Disclaimer: I am not exceptionally familiar with the Star Wars. I have seen one, maybe two of the movies in my lifetime: the first one as a study in storytelling, and bits and pieces of the other two in the original trilogy because I was working at the movie theatre when the re-issue came out (I worked at the now-demolished Southcenter theatre, which was like a low-rent Cinerama; we had one enormous screen, half the seats were broken at any one time, and it was the most wonderful place on earth). Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by the debate over the latest movie, The Last Jedi, which seems to have generated one of the more divisive fan reactions of the franchise—there’s even a petition to have it removed from the canon (warning: spoilers; also, the originator of the petition has since said he was high on pain meds and upset when he authored the call). Some have speculated that the disappointment and outright anger at the film is largely located in the fact that TLJ subverted or outright ignored many popular fan theories that sprung to life after the film’s last installment, leading author Chuck Wendig to reflect on his blog (again, if you click the link, caution, spoilers):
Fandom is a tricky bear to wrestle. We love a thing so deeply, we entwine ourselves within it. We thread a little bit — sometimes a lot — of our identity into the thing. And we come to believe we own that thing, and further, we join a tribe of fellow owners who all have threaded themselves into it both intellectually and emotionally. We feel excited by what this thing can bring us. We develop pet theories. We craft and conjure the path we would take if we were ever handed the keys to the Thing We Love. We become excited and obsessive, a little bit. Sometimes a lotta bit.
In November, we at LL devoted countless hours to creating our own in-depth fan theory of what this off-season might look like. We weighed options and researched contracts and argued among ourselves and did math and eventually agreed upon a path to contention that we thought made sense.
We didn’t even have the last installment up before Dipoto made the Ryon Healy trade, stripping away something we had seen as an integral part of the bullpen in Emilio Pagán and replacing him with someone none of us would have ever guessed at. In a market teeming with viable 1B FA options, choosing to import a player who put up a wRC+ of an even 100 in 2017—while trading away one of the most reliable pieces of a volatile bullpen—seemed like a weird choice. It didn’t fit any of our pet theories, theories for which we’d spent hours researching and building cases. Furthermore, it felt...deflating. Unexciting. Sometimes you don’t realize how hard you’ve been holding on to an expectation until it’s suddenly gone.
The off-season has continued in this fashion. Dee Gordon was acquired...to play center field. The team sent a million dollars of its formerly precious slot money to re-acquire a player who they had previously traded away, LHP Anthony I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-learn-to-spell-this-again Misiewicz. They sent promising low-A strikeout king JP Sears and another pitcher to the Yankees for the unproven Nick Rumbelow, traded slot money for the out-of-options Shawn Armstrong, and claimed another pair of similarly unremarkable pitchers off waivers. They took Mike Ford in the Rule 5 draft to play a position they ostensibly just traded to fill. Other teams have jumped on international signings while the Mariners have remained quiet, their biggest international move being granting two pitchers their releases to go play overseas. It’s been a weird, slow, frustrating off-season, and people aren’t happy. The fanbase is rumbling; even the beat writers are nonplussed. As the Angels load up their death-to-groundballs infield and the Rangers look to add pitching and the Astros keep on being the Astros, it’s hard to see a path to contention as the Mariners seemingly, maddeningly, sit on their hands. The identity we have threaded into this thing, intellectually and emotionally—our very fandom—is threatened. It’s hard to see, even for those who follow the team very closely, how a path to contention is being laid. From this vantage point, it’s hard to see anything but another installment in the franchise that doesn’t advance the storyline, that does little more than spin the wheels while the principal actors age another year.
To return to Wendig:
But here’s the thing:
Stories can never be written for the fans.
This is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those who spend hours thinking about, writing about, tweeting about this team per week. When the team acts contrary to your expectations, it’s a reminder that one’s sense of ownership, cultured with time and effort, is an illusion. Fans will forever be on the outside looking in.
Some franchises strive to heal this divide with something Wendig calls “fan service,” the wink-and-nod that slyly acknowledges the tropes of fandom, an inside joke, for insiders. It’s callbacks that reward a fanbase’s long investment with a franchise; it’s nods to popular portmanteau couple names making their way into a show; it’s Leyla Harrison. Sometimes this is done in bad faith, like when an episode of Sherlock put a fan community front and center only to expose how off-base their theories were. But largely, fan service exists to show that the communication isn’t entirely one-way after all; that the showrunners hear the fans, even as they subvert their expectations.
Jerry Dipoto knows that the fanbase wants him to sign Yu Darvish. He has taken every opportunity to gently say that will not happen. Sometimes things Jerry says won’t happen do anyway—like when he says there are no more major moves coming, only to make two or three more such moves—because the market is a living entity and things shift daily. You show up thinking you’re buying cannellini beans for a nice cassoulet and there’s a Dee Gordon with a Today’s Special sign around his neck. But Jerry Dipoto also knows stories can’t be written for the fans. A splashy free agency signing or two may placate the fanbase in the moment, but he’s also looking three, five, or seven years down the road and trying to safeguard the club against being old and expensive—older and more expensive than it is now.
Dipoto’s concession to fan service is to make multiple media appearances, to be the Glass Door GM. In these, he is always careful to present a measured countenance, being as transparent as he can while not tipping his hand to the competition, but lately the mask has slipped a little. “A lot of people tend to think about the things we don’t have instead of the things we do have,” he said on the Hot Stove podcast on December 15. “We’ve got seven players who have made All-Star teams in the last few years. I don’t know how many teams can boast that and still generally be poo-pooed,” he added with a little laugh, a frustrated-sounding thing.
And Dipoto is frustrated. He’s frustrated by the perception that the Mariners are old—while they certainly aren’t young, they aren’t as old as they were, and the 2017 Astros were just a tick older than the Mariners, on balance; the Angels were the second-oldest team in baseball last year and will only get older with the addition of Zack Cozart (32) and Ian Kinsler (35). And perhaps, he’s also frustrated by the calls to add a long-term free agent like Darvish to a team that’s supposed to be getting younger.
Meanwhile, the fanbase is frustrated with the specter of another year where the team misses out on the playoffs. They don’t care about how things set up for the next movie; they want to be entertained, now, damn the torpedoes. It’s an unfortunate year for the Mariners not to have Fan Fest because this year, especially, the glass separating the fandom from the showrunners is especially opaque. Dipoto might not be willing to concede a major free agency signing in the name of fan service, but after a disappointing 2017 campaign and the deflation of the Ohtani loss, something has to be done to get fans back into excited-and-obsessive mode. The intellectual and emotional threads connecting some fans to this perennially disappointing team have grown worn and frayed, and a poor start to 2018 might cause them to snap entirely.