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If it all goes wrong

Mariners hit the iceberg

Manager Scott Servais #9 of the Seattle Mariners reacts during the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers at T-Mobile Park on October 04, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

To have been a Mariners fan these past two decades is to understand, deep inside, in the marrow, what it is for baseball to go wrong. Last year’s success doesn’t take away that knowledge. We’ve seen it. For twenty years, we saw the titanic expectations set by the 2001 team meet the RMS Titanic’s fate. We didn’t just see it. It was a game every day, for six months, for twenty years: We lived it, watching the USS Mariner hit that iceberg over, and over, and over again. We’ve seen it go wrong by major free agent signings going bust, by major trade acquisitions getting hurt. We’ve seen it by top prospects flaming out, by megastars failing PED tests. They call twenty years a “score,” which is ironic because the Mariners didn’t do much of that over that period.

It was more likely that 2023 would go wrong one of those familiar ways again. And we even had exciting new anxieties coming into the season. Remember back to March. We worried about the lack of a supersigning, more of a Spirit Airlines approach than the White Star Line. We saw the World Baseball Classic and worried that this might finally be the year that the Angels got their poop together and won 97 games. The logic of an Anaheim division title has always made sense, but they faltered.

And we’re always prepared for it all to go wrong through injury–Julio missing four months looms like a red sky in the morning. For the next decade, that’ll always be the fear, the way it could all go the most wrong, so we all breathed a sigh of relief in dodging that particular iceberg this year with his 148 games played. And we knew it was possible there’d be some Kirby and Cal regression, some Kolten Wong pumpkining, yet they all essentially repeated their 2022s. We knew it was possible the M’s would miss the playoffs; even the most positive projection systems only gave them a coin flip’s chance, but they made it.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. See, even though none of our fears came true, the fact that we’d worried about them before the season would have made it easier to bear, easier to slough off as an “etcetera.” We’ve seen that film before, and we would have known what to do. Charles Joughin, head baker on the Titanic, got drunk as the ship slowly slipped into the deep, which ended up helping him survive the Atlantic’s icy waters. We all have our coping mechanisms.

So how then to cope, not with the familiar ways of going wrong, or the most likely way of going wrong, or the way of going the most wrong, but with what actually happened: a new way to go wrong?

March held those worries but also new possibilities, and for so long, for so long, it felt like all the possibilities were coming true. Start with Julio. My god, Julio. The MVP-caliber numbers can hardly describe what it was like to watch him redefine what it means to be cool all year long, his casual excellence as he won the Home Run Derby and a Gold Glove in the same year, a feat normally reserved for people with names like Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.

We worried about injuries, and yet three of the front four starters took the hill all 30 times, averaging 175 innings apiece. Obviously, the team still had to patch holes—nobody was happy about the two months without Logan Gilbert. Sure it was exciting when Chris Flexen didn’t allow a baserunner until the fifth in his first start in Logan’s place. But by his second, third, ninth start, oof. And that three-week stretch in July and August where both Suárez and DMo were out was pretty rough. Tommy La Stella: not a third baseman!

On the whole, though, it was marvelous. The moment it really set in was when Luis Castillo struck out the side to open Félix’s Mariners Hall of Fame induction game and then saluted the King by striking the iconic Perfecto Pose.

Houston even seemed to be a little scared. Of course, the bad news was that the Astros never take their foot off the gas, so their fear manifested in building a package around Hunter Brown to pry Jazz Chisholm away from the Marlins, whom they’ve already extended through 2032. And so they won the division yet again. At least they had to settle for the three seed this time.

But even with a Wild Card finish, for 194 days, it felt like it was finally the Mariners’ year. Then, the iceberg. Sometimes you get so distracted by the good time you’re having that you forget you’re in perilous waters. And this cold water stings like nothing that came before. These emotions are new. We lack the psychological lifeboat constructed from two decades of going wrong in so many other ways, and we’re scrambling for a big door to float on.

Saying it out loud helps: the Mariners lost their two playoff games by a combined score of 11-0. To the Astros. Seattle didn’t even get a home playoff game this year, the first winless playoff run in franchise history, something even the older Mariners fans have never seen.

It’s the surprise of it, the shock of the sudden ending. Even the Titanic took three hours to sink, longer than Game 2 lasted.

For so long, it was all going right, but that’s no longer enough. It’s finally not about the journey. We know now that the journey is just a tease. Yeah, yeah, yeah—the good times we had along the way. Zip it, Buster. I’ve heard that one before. For once, it looked like the Mariners might win MLB’s final game, and they didn’t even get to the Division Series.

In 2021, they came up just short, but in a fun way. In 2022, they finally made it, and the playoffs themselves were all gravy. This year, it was supposed to be time to WIN, damn it. The time for half measures ended with Cal’s ticket-puncher. I used to think that when the Mariners finally win the World Series, it’ll be great, but fleeting. A week later, I’ll stop wearing my Mariners hat to the office. By Thanksgiving, I’ll have moved on. But now that I’ve actually experienced the euphoria of September 30, 2022, I know that’s not true. That ecstasy can touch us one time and last for a lifetime. Chasing that high? It’s maybe worse than never having known the high at all.

In a way, nothing went wrong. The playoff format just is what it is, and what