This month has been hard.
When I go through a hard time in life, I make up stories in my head. I’m not talking about fairy tales, though I might as well be. Rather than pumpkins turning into carriages or a hideous beast discovering true love, I think about how the hard times are going to end. I try to intellectualize it, tell myself that nothing is permanent. It’s hard to believe that in the moment, though, so I try to visualize it.
I think about myself coming out of the other side. About commiserating with friends. About laughing at myself in retrospect, thinking how silly I was for thinking that things would never change for the better. In these visions, I’ve accomplished all I’ve ever dreamed. In some of them, the Mariners have made the playoffs.
Maybe these are fairy tales.
I’ve tried to do all of those things this month: intellectualize, fantasize, compartmentalize. Intellectually, we’ve all known for weeks that the Mariners have been a functional shoe-in for the playoffs. Emotionally, it certainly hasn’t felt that way. Loss after loss has piled up. Though the playoff odds haven’t moved much, it’s been hard not to get frustrated.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.
How many iterations of If it all goes right have we read over the years? The fairy tale we’ve made up for ourselves doesn’t end with a whimper, but a bang. The Mariners aren’t supposed to back into the playoffs, buoyed by a couple of hot streaks before ultimately making it on inertia. The Mariners are supposed to be propelled by heroism, by a knight in shining armor. It’s supposed to be classically climactic: defined by a perfect moment.
For the last month, it hasn’t felt like that. It’s been a month defined by frustration, by fear, by unease and dysphoria. All I’ve ever wanted is for the Mariners to make the playoffs, and I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t feel anything besides a funny feeling that was hard to define. A lot of tonight was dominated by that funny feeling. T-Mobile Park was completely sold out tonight. I wanted to be excited, but I was mostly just scared that everyone would go home disappointed.
The funny feeling started with the first batter of the first inning. Tony Kemp lined a single into center field, and it bubbled up inside my stomach. I desperately wanted to ignore it. I wanted to be a good fan. I wanted to be optimistic. I wanted to believe.
I wanted to believe, but for some reason I couldn’t. I saw that first hit, and I remembered that Logan Gilbert’s hard hit rate is in the 5th percentile. Unbidden, flashes of Athletics dingers and of fans let down by the ultimate anticlimax flashed before my eyes.
Though Logan got out of the inning unscathed, the next few innings served only to exacerbate the feeling. A leadoff Dylan Moore single was followed by a stolen base and a Ty France RBI double, yes. But then Eugenio Suárez struck out. So did Mitch Haniger. Carlos Santana grounded out to end the inning, and despite the run, the inning ended up feeling like another missed opportunity in a month that’s been chock full of them.
The second inning saw someone named “Shea Langeliers” crush a dinger off of Logan to tie the game. The pit in my chest dropped, ultimately coming to rest around where I imagine my small intestine to be. The game was still tied, yes. But it felt much worse than that.
Facing rookie southpaw Ken Waldichuk, the Mariners couldn’t do much of anything tonight. Waldichuk was a bit wild: he took about 20 pitches to get through each individual inning. When push came to shove, though, he missed bats. The second inning saw the M’s waste a leadoff walk by Luis Torrens. Carlos Santana was stranded on second base after a ground rule double in the fourth. A leadoff Sam Haggerty single in the fifth was negated by a double play.
Compounding the offensive frustration was the fact that Logan Gilbert was pitching the absolute game of his life against the Athletics. Besides Langeliers’ dinger, the A’s managed just six batted balls above 97 MPH. Only one of them dropped for a hit. Uncharacteristically, Logan struck out just four Athletics, but that he was pitching to contact seemed to work for him. Despite the low strikeout number, he still had some of his best stuff: he dialed it up to 98 MPH for this eighth inning strikeout of Langeliers.
When all was said and done, Logan made it through eight full innings for the first time in his young career. And still, the Mariners hadn’t scored since the first inning. Still, the game was tied at 1-1.
A grab bag of A’s relievers came and went: Austin Pruitt, A.J. Puk, Tyler Cyr. The Mariners didn’t manage a run against any of them.
45,000 fans grew restless. A lot of them were probably thinking the same thing: Really? Tonight of all nights? Can’t you just... do it?
My main gripe with the Mariners’ front office over the past few years has been their seeming propensity to play toward their 90th percentile outcome. Yes, most of the teams since Jerry Dipoto took over have been capable of making the playoffs. All of them, though, required many somethings to go right for it to happen. This player had to have a good year, and so did that one. And so did that one. It didn’t take much for the house of cards to fall down.
Every year, the house of cards fell down.
