes were so high, and the results were so poor, and I drank so much beer.
Understanding the Fan of this Era:
You probably know someone who became a fan during this time, because it was the most recent chapter in team history, though woe betide anyone who cut their fandom teeth on these cinder blocks of years. If this person was a painting, they’d be Guernica or perhaps the canvases of Anselm Kiefer. If they were a song, they would be Green Day’s "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," played while looking at a slideshow of Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and Jesus Montero. If they were a poem, they would be this poem, "In the Desert" by Stephen Crane:
In the desertI saw a creature, naked, bestial,Who, squatting upon the ground,Held his heart in his hands,And ate of it.I said, "Is it good, friend?""It is bitter—bitter," he answered;"But I like it"Because it is bitter,"And because it is my heart."
2016: The Jerry Dipoto Era
We don’t know anything about Jerry Dipoto yet. We know that he was anxious enough to get away from Mike Scioscia and the Angels that he left in the middle of last season. We know that he’s handsome, and that he says the right things, and that he’s made moves that, from the outside, seem to make the club stronger. But we don't know what kind of team the Mariners will be yet, or what kind of fans we will be in response. We are standing on the first page of a new chapter, the story yet to be written. Of course it’s impossible to predict exactly how things will bear out over the regular season, but there is reason enough here for cautious optimism. If you’re new to the Mariners—welcome. You’ve picked a good time to come on board. We will see you at Safeco.