It’s a crisp fall afternoon in Seattle. The leaves started changing a few weeks back, school has been in full swing, and the days are beginning to get a little wetter, bit by bit.
But there’s something else going on, a buzzing around town unlike any since 2012. It’s not a bandwagon, per se. It’s just excitement, anticipation, a sense of we’re-all-in-this-together. It’s the topic of conversation at every coffee shop, between you and your Metro driver, or you and that checker at PCC, or you and your parents.
How did we get here? How did we hype ourselves up after such a dismal offseason, one that saw the Mariners trade away so many of their best players amidst scandal? How, after so many years of pent-up frustration and dreams dashed, have we allowed ourselves to finally, finally hope?
I remember that first exhibition game at T-Mobile Park (still takes some getting used to) way back in March. It was a cold, dreary Monday evening, and Mike Leake gave up six runs in the first inning. The Mariners struck out 17 times and mustered a paltry two hits. The romance of the Japan series? Gone. Baseball was once again a chore, assigned to the Seattle Nine in those powder blue uniforms and painfully witnessed by a scattered few.
Even once the season started, not a whole lot changed. Félix looked a bit better than expected every fifth day, sure, and I guess the bullpen wasn’t as bad as we feared, but the team was scuffling along to be sure. The Astros were cruising in first place. The Rangers were comfortably in last. The world was more or less as it should be: nice and orderly.
So when did things turn around? Was it Kyle Seager’s first game back in late May, when he hit that walkoff homer in the 13th? Was it Yusei Kikuchi’s flirtation with a no-hitter on a weekday summer afternoon, almost mirroring Kuma’s legendary gem from a few years ago? Or maybe Mitch Haniger’s three-run triple that gave him a cycle and the Mariners a lead, and eventually a series sweep, against the Angels?
It wouldn’t be hard to just pick one of those moments. But here’s the thing about Mariners fans: We’re skeptical! We don’t just buy in because things are all hunky-dory. That’s bitten us in the rear far, far too many times.
So instead we stood back, cautious, contemplative. And you know what? The M’s kept winning. They were 12 games above .500 at the All-Star Break, and then 16 up by the trade deadline. They moved Edwin Encarnacion, but instead of a prospect, they grabbed a decent reliever and flexed their financial muscle (!) to do so. All the while, the lineup kept hitting. Have you ever seen a lineup where eight of the nine starters have a wRC+ of 100 or better? It almost doesn’t matter how many runs the rotation allows (and outside of Marco’s starts, boy, did they allow runs) when you score in bunches.
Murphy’s Law states that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” I guess we were living in a bizarro world, then, because even down on the farm things were going right. Jarred Kelenic kept up his workouts and kept flashing his five-tool potential. Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford quickly graduated from AAA and looked pretty good in their time with the big club. Julio was JULIOOOOOOO. Kyle Lewis looked like the guy we drafted, finally recovered from his harrowing knee injury from a few years ago. And a few other prospects hit, too, showing flashes of even more than we could’ve expected.
When we hit that late-August slump everybody was expecting, a few people threw in the towel. Really, could you blame them? After so many years of heartbreak, walking away is perhaps the most effective defense mechanism. Yet with all the injuries going on in Cleveland, and the A’s coming back down to Earth (and a little bit of run differential magic in the Emerald City), the M’s found themselves in a wild card spot entering September.
And then...they held on.
There’s no rational explanation to say how this happened, how a team pegged to finish fourth — maaaaybe! — in the division finished with 88 wins and a wild card spot. It just, kinda sorta, happened.
Writer and Yale graduate Marina Keegan wrote a piece for her commencement a few years back called “The Opposite of Loneliness.” It went viral after her tragic death in a car accident just days following her graduation. Her words really resonate with me:
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life...
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.
She may have been talking about college, but I’m not sure there’s a better way to sum up baseball, or a better way to sum up this crazy bunch of Mariners fans. No matter how bad this team has been, we’ve had the opposite of loneliness hanging around. We’re in this together. We’ve spent so many years rooting for our guys to turn it around, hoping against hope that this will be the team we wistfully reminisce about for years to come.
We want to tell our kids, someday, about Omar Narváez’s walkoff double down the line to beat the Astros in late September, or that vintage Félix performance just a day later where he struck out eight in seven shutout innings.
We want to tell them about our community, our dreams, our fears and our resiliency for so many years.
We want to tell them about that crack of the bat, or the electricity filling the air at a pitcher’s duel, or the watch parties — the watch parties! — happening as the Mariners inched closer, closer, closer to the Promised Land.
We want to walk them through this beautiful possibility, because perhaps, together, this can become reality.
This year started with no expectations. Baseball could maybe serve as an escape, perhaps a palate cleanser and a wonderful complement to summer evenings. But it quickly became more. It always becomes more. It always becomes that thing we rely on.
On the last day of the season, when the Mariners were just one out away from clinching a playoff spot for the first time in almost two freaking decades, the crowd at T-Mobile Park stood as one. After Hunter Strickland blew strike three past poor, overmatched Matt Chapman, there was a pause. A collective inhale of breath, as if this gave us life.
Then, a roar.
And it’s that same roar I can feel now on Occidental Ave. Throngs of Mariners fans are around me, all around me, all around me. It’s the usual mess of bikers and hot dog stands and that one guy with the megaphone. But it’s more than that.
Because today, we’re seeing the beauty of playoff baseball unfurl in front of our eyes. We’re partaking in a moment that we’ll remember forever. And as that first pitch spins out of Félix’s hand, with tens of thousands of fans just watching together, we realize that baseball is life, baseball is life, baseball is life.
For once, the Mariners, too, are life.