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Keep Fighting/Refuse to Lose Redux

Time after time after time

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Seattle Mariners
“even though I reject the metanarrative I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUUUUUUUN!”
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One day near the end of her life, my grandmother grabbed my hand and whispered, fervently: “don’t ever get old.” It was terrifying, and also largely lost on a 25-year-old whose major functions remained intact. Now, just about a decade removed from that encounter, I am beginning to understand what she meant, as my body begins to show its first signs of what will be a decades-long betrayal. Age does not offer many gifts, only reapings.

One thing aging does grant you is a sense of history, a recognition of the kind of stories that recur throughout your life. I remember 1995 and Refuse to Lose. I remember fighting with my sister over who got the sign the Seattle Times handed out, and taping it into the back window of the family minivan. I remember staying up to watch the games, cross-legged in front of the TV like I’d sat since I was little, putting off homework to watch the games. I remember the chants echoing off the ceiling of the Kingdome, the t-shirts, the way those three words were shorthand for a region’s hope. Refuse to Lose.

What I don’t really remember is where it came from, only that we were all suddenly saying it. As best I can recall (and thanks to those on the Twitterverse I crowdsourced for memories), it was this sign, going whatever the mid-90s equivalent of viral was:

There are two reactions when one talks about 1995: a leaning in and a leaning away. The leaning in is usually done by veterans, people who were there, who want to tell their 1995 stories. But for those who lean away, there’s often a fatigue associated with 1995 that doesn’t exist for the 2001 team, doesn’t yet exist for the 2013 Seahawks. Why drag up that ancient history again, why spend time sifting through the rusty vault of the past when there’s a team right here in the right now that’s telling their own stories?

When I was in my 20s, I loved postmodernist fiction. I read Lyotard and declared the master narrative dead (you can do that kind of stuff when you’re in your 20s). Especially after 9/11, my tastes ran to splintered realities, prose that investigates the instability of language itself, fractured consciousnesses and unreliable narrators—I chucked out the traditional plot and the hero’s journey as a symbol of a hegemony that no longer accurately depicted the world as I knew it. But a curious thing has happened as I have entered my 30s and my taste in literature has shifted back towards the center, towards more traditional plot-driven narratives; I find myself more and more convinced that there are a limited number of stories and an unlimited number of ways to tell them. When I first read Tolstoy’s famous assertion that there are only two stories—a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town—I chafed at the notion, but now, having absorbed an innumerable amount of stories (and met many, many people, which is akin to reading a story), I have begun to think the center can hold, after all.

There have been a bevvy of Mariners catchphrases over the years, so much so that if catchphrases were championships, oh how these beggars would ride. But none have been the greatness of Refuse to Lose. Refuse to Lose sprang up organically; it wasn’t the brainchild of a marketing department, or bandied about in preseason ads. It was a fan with a sign, and then many more fans with many more signs, and then it snowballed into a motto. There is some controversy about that fan with the sign, the unfortunately-named John Schupisser, and who owns the phrase. But as John McLaren, the bench coach for the 1995 team, remembers:

The fans would not let us quit. They absolutely supported us, pushed us to the hilt. We were on the bench one day, I’ll never forget it. We’re waiting for the umpires to come out, and I’m looking out toward left-center, and there’s this sign: “Refuse to Lose.” I said, “That’s a neat thing, Lou.” And Lou started talking about it. He said, “You know, that’s got a little rhyme to it.” As we kept going, there were 10, 20 signs, and they were all over the place. After a while, we rode it. Refuse To Lose. That was our thing.

The human impulse towards narrative is as old as language itself. Stories are our way of making sense of a world that is often chaotic and confusing, and a way of making meaning, of connecting our small human lives to the lives of those around us. They can be a mirror and a bridge. One of the great pleasures of experiencing a story is feeling connected to a character or an idea, the ability to recognize yourself writ large. What I didn’t understand when I was 20, what I am still working on understanding, is that we can control the stories that we tell about ourselves. You can look at a banner in the stands and say, that’s a neat thing, and then develop that into being your thing. There may be a finite number of stories, but you can find one in which you recognize yourself—or at least the beginnings of the self you want to be.

Here’s the power of self-story in action:

The 2016 Mariners have found their story:

They have found their story, and it’s one with a direct link to 1995. In his ceremony at Safeco on Saturday, Ken Griffey Junior turned to the team in the dugout and addressed them directly, saying: “Keep fighting, because we’re all rooting for you.” Including Friday, since that speech we have seen two gutsy Félix performances, a near-complete game by Paxton, a dramatic comeback spearheaded by local kid Shawn O’Malley, seven shutout innings from Kuma, and an improbable fifteen-inning victory where every member of the bullpen with a functional arm took a turn pitching. #KeepFighting became a trending hashtag on Twitter. Scott Servais mentioned the importance of the ceremony in his postgame comments yesterday. The players are buying in, too:

Keep fighting. The narrative corollary to Occam’s Razor: the simplest stories are often the truest ones. The Mariners are telling Tolstoy’s two stories in overlapping circles. In each game, they are either the strangers visiting or visited upon by strangers; each game is a journey through those nine innings. Within those broad outlines, they are coming up with new ways to tell stories about themselves. Like a Greek chorus at the invention of the monologue, they take turns donning the Swelmet (another fan-made artifact that has become central to the story of this season) and stepping out to deliver their contribution to the narrative. For the first time in years, the Mariners have a front office that understands the importance of stories. It began with Control the Zone, a simple mantra that has nonetheless transformed the farm system (all full-season affiliates have already matched their win total from last year) and possibly healed the broken Christmas toy of Mike Zunino. Now it’s Keep Fighting. Be patient with those of us who were here for 1995. Wisdom is one of the few gifts age grants, and we have seen firsthand how the simplest stories can become something bigger than all of us.