A show that I enjoy very much is The Good Place. I like it for many reasons, not least of which is the pitch-perfect cast, but also because, in a world that is getting harder to love every day, it presents the world as worthy of loving; argues, in fact, that it is necessary to love it and the people within, and not for any “moral dessert,” but simply because being good is important, and putting good things into the world is important, and the right thing to do, and doing the right thing matters. The show also makes the audacious claim that most people are good; flawed, to varying degrees, but mostly good, and with a pathway to being better. I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of baseball and morality lately, for obvious reasons, and how to love baseball despite its flaws, and the flawed people who play the sport.
It’s a conversation that’s a larger extension of the conversation I’ve been having with myself about these 2018 Mariners since the off-season, since the refusal to add a starting pitcher, the highwire act of asking a career second baseman to shift to center, picking up a walks-allergic first baseman. The 2018 Mariners had obvious, notable, glaring flaws from the outset, and yet they dared us to love them anyway. The walks-allergic first baseman mashed some huge dingers at key points and delivered a signature walkoff win. The career second baseman is now back at the keystone making highlight-reel plays. The pitching staff continued to survive, night after night. Things got really fun as the Mariners built out a lead for a Wild Card spot, built some adorable relationships between teammates, and built up a downtrodden fanbase’s faith. Being very, very good, like saint-level or Astros’ pitching staff by WAR-level, is difficult, and often takes a good share of luck; as Lorrie Moore says, “what is a halo but a handsome accident of light and dust?” But maybe the Mariners didn’t have to be very, very good. Maybe they just had to be good enough.
For three months, they were. But a protracted July swoon combined with a red-hot A’s team has caused the Mariners to chew through their Wild-Card lead until today, finally, they relinquished it. Wade LeBlanc struggled to throw his changeup, his best pitch, for strikes, leading him to catch too much of the plate to an Astros team that made laissez-fair balls out of Wade’s lesser offerings. Nick Vincent came in and promptly surrendered a three-run home run to Max Stassi, a person and not a drugstore body spray, for the kill shot. The Astros scored seven of their eight runs on the longball today, making Safeco look tiny and the Mariners’ chances at the postseason tinier still. Dallas Keuchel wasn’t exactly unhittable, with the tag-team of Andrew Romine and Zach Vincej (!) doing back-to-back damage to answer back in the second and bring the Mariners within a run, and Cruz pitched in a solo homer, as he is wont to do lately since no one is ever on base in front of him anymore. However, Stassi’s three-run shot was essentially game over for the Mariners, crushing their win expectancy for this game from around 20% to about 3%. Nick Vincent has been very poor since returning from the DL; his HR/FB rate has about doubled, as has his FIP, while his K% has plummeted by almost 10 points. Bringing him in in a situation where the worst possible outcome is a high-probability outcome is beyond bullpen mismanagement; it’s bullpen malpractice. The “just gotta win by one” strategy doesn’t work when the run deficit stacks up like a game of Tetris played by a toddler.
The Mariners were good enough to climb to twenty-ish games over .500. It should be good enough in a year where the teams in the AL are divided into Good and Mediocre/Historically Bad, with the lower half of that group taking up the lion’s share of space. But as Eleanor learns, to get to the Good Place one has to be incredibly, impossibly good, and do it all the time. She bemoans the fact there is no Medium Place:
The Mariners had a Medium Place, and it was the second Wild Card (the first Wild Card, of course, belongs to the clearly Good-Place Yankees). Now they have to share that place with a team that might surpass them over a coming tough August stretch. Eleanor resents how hard it is to get into the Good Place: “This system sucks! One in a million gets to go to heaven and everyone else is tortured for eternity?” It’s unfair, to Eleanor, how many people wind up beneath the line, that there is no place for flawed but well-intentioned people that doesn’t result in becoming “the main ingredient in a chowder of pain.” Later, Eleanor will learn that there is a Medium Place, but it’s a single-occupancy kind of setup. The Mariners have their Medium Place, but they might be too flawed to stay there.