The day after the wildfire smoke cleared and we could go outside again we sat out back with the lights on, wearing hoodies against the encroaching chill of autumn. We stared wordlessly into the creep of dark.
We knew as the night enveloped us, the hope we had so carefully tended and nurtured had withered into brittle leaves and moribund roots.
We pretend we simply feel nothing even as we know we still feel it all acutely. The spring of hope, the summer of shattered dreams, the coming fall and winter of dark and unknown. It presses down on us as the darkness presses the last reach of sun rays from the sky.
It shouldn’t have been like this. We never thought 2021 was the year we’d win it all. We were realistic about where the team was in the rebuild, where it was in relation to every other team in baseball. This wasn’t the year we’d have it all. But it shouldn’t have been a year that ended with nothing at all.
Our minds drift restlessly back to the spring. Back to the sunlight hours waking up and stretching themselves after their winter slumber. Back to blooming tulips and the first open windows of the year. There was hope. Hope for baseball, hope for the Mariners, hope for ourselves. Baseball would begin again in April. Jarred Kelenic was going to debut. Coronavirus vaccines were finding their way into arms. We began to dream—cautiously at first, then all at once—of the smell of garlic fries and the taste of warm beer in plastic cups while we perched on the outfield bleachers, laughing with our friends as the Mariners got in their reps and reached toward a future of rapture.
We probably should have seen the shadows that loomed before us. They seem laughably obvious in hindsight, don’t they?
The ship stuck in the mud of the Suez Canal with EVERGREEN plastered across its side. The spring injuries. The ghosts of Mariners past that floated and flitted through the lineups.
It all started to go wrong before spring even began.
We cycled between disbelief, anger, despair, and flabbergastation as we watched Kevin Mather casually dehumanize beloved Mariners players and cremate his job in the process. The face of the Mariners’ unknowable ownership group was dispatched to smooth it all over. Instead, John Stanton stumbled through a disastrous press conference in which he seemed befuddled that people were so upset. He could tell something bad had happened, but he could not seem to identify what it was.
The disconnect between us, the fans, and them, the owners, has always been long and gaping. Never more so that it was in February this year. They don’t get what we go through for them. They don’t understand the emotional turmoil of fandom. They don’t see what we see, the humanity of the players and the importance of their stories. The desire we have to be a part of it all.
We were mad, but we couldn’t stay away from the allure of watching Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez in the few televised spring games. We eagerly latched onto the promise they held with the same intensity with which we northwesterners go forth and bask in early spring sunshine. When the injuries popped up, we were disappointed, but we didn’t despair. They were typical spring annoyances. You lose a pitcher to Tommy John here, and a reigning Rookie of the Year to a knee tweak there. It happens. Even the odd quirky injury to the team’s most hyped prospect. How were we to know it was only the beginning?
In the spring we saw the ghosts of Mariners past lurking. We saw Alex Rodriguez’s drive for perfection in Kelenic’s intensity. We saw A-Rod’s swing when Julio wound up at the plate. Cal Raleigh channeled Jay Buhner in his stance, and by virtue of being a switch-hitting catching prospect, he conjured the ghost of Jason Varitek and that reviled trade. Not since the spring before Jose Cruz Jr.’s debut, has an outfielder been as anticipated as the Kelenic-Rodriguez duo. Cruz was supposed to come up and form with Ken Griffey Jr. in center and Buhner in right what Blaine Newnham of The Seattle Times dubbed, “The Mariners outfield for the ages.” It was an age that ended 2 months after it began.
The ghosts of Mariners past haunted us. Some of us disregarded them as filaments of bygone eras. Some of us embraced their cold misery, unwilling to pretend they had been exorcised. Even when we refused to acknowledge them, they whispered to us. Every national baseball preview column that couldn’t resist pointing out that the Mariners have never been to a World Series. That they haven’t reached the postseason in 20 years. That they exist in a realm of stoic ennui built upon decades of uninspired failure. We joke about curses and upside down tridents, but wonder how it is that our team got to be so unlucky.
As the season opened, we were focused simply on watching the prospects reach the majors, and the rookies bloom into stars. We wanted to believe it was going to happen. Opening Day was a celebration of joy, and a little taste of normalcy after a year in which time lost its meaning. If longer daylight hours coincided with the beginning of baseball, we could pretend for a few hours that we existed outside the real world.
Like so many past Mariners teams, this one had a broken bullpen. Leak after leak sprung in the Mariners’ ship. It filled with runs and sank to the bottom of the standings. Shohei Ohtani taunted the Mariners with visions of what could have been when the Angels came to town for a series during which he no-hit our hapless nautical men and bludgeoned a walk-off home run a couple days later.
Whether the team was out of sync or just all slumping at the same time, they couldn’t seem to find smooth seas. There were clubhouse squabbles and clear on-field frustration.
The games were tough, but there was still joy in watching our players. We cheered for their individual victories more than team victories. It was the only way to enjoy the season. It was why we’ll never forget the sight of Kyle Lewis laying crumpled in the center field grass. Or Mitch Haniger’s awkward slide into second base. It’s why we felt every ounce of Kelenic’s frustration with the first huge slump of his career, which began just two weeks after his staggering debut.
Kelenic was sent back to AAA to work it out. He wasn’t the only one. Some taxi service made a lot of money ferrying players between Seattle and Tacoma. The whole year it never felt like the prospects were making any progress. Maybe it was the effects of losing 2020. Maybe it was the pressure to progress. Maybe the Mariners are just forever fated to be a team that takes one step forward and two steps back.
The deadline trades brought a new kind of rain upon the year. Each announcement twisted our hearts. We tried to find hope in the returns, we tried to see the trades as good things. But they simply ripped out our baseball souls. There was a sort of ugly joy at seeing Kyle Seager in the postseason leading the Rays toward another World Series. There was a bitterness that threatened to choke us when Marco Gonzales made his first start for the Yankees.
We’ll forever be haunted by Jerry Dipoto’s despondency at a press conference after all those trades. He stood right there, looked us straight in the eye, and said that it’s over now. But he couldn’t quite believe it himself. The rebuild is still ongoing, he told us, it’s just delayed for a little while. But we knew, and he knew, that he wouldn’t be there to fix it. We pay our debt sometime.
It’s hard to explain the despair of Mariners fandom if you’ve haven’t lived through it.
In the spring we were realistic, curious, hopeful. Now that it is fall, we are cynical, apathetic, and drained. We face another winter of lockdowns, another cycle in a pandemic that refuses to abate. Another cycle in a rebuild that’s never complete. The ghosts of Mariners past flit and float and wait to be acknowledged and reckoned with. The Mariners are down in a hole and we don’t know if they can be saved.
The ship from the spring, stuck in the Suez. The baseball team from the Evergreen State stuck in the mud of the AL West. It’s simply the rime of ancient Mariners.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
About my neck was hung.