If you’re sick of it, I understand.
Fans are built to subsist on winning. When times are tough and wins scarce, a narrative will do. When the narrative isn’t hearty enough to fill bellies, hope is the next-best option. People need something to tune in for, something that keeps them coming to the ballpark.
It’s no secret that Mariners fans have been forced to rely on alternative means of subsistence. Without wins, a cohesive narrative, or reasonable hope, the Mariners have all but force-fed their fans the most reliable food of all: nostalgia.
Nostalgia is great. If you’re the one selling it. It’s cheap, it’s guaranteed to taste better than it actually is, and there’s a seemingly never-ending supply. The few good seasons in Mariner history, boiled down to a few marketable, freeze-dried moments. Forgive the cynicism, but how many different ways can The Double be sold to us? How many commemorative tee shirts? How many appreciation nights?
So if you’re sick of it, I understand.
At first, tonight seemed like just another one of those nights. This weekend was Ichiro Appreciation Weekend. Really? A random home series against the White Sox? With one of the least exciting or marketable teams coming to town, it was easy to look at this weekend’s series as just another one of those pre-packaged appreciation nights.
As each team finished their pre-game warm-ups, the grounds crew set up a podium between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. The Mariners, along with dozens of members of the organization, gathered around it. Ichiro walked up to the podium. Fans familiar with Ichiro and the team probably blinked a couple of times. Interpreter Antony Suzuki was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe the team would post subtitles on the scoreboard.
Ichiro’s introduction faded away. He looked up at the crowd.
“Thank you.” The crowd was silent. It’s possible that many didn’t realize the magnitude of those two words.
“I am so nervous,” said Ichiro with a thick accent. If there was any doubt or cynicism in the crowd, it disappeared. Ichiro doesn’t speak English well. He’s always given interviews through his interpreter. “Okay, let’s do this.”
For the next four or five minutes, Ichiro talked about his love for the current players and his love for the game. Most of all, however, he emphasized his love for the Seattle fans. He talked about how welcome he was made to feel. About how he wanted to come back last year and play in front of this crowd one last year.
These are all easy words to say. They were all the right things. They were reminiscent of the platitudes that players regurgitate to the media every day. None of it, however, was easy for Ichiro to say in English. “I am so nervous,” he began. He looked it. And that’s what made this speech different. That’s what made it more than nostalgia. Tonight, Ichiro let us know that he loves us just as much as we always loved him.
Once again, we were invited to live in the past. So it was fitting when, as Ichiro walked off of the field to a standing ovation, Félix Hernández walked out to start the game. If Ichiro reminded us of the love between fans and players, Félix was there to remind us of the fundamental injustices that are as present in baseball as in life.
Perhaps as inspired as anybody by Ichiro’s speech, Félix pitched his heart out.
Too many times have we seen Félix open the game by allowing a home run.
Too many times have we seen him make it through the first inning unscathed, but require 20 pitches to do so.
Too many times have we seen him chased after just a few innings.
Perhaps determined for tonight, of all nights, to be different, Félix pitched to contact. To their credit, his fielders got him through the first inning on just 11 pitches. The Mariners were summarily retired in their half, but the second inning took Félix just 10 pitches.
The Mariners, partially bedeviled by an atrocious strike zone, flailed at White Sox starter Dylan Cease’s pitches. It almost felt right. Félix was in a groove. It was him against his lineup. Just like in the old days, he would have to be near-perfect to have a chance. Just like in the old days, he was.
The third inning took him just nine pitches. The fourth inning just 12. The fifth inning took him 10. He wasn’t dominating with strikeouts like he used to, but with his almost immaculate command, he didn’t need to. It wasn’t quite the old Félix, but it also wasn’t quite the new Félix. It was the Félix we always wanted. A Félix that adapted and continued to succeed.
It almost hurt, watching him pitch so well. Why couldn’t he have always been this way? It almost felt like the fans were being taunted. Shown the reality they had wanted, but never had.
The Mariners finally broke through with a run in the fifth inning when Shed Long hit a solo home run to center. Félix had his lead.
Perhaps invigorated by the run, Félix got through the sixth with 12 pitches. Through six, he was sitting at just 64 pitches.
The White Sox finally drew blood off of the King in the seventh. A couple of hits and a walk loaded the bases with one out, and Félix induced a ground ball to Dee Gordon. Dee couldn’t quite get a grip on the ball, and the Mariners couldn’t quite get the double play. It was a tough play, but all too familiar.
Félix got out of the inning with just the one run allowed. The Mariners couldn’t score in the seventh, and Scott Servais pulled Félix. It almost felt right. That’s the fucked up part about nostalgia, isn’t it? Even the bad things almost feel comfortingly familiar.
The Mariners and the White Sox went back and forth, and neither could score for a couple of innings. Finally, in the bottom of the tenth, Omar Narváez hit a fly ball off the top of the fence. It’s still not clear whether it was actually a home run, but they called it a home run. The Mariners won.
The Mariners won, but that didn’t really matter.
The Mariners, who for so long have profited almost solely off of nostalgia (and a little bit of hope), asked their fans to once again look back to the past. Ichiro took a moment that would have been easy to fill with banal platitudes, and he made it something more. He made it genuine. He made himself vulnerable. He reminded the fans that they matter. He reminded us that we’re not just here because we love the Mariners. We’re here because we love baseball.
As difficult as that speech was to follow, Félix followed it up with a brilliant performance that felt almost mournful. He showed us what was. He showed us what wasn’t, but could have been. He gave us everything, but left us wanting more.
Sometimes, the Mariners make us really question why we stick around.
Tonight, they showed us.