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The 2017 Mariners: The falsehood of failure and freedom from fear

The words “Mitch Haniger, All-Star” don’t appear in this article anywhere, don’t worry.

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

[Ed. note: This year, in lieu of the “If it all goes wrong/if it all goes right” posts, we will instead be featuring a few of our writers meditating on their expectations for the 2017 season. We’ll also do a more nitty-gritty predictions post later on. Andrew led us off and John is second, hitting in what appropriately enough may now be the Mitch Haniger spot.]

Every sport has its cliches. They float through press conferences and soundbites, tiresome and played out. Whatever bits of folksy wisdom they once held have been wrung ruthlessly from their now-dried husks. One has always bothered me more than most, though.

“Baseball is a game of failure.”

At its root, this refers to the idea that even the best hitters get out seven times out of ten. Mickey Mantle expanded on it once, noting that if all the outs he’d produced in his career had come at once, seven years of his career would have been pure failure. My connection to baseball comes mostly as a pitcher, so immediately I find this viewpoint unrelatably nihilistic.

This phrase is often extrapolated to larger messages within the sport, however, and that is where my eye-rolling turns to irateness.

Baseball is a game of preparation, of sustaining, and finding a way to make it work. Jamie Moyer’s tightrope act every five days made him my favorite pitcher to watch growing up. Félix’s masterpieces were awe-inspiring, but Hisashi Iwakuma was the artist I began to model my style on in college. “Funesse,” my fellow soft-throwing rotation mate and I dubbed our shared style. It wasn’t always successful, but it was the best we had at our disposal, and we made it work. All I could do was execute properly every time. Sometimes the results came, and it was beautiful. Sometimes they didn’t though, and that, I learned early on, wasn’t the end of the world. It couldn’t be, otherwise I’d have even less of a chance of executing the next time. Pitching is a beautiful thing in that sense.

You control more of the game than anyone when you stand on the mound. When each play begins. What the pitch will be. If desired, the pitcher could throw pickoffs for several hours until, desperate for food, water, or simply a change of scenery, the baserunner allowed themselves to be tagged out. All that control could be corrupting, but the moment the ball leaves your fingertips and spins towards the plate, any semblance of power evaporates. Success and failure are results-based analyses, a grave sin in sabermetrics and traditional scouting, and they fail to capture the value of the moment. This is what resonates most with me about this upcoming Mariners season.

The 2017 Mariners have question marks up and down their depth chart. A rotation without a single certainty. An outfield made up of a career platoon player, an enigmatic sparkplug, and a hyped but unproven rookie. A bullpen anchored by a star but starting the year down a number of veterans. An Opening Day roster without a player who has played more than 50 games in the major leagues at first base before in their career. A shortstop and a catcher who have mixed tantalizing peaks with devastating valleys. An aging core. A farm system that looks to have middling upside in the high minors and precious little further down the pipe. The potential for failure is everywhere.

Except that it doesn’t have to be.

Realism is important. Being thorough and accurate is essential when researching and writing, as it would be disingenuous to attempt to peddle snake oil for the short-sighted pleasure of being optimistic. Analyzing baseball requires objectivity. Grounding optimism and pessimism in reality are equally essential. Why, though, be cynical about baseball? Why see it as a potential vein for misery? Why, with so many hardships in the world that dance fiendishly out of our control, should we subject ourselves to baseball with a belief that it will be a failure?

I do not mean to say that I don’t see the clear potential for the Mariners to lose. I’m quite used to them doing so, and my own baseball career has followed a similar tradition. The last championship I won came when I was 11 years old. Combining high school and college, the school baseball teams I played for went a combined 65-172, with a .274 winning percentage that prorates to 44-118 in 162 games, or one game better than the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The Mariners have put up a .469 winning percentage over that same time period. Losing happens. Failure does not have to accompany it.

