I know how to make myself very, very cocky and annoying. That’s my character. I enjoy doing it. People hate it. But I don’t mind it when people hate it...Just because I’m confident and will tell you that I’m awesome and that I’m great, I’m all of the sudden the bad guy? Why am I always the bad guy? - WWE Superstar The Miz
While “the heel” is an established element in today’s professional wrestling, the roots of the heel go back less than a hundred years, to one George Raymond Wagner, born in Nebraska in 1915 to a family of German descent. Maybe it was his German heritage at a time when anti-German sentiment ran rampant across the nation, or maybe it was that, for a professional wrestler, George checked in at a relatively diminutive 5’9”, but George Wagner decided he needed a gimmick, and in the early 1940s he debuted a new persona.
“Gorgeous George” essentially invented the over-the-top entrance seen in today’s WWE, striding into the arena wearing a headful of dyed-platinum blonde locks styled like a long-decapitated French royal, clad in a cape that might be velvet, satin, sequined, fur-lined, gold lamé, or all of the above. An attendant scurried before him strewing rose petals and squirting disinfectant/perfume.
The war-dazed, post-Depression public, clutching books of ration coupons and wearing suits that were more mending than fabric, absolutely hated him. They hated him like an art form. They hated him so much that for years, they filled arenas across America to tell him how much they hated him and his “glamor boy” image. They hated him so much they made the show featuring his matches, airing on a new media called television, one of the first profitable TV programs, putting his star on par with luminaries of the Golden Age of Television like Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. They hated him so much he was able to eventually move out to California full-time, and buy a turkey ranch to live on and provide some additional income, as well as a cocktail bar—Gorgeous George’s Ringside Restaurant.
“We are all good fellows—except the bad ones, of course.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Heels aren’t villains, exactly, although they can be that, but primarily, heels are hustlers. Heels haven’t always been dealt from the fat part of life’s deck; one of WWE’s biggest modern heels, The Miz, is a kid from Ohio who got his start in TV on The Real World, something his opponents razzed him about constantly, so he developed a razor-sharp tongue so renown he has a TV Tropes page dedicated to it (“the reason you suck” speech). Growing up poor in Nebraska, undersized but with strong German features at a time when German families were changing their last names to avoid harassment, Gorgeous George knew the value of a dollar, and how to keep those dollars coming in: by leaning in, as hard as he could, to the heel persona. He even counseled Muhammad Ali—then Cassius Clay— on the value of being a heel, something the more-talented Ali would take and run with:
“A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”
The Seattle Mariners have not had much to brag on, nor sass about, for the past 20-odd years, and when they’ve been outrageous, it’s usually in the bad way. The Mariners have more often been the stiff-upper-lipped background players in someone else’s Golden Age moment, the dragon weakly spewing smoke to be slayed in some other team’s hero quest, the team Mike Trout hits all his home runs against, or the team the Astros cheerfully bury in the standings every year. Swagger is thin on the ground here. Truthfully, there’s been no reason to swagger, nothing to swagger about, and should any enterprising Mariners fan put a toe out of line on social media there’s an army of sunglasses-PFP/handles with too many numbers in them quick to remind everyone of exactly how long that playoff drought is.
But something new arose in these 2022 Mariners over this series win against the New York Mets. It started, probably, with Jesse Winker, whose history with the Mets fanbase is long-established. His history with wrestling, less so, but Winker definitely doesn’t seem to be unfamiliar with the heel role, waving and smiling to the New York fans, and giving them an extra long view of him as he relished his turn around the bases after hitting a three-run homer:
Including, in heel-style the Miz would be proud of, a curtain call no one asked for:
The Mariners didn’t win that game, but maybe Winker’s heel energy spread a little, inspiring Paul Sewald to go with the classic “I can’t hear you” of all sports heels everywhere (call it a cousin of John Cena’s “you can’t see me” gesture).
Paul Sewald with some "I can't hear you" gestures and words for the Citi Field faithful after his scoreless inning today. Sewald has reinvented himself with the Mariners and clearly wants it known that he feels the Mets gave up on him. pic.twitter.com/6rCEOsWFty— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) May 15, 2022
Unlike Winker, Sewald did more than visit Citi Field as an opposing player—as a Met himself, he heard boos from fans rain down for years as he struggled with an ERA over 5; he holds the ignominious record of the most innings thrown by any pitcher (139) before recording a win. As the Mets’ own broadcast put it, the team “left Sewald out there to die” more nights than not; as Sewald put it, “they gave up on me.” It’s the kind of chip on one’s shoulder an undersized kid from Nebraska with a Teutonic last name might understand, even if Mets fans purport not to. (Reader, they absolutely do, and also spent so many tweets telling the What’s Happening? box how much they do not care about Paul Sewald.) We have chronicled both here on the site and on social media how deep our love as a staff runs for Paul Sewald, and to see this new heel energy from him is exciting, a little thrilling, a little dangerous.
Dangerous, because to be the heel means you have to believe in yourself or risk looking silly, and the Mariners have for years not given us reasons to believe in them, and this 2022 team has not exactly been charging up the confidence ladder over these past few weeks.
But also, thrilling. Downright fun, even. Definitely interesting.
“They tend to be the best-written parts. And the most fun to play because you get permission to behave badly, I think....The villains can be a little romp around the darker corners of the human mind, which, on the whole, I think is more interesting.” - Tim Curry, on playing villains
So now the challenge for the Mariners is to keep this heel energy alive, even through—especially through—the moments of doubt and the times of falling short; keep this energy buzzing and this chip embroidered on shoulders, regardless of opponent; keep talking their talk but walking the walk to go along with it; and most importantly, keep it alive against teams they need to keep it alive against. Get angry at the Angels and their seemingly endless parade of generational superstars, or the Astros and their seemingly endless parade of divisional titles and playoff appearances. Get audacious, get obnoxious, get good. Here’s hoping the 2022 Mariners will take Gorgeous George’s advice to heart: Keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous (in the good way.)