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If It All Goes Right

The Mariners give us something to believe

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Workouts Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

October 31, 2020

To my children,

It is Halloween today, and normally you’d be putting on costumes and getting ready to canvas the neighborhood. Instead we are home watching a Halloween episode of Daniel Tiger. In the midst of the sadness I feel about you two missing Halloween this year, I’m still relishing the baseball season that just ended. You will hear your dad and I talk about this season innumerable times, along with the 1995 and 2001 seasons. It’s a strange thing how this baseball team of ours will revel in decades of despair, then burst forth with a season of pure magic.

I’m writing this for you to read years from now because I want you to understand what it feels like right now. You will have lived the majority of your lives in “the new normal.” It’s a phrase everyone has bandied about this year, with a flippancy that belies the abrupt shift. In the space of half a year, life has irrevocably changed. Your innate understanding of the world will be different than mine. Perhaps this is true for every generation.

You will have learned about the coronavirus that spread across the globe in 2020. But, when the past is looked back upon, it becomes distorted by the historical lens. There’s no way to avoid that. History is subject to the biases of those leaving evidence behind, and those interpreting the events apply their biases and world view. The past gets alternately faded with nostalgia, and recycled through the prism of the present.

This year I’ve thought often about a passage Phillip Roth wrote in his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America:

“...the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as history, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

The history you hear and read about this year will trace backwards from the denouement. It will elevate the events that tie neatly into the story and discard the rest. It will forget what we felt, or didn’t feel, when the first case in the country was diagnosed in Washington State. It will forget what it felt like to become the first coronavirus hot spot in the country, what it felt like to watch the governor hold daily news conferences. It will forget the fear and uncertainty as sports began to shut down in March. It won’t understand what it was like to have the rug beneath the cornerstones of our lives pulled away. The Olympics were canceled, schools were closed, there was no traffic on 405, and we began wiping our groceries with Clorox.

History will note the uncertainty and opinions about playing sports in the midst of a poorly controlled pandemic. It will forget the gnawing nausea, the trepidatious excitement, and the hesitant joy as baseball came back.

Time will smother the jagged rawness we all felt the night Shed Long hit the home run to win the division. Rick Rizzs channeled Dave Niehaus in his radio call, shouting into an uncertain world, his voice pregnant with multitudes, “Nineteen long years of frustration is once again OVER!” as the players tumbled about each other on the field like puppies, blissfully ignorant to the seriousness of the world around them for a few joyful moments. History will wrap them up in cliches about baseball healing the nation and bringing people together in the midst of suffering. It will forget what it felt like when we all started to believe.

The Mariners began the season with a sort of listless hopelessness. That opening series sweep by the Astros particularly stings. Losing the next three of four to the Angels was rough. As the loss column added tallies, we resigned ourselves to cheering for a high draft pick. We hadn’t had high expectations for the season, but with the prospects and young players getting time on the diamond, we thought it would be better than this. It wasn’t just the losses that discouraged us; the team looked dismal.

It was nearly three weeks into a nine week season when, suddenly, everything turned around. On a Wednesday night against the Angels it felt like the dog days of a normal-season August campaign by a playoff hopeless team. The heat had made everyone cranky and the comments on Lookout Landing were snarkier than normal, reflecting a general atmosphere of malaise among Mariners fans. Then, one defensive play changed the entire season.

J. P. Crawford went so far to his right on a sharp ground ball, he was practically in the Seahawks’ end zone. How he got to that ball, as far as he went and as hard as it was hit, was incredible on its own. He got his feet under him, popped up, and threw a laser right into Evan White’s first base glove. The loud “snap” as the ball hit the leather immediately changed the atmosphere. The air felt less stagnantly heavy with August heat and 2020 anxiety. Our moods lightened, and our worldly troubles flitted away for a few moments.

The Mariners didn’t win that game, but you could see that they felt the change too. Their swings were a bit sharper, their pitches had more bite. Taijuan Walker started the next day. He pitched the way we imagined he would when he was drafted ten years ago. It was the first fun game of the season. I can still see Dee Gordon laughing, standing on third base after that strange little blooper he hit in the eighth inning, racing around the bases with the glee of a child. I can still see Kyle Lewis hit that home run to drive in Gordon and put the Mariners ahead. It was a moon shot, the very definition of a towering home run. It hung up in the air and time stopped. We watched its long, high arc and in between thinking it might leave the ballpark entirely and the moment it landed in the last row of the left field bleachers, we remembered how to hope.

Now, we get to the part you will have heard many times. After that terrible start, the Mariners suddenly could not lose a game. They went to Texas and swept the Rangers and the Astros. They played with a joy and lightness that satisfied our craving for joy and lightness. They must have decided that if they were going to play baseball, they were going to play like they may never play again.

Into September, they just kept winning. It felt like the entire world fell in love with our team and our players. Even the east coast, which was asleep long before Mariners games ended, was forced to notice. The Mariners were serious post-season contenders. Our days were filled with worry, about the coronavirus, about our jobs, wondering when schools would open. Our evenings were filled with the Mariners. History will say that we were captivated by a winning team. That’s not wrong, but it doesn’t capture the way the terror of the unforeseen softened its bite as we let go of our daytime worries and enjoyed each game. We didn’t lean on baseball to make us forget the world. We watched this team that played like children in backyards because it allowed us to live, rather than simply exist, in the reality of the world in 2020.

We watched the Mariners play through September, never expecting them to keep winning. We talked about the playoffs without really thinking they’d make it that far. But we sure believed. It wasn’t that we believed they’d win the World Series. We didn’t even believe the team was as good as they were playing; we knew they were an aberration, the result of a short season and an unusual year. We believed that things would change. For all the talk about “when this is over” and the “new normal”, we were stuck waiting to get there. This season we watched the Mariners play and for a few hours we relinquished control over waiting for whatever was next. We learned that it was possible to live in an uncertain moment.

History will look back at this season and trace back from the night in Los Angeles when the final out was recorded and the Mariners were the Champions of Baseball. It will look at the adjustments the pitching staff made, it will praise the Mariners’ player development. It will note that an entire city, state, and, by the middle of September, an entire country was enthralled with our little team.

History will forget the way everything surrounding this season felt. It will mock the championship coming in a short season, suggesting that it doesn’t really count. History will forget it wasn’t ever really about the banner hanging in the rafters of a ballpark. The history of this season will forget the power of all of us learning to believe. It counted more than any other season the Mariners have played.

Kids, I’m writing to you about baseball, but it wasn’t the baseball that was important. I’m writing about baseball because I want you to understand the power of belief. No matter what turns your lives take, I want you to understand the freedom that comes from letting go of your illusions of control and finding the joy where it is.

I want you to believe.