In an essay about inflection and tone in writing, “You’re Really Something,” Charles Baxter tells about a family trip to a tourist trap called Dinosaur World, where the affectless teen narrating the tram ride through “a trip back through time” adds a layer of unintended hilarity as the family rumbles along past tableaus of dilapidated dinosaurs, jaws agape, standing in fountains that shoot toilet-cleaner-blue-dyed water. The teenaged guide is baffled when the family bursts out laughing midway through the tour, ramshackle as it is, but laden with jump scares: “What, you’re not scared?” No, the family assures the teen, but not because the plaster on the T-Rex is crumbling and the jungle plants are plastic, but because the entire tour has been delivered in a flat monotone; the suspension of belief is nonexistent, because there was no belief to be suspended in the first place: “None of us at Dinosaur World expected to believe what we were seeing. We expected to be invited to a little party where the host acted as if he believed, or at least was interested in what he was seeing and was inviting us into that as if.”
As if. In order to tell a story, you ask the audience to come into a world you’ve created; the payment for entry is belief. But in order to extract that ticket price from an audience, the writer/showman/magician/baseball team has to believe in what they are doing, to an extent, and be able to perform that belief to others. Today, in the final game of the regular season, the Mariners and Rangers played a largely conviction-less contest that saw the Mariners eventually emerge victorious, 1-0, as the Rangers frittered away an opportunity to make some magic with an AL West title.
But let’s make one thing clear first: George Kirby was not without conviction. Meaningless game or not, Kirby’s makeup does not allow for him to perform anything other than the belief that he is the best pitcher in the bigs, and today he was as good as he’s been against a Rangers lineup that has been a minefield for the other starters to navigate. Unlike Woo and Castillo, who nibbled at the edges and surrendered walks and weak contact to the Rangers that snowballed into big innings, Kirby went right after Texas’s powerful lineup on the plate. He burned through the first eight outs of this game on 23 pitches—lower than the number some of his compatriots needed to clear a single inning against this Rangers team.
The first hit Kirby gave up came in the third inning, a two-out double to Evan Carter on a 97 mph fastball that wound up in the middle of the zone that went nowhere thanks to Kirby challenging Marcus Semien on the plate. Similarly, in the fourth, an Adolis García single that squeaked through after he reached across the zone for a slider went nowhere after Kirby was able to just jam Nathanael Lowe enough to fly out near the warning track. A single in the fifth—on a good pitch, a 97 mph fastball located up above the zone to Jonah Heim—was quickly erased when Kirby got Leody Taveras to ground into a double play off a perfectly spotted fastball off the outer edge of the plate.
Another 1-2-3 inning in the sixth would end Kirby’s day, at a trim 75 pitches, over two-thirds of them for strikes. He struck out seven and walked none, because he is George Kirby. It was the kind of game where it felt like, if it mattered, he could have turned in a complete game effort.
Kirby was so dominant in this game he had time to play with his food a little. Not only did he bust out this knuckleball he’s been teasing since spring training, he did it deliberately in honor of Red Sox legend Tim Wakefield, who Kirby—even as a born and bred Yankee fan—says he loved watching pitch as a kid. Busting it out against the Rangers’ best hitter, who he was able to keep quiet enough to deny a batting title? That’s some kind of belief.
George Kirby unveils the knuckleball that he's teased has been in his back pocket since Spring Training.— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) October 1, 2023
Velo: 73.2 mph
Spin rate: 167 RPM pic.twitter.com/tDJwHZGzYf
Unfortunately, no one else on the field seemed to share Kirby’s flair for storytelling. As Kirby was steadfastly dismantling the Rangers’ powerful offense like a Swiss watch repair shop working on deadline, the Mariners offense turned in convictionless at-bat after at-bat against Texas starter Dane Dunning, recording one hit in the first three innings while striking out four times. Just when it looked like Dunning was ready to go toe-to-toe with the superior Kirby, though, he loaded up the bases, allowing a pair of singles to Eugenio Suárez and Jarred Kelenic and a walk to Ty France. The Rangers brought in lefty and former staff ace Martin Pérez to face the next three lefties in the Mariners’ lineup; Pérez sandwiched a Mike Ford HBP around a pair of groundouts, giving up just the one run (and almost getting out of the inning cleanly as Dominic Canzone, making weak contact once again, barely missed grounding into a double play out at the plate). Here’s a link to the play, if you get really excited about RBI groundouts for some reason.
That would be the only run scored this entire game, a game where the Mariners had nothing to play for and the Rangers had the AL West title, and a sweet sweet divisional bye, in play. The Mariners, playing a roster of reserves in the second half of the game, did not score again. The Rangers had the bigger failure to meet the moment, failing to score off the Mariners’ non-leverage arms of Prelander Berroa, Trent Thornton, and Isiah Campbell. The Rangers, like the monotone host at Dinosaur World, had an opportunity to tell a captivating story, and instead failed to invest the quality of belief required to make magic. It’s not dissimilar to watching the Mariners over this season again and again come up short in big moments, to cast the kind of spell that’s required to enter the hypnotic state of belief.
Two years and two days ago, after a win against the Oakland A’s that kept them in the Wild Card race, Jarred Kelenic stood before the crowd at T-Mobile with a yellow BELIEVE sign that became an iconic symbol of the Mariners’ playoff hopes, of a team and a town rallying together to try to make magic. They fell short that year, but the team and town joined forces again—the magician and the audience—to power a playoff run that was surprising and delightful, if shorter than anyone wanted it to be. This year, outside of an otherworldly month of August, the magic was thin on the ground. The unbroken spell that is required for belief was constantly interrupted as the team scuffled to string together meaningful winning streaks, living right around .500 most of the season, more mediocrity than magic.
But the pieces that made those years magic are still here. Some of them have even taken significant steps forward: J.P. Crawford, who told the media postgame he’ll be dragging Ty France to Driveline with him this off-season; George Kirby, who will be tried for witchcraft if he adds one more pitch to his arsenal; Logan Gilbert, who was quietly excellent all season long and louderly excellent later in the season, when he propped the overtaxed pitching staff up when it began to slump; Jarred Kelenic, the holder of that sign, whose season was interrupted with a self-inflicted injury but still posted career-bests as a pro. And their drought-breaking, history-making backstop Cal Raleigh, who made some waves when he called upon the team’s decision-makers to show the same kind of conviction the players and the fanbase have shown and invest in meaningfully making this team better.
The title of Baxter’s essay, “You’re really something,” points up how important inflection can be in expressing conviction. That phrase can be said in a multitude of ways: admiring, flattering, ironically, angrily. It’s the writer’s job to convey the tone correctly, in a way that doesn’t interrupt belief. The Mariners will say a lot of things this off-season. The question will be what the conviction is behind them, and the experienced reader should be prepared to search for any disparities in tone. Maybe the lessons learned—both by players and the front office—from watching the Rangers clinch a postseason berth in their house and then stumble en route to the division title will be internalized and rectified in the off-season. Now that would really be something.