In the Beginning
There’s a story that I’ve heard about a downtrodden kingdom. This kingdom rose up to claim its independence in a political landscape already fraught with major powers. They didn’t fight for their land so much as take it - the major powers didn’t really give a shit about the wet marshes these people inhabited. For years and years, the people of the kingdom were bullied and persecuted by those stronger than them. A meaningless laughingstock rather than a political player of any real significance, the people suffered under the harsh rule of the powers that were.
At a certain point, the rulers of the kingdom were ready to throw in the towel. “These marshes aren’t worth it,” they began to admit. “No kingdom can have success in such a wetland as this. If we are to survive, then we must move.”
Rumors of the move began to spread throughout the kingdom. The people of the kingdom were terrified by the prospect of having their lives uprooted, and the soldiers seemed resigned to defeat until the move. Complacency was all they knew.
Until one soldier, E. Martinez, took matters into his own hands. A sort of Reverse-Sampson, this man shaved off his glorious moustache. Had it been holding him back? Had its glory been distracting and outshining the other soldiers?
The reason is irrelevant. The newly naked-lipped soldier led his legion into one final battle to keep the marshes and swamps, and fought harder than he ever had before. The kingdom emerged victorious, and the cry of the bard Niehaus heralding their victory would become imprinted onto the minds of all the denizens of the swamp.
The kingdom enjoyed an unprecedented level of prosperity and opulence for six years. In the sixth year, the soldiers drove back all challengers, becoming the most feared army in decades. And, though the final battle eluded them, prolonged success seemed all but guaranteed.
Even the strongest kingdoms, however, are susceptible to the shortcomings of humankind. Especially those with a legacy of coming short. And what downfall could be more classical than lust or greed? Make no mistake, it was greed that would again throw the kingdom into anarchy.
On July 4th, 2002, the Seattle Mariners were in 1st place of the American League West Division by a comfortable margin. Their record was 54-31 and they had a five game lead over the 2nd place Angels. They’d just come off a record-tying 116 win season, and they looked to be one of the favorites for the pennant that had only just eluded them the year before. The fans who had previously been so accustomed to squalor had grown fat off their triumphs. The leadership of the team had become greedy.
One innocent scout, a mere recon agent sent into Venezuela to search for new talent, had encountered a veritable diamond in the rough a year earlier. Felix Hernandez was a 14-year-old kid who idolized Freddy Garcia and threw 90+ MPH. Who wouldn’t want him?
On July 4th, 2002, the already-rich Mariners signed their future king at the age of 16. A couple months later, the team collapsed and missed out on a playoff spot. After another year of being not-quite-good-enough for the playoffs, the team entered what has become its second dark age. The beacon of hope for this entire period has been Felix.
Thrust into the role of savior, he has responded as well as anyone could reasonably hope. He threw a perfect game. He won a Cy Young Award. He’s been one of the most emotionally-charged members of teams that have otherwise engendered apathy. The team has created promotions centered around him, and for years he was pretty much the only thing that made this team tolerable.
He’s done every single thing but win. That isn’t to say that it’s his fault. It’s almost certainly a coincidence, but the team’s signing of Felix marked nearly the exact beginning of their sixteen year collapse. Call it a curse, call it bad luck, call it whatever you want - the fact remains that for as long as the Mariners’ best amateur-signed pitcher - and maybe best, period - has been with the organization, they’ve lost.
There are plenty of other people to blame. The names of tyrants will forever take up space deep in the synapses and axons of our brains - Bavasi, Zduriencik, Wakamatsu, Figgins, Wedge. Too many names for too little skull-space. Barring a thorough lobotomy, nobody’s forgetting those names any time soon. Maybe the thing this organization needs is to pass the torch. For Felix to be able to just be a pitcher instead of having to be the pitcher. For some sort of heir to emerge.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Shohei Ohtani wants to be an heir, particularly to a legacy as fraught as this one, or if he even wants to shoulder the responsibility of leading a franchise. If he does, in twenty years maybe someone will write something about how he was the one to take a struggling team and turn it around. Not all Mariners fans will remember the names of every terrible player who has been a part of this franchise, but every fan knows these names - Edgar, Griffey, Ichiro, Felix, Cano...
And maybe this time next week, Ohtani.