The thing about percentages, though, is that anything above 0% is a chance. Whether in baseball, in choosing to take a leap of faith for another person, or holding out hope for a miracle in the midst of a desperate illness, hope is something that cannot be extinguished until the end.
So despite knowing that the odds were against the Mariners, year after year, the fans showed up. They drove across the state (or the country), took the ferry, spent countless hours and dollars to make the pilgrimage to watch a silly group of men try to do something they hadn’t done in years. Even as the odds waned year after year, fans showed up. Hope sprang eternal.
To hold hope in the face of overwhelming odds may seem impossible to some and foolhardy to others. Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, however: “I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light”. Gould would have fit in nicely amongst the T-Mobile faithful.
As Matt Brash obliterated the A’s in the ninth inning to send the game to the bottom of the ninth, the crowd tensed up. Hope had long since sprung and boiled over into frenzy. No longer did the 45,000 merely want this. That time had long since passed. No, they needed it, needed it unlike any win they’d needed in the past 21 years.
It was never going to come easy. It was never going to be guaranteed.
It would have been poetic for Mitch to end it. Not a year ago, he wrote an impassioned and memorable article in the Players Tribune with a memorable dek: “We’re going to end this fucking drought”.
It would have been poetic, but that’s not how things work. Mitch worked a 2-2 count, and then saw a fastball over the center of the plate that Langeliers somehow dropped. Miraculously, the umpire called it a ball. Gifted one more pitch, Mitch struck out.
It would have been poetic for Carlos Santana to end it. This Mariners team was built more-or -less from the ground up, a collection of carefully selected players that Jerry Dipoto cultivated over years of trading and just a little purchasing. For a player that had almost been an afterthought, an auxiliary piece to the plan, to end everything — it would have been a way of the Mariners thumbing their noses at the man upstairs.
It would have been poetic, but that’s not how things work. Carlos Santana watched a strike and swung at two more for a quick strikeout.
Up next came Cal Raleigh. It would have been poetic for Cal Raleigh to end it. It’s easy to forget how mightily Raleigh struggled last year. Heck, it’s easy to forget how badly he struggled this year. It was only a few months ago that Raleigh’s struggles saw him demoted to Tacoma before Tom Murphy’s injury forced him back up.
He’s been a hero ever since, but has obliterated the ball this month to the tune of six dingers in just 61 at bats. Cal Raleigh ending things would have signaled the end of two decades of nightmarishly bad player development. It would have been a story of redemption, both for the team and the individual. It would have the biggest career moment for a player who couldn’t possibly deserve a big moment more.
It would have been poetic, but that’s not how things work.
That’s not how things work, but that didn’t matter in the moment.
It didn’t matter because Cal forced it not to matter. Cal worked a full count, taking two low changeups, hacking at a slider, and then letting a low fastball go. He swung through another slider, and fouled off another.
He gritted his teeth, stepped out, adjusted his batting gloves, and stepped back in. Domingo Acevedo threw him the fourth slider of the at bat. Cal was ready for this one.
45,000 fans in the stadium rose. Thousands more than that rose at home. With one swing, twenty one years of futility vanished. It wasn’t a catharsis, but an exorcism. Complete strangers embraced, delirious with ecstasy and the shared experience of having earned no moment more than this one. Parents called their children, and friends called one another. Throughout Washington, the Pacific Northwest, and scattered throughout the rest of the country and the world, a community of those bound by a lot of pain and a little joy shared in the rapture.
The scene on the field was much the same. It wasn’t just the team, but seemingly the entire organization, that came together for a moment of dance, of physical expression of joy that they couldn’t express in any other way.
It was a scene that carried into the tunnel.
And the clubhouse.
We live in a world where it’s often hard to find meaning. Most of our attempts to do so are foiled by chance, by folly, by the inherently and seemingly uncaring nature of our reality. It wasn’t long ago that we gritted our teeth and told one another that “just wanting something doesn’t make it come true” before getting ready for yet another offseason.
It’s a world in which it’s hard, but not impossible, to find meaning. How many moments have come and gone for the Mariners that would have been perfect, if not for one thing that went wrong? Even this year, the struggles of the past month have felt frustrating, cruel, unfair.
And yet, if not for those struggles, for past futility, this moment would be impossible. It’s only due to the past twenty-one years that we’re together, here and now. This is a moment that none of us will ever forget. It’s a moment we’ll cherish forever. It’s a moment we’ve earned, that the team has earned.
We’ve all gone through a lot of hard times. Watching the Mariners, sure, but in the “real world” too. The hard times don’t last forever. We come out the other side. We just did, after all.
There’s nowhere I can imagine being besides right here, experiencing “the other side” with you.