This Mariners team will be as unavoidably fun as any team in my lifetime, in any sport, in any city. James Paxton is ready to cast off his Big Three roots and finally become a Big Unit. Félix looks refreshed and improved from last year. Kuma and the back of the rotation may be shaky and diminished, but concerns about their pitches will be allayed as line drives and fly balls are snatched out of the air by the Marine Layer outfield. Those defensive boosts will come in handy as the bullpen rounds into shape ahead of Edwin Díaz, whose celebrations seem ripped straight out of NBA Jam instead of Jackson, Tennessee. Jean Segura is ready to take Safeco Field by storm, and has already changed its legal pronunciation. That aging core? Kyle Seager has played in over 152 games in each of the last five seasons. Nelson Cruz has done the same in the last three, and four of the last five, with the only hole being an absence due to suspension, not injury. Robinson Canó hasn’t played fewer than 156 games since 2006. Steady and Stable may be a program they need sooner than some of their teammates, but for now it’s still an apt description of their performance. The verve and camaraderie this team has played with since 2014 has made them a joy to watch, win or lose.

Wins and losses impact the experience, naturally, and 2015 was of course a more unpleasant experience than the year it followed or preceded, but even then it was still baseball, and baseball is too damn beautiful to waste time being upset about it. A fear of losing has been driven out of me by a lifetime of playing with teammates and coaches I loved and an expectation that victory was unlikely. Determining success by a record is logical, as it is the way in which the MLB values players and teams. In my life, however, the record ceased to determine the value of the experience long ago. The ceiling is higher for these Mariners, in terms of enjoyment as a fan, than any sports team in my recent memory. That may not be true for you, but that’s my truth. I don’t want to waste a moment in fear or misery when I could be sharing excitement and enjoyment with my friends, and loved ones, and this community. I would like to believe I am/we are the pitcher in my metaphor, about to release the ball that is this season, but in truth we are all in the stands, watching as Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners organization release their best-laid plans into the world. Let’s enjoy what they’ve built for us, and let’s enjoy it together. There is no failure in joy, and not a scoreboard to be found when measuring its success.

I have never been more excited for baseball season. If it all goes right, I will watch baseball games by myself and with friends, with fellow writers and with family, with members of this community and with complete strangers. We will laugh, we will argue, we will cheer loudly and groan collectively. We will eat and drink and type and dream. Dream of success, in baseball, in life, in love, in work, in school, in making it through Tuesday. No victory is too small to be a success, and if Mariners baseball is not bringing you joy you are, blessedly, not required to watch. You are, however, always welcome here. There will be no “I told you so’s” if the team soars or flops. I believe this team can and will make the playoffs, but that does not define them as a success or failure any more than being CEO or a janitor or a stripper or a farmer defines you as a successful human being (it does not). Life is not binary and sports, for all their veneer of meritocracy and simplicity, are not either. The only failure I can imagine would be forcing yourself to endure something you do not enjoy, so do not, please. I will be here, recapping and analyzing and searching for reasons for joy, because this team and this sport and this community are things that I love.

The defining moment of the 2016 season was not a series of grounders and bloopers finding outfield grass off an exhausted Edwin Díaz. No, it’s this:

Like Tyr after facing goddamn Fenrir, the one-armed Nelson Cruz saved the season. It only lasted a couple innings more, but as long as I live I will remember that moment, that euphoria, that hope. It did not dissipate after the final out. The Mariners didn’t Refuse to Lose, they refused to fail.

Whether you agree or not, let me make a proposal. Let’s grab a beer sometime. We can talk baseball, or about anything else that excites you and brings you joy. We love this team and the community it can help build, even if we may agree on nothing else. You may not care for this season’s team, this front office, this community, or even me personally. I don’t mind. This may be the corniest thing you’ve ever read here, but it's my honest truth. I hope that I can share that joy, because that’s at the heart of all of this. I want to know what brings you here, so that when the Mariners find success that we all can agree on, it will be a triumph for us all, without reservation. My schedule’s flexible, and the offer stands all season long. Maybe it’ll be October and a Mariners game will be on.

Wouldn’t that be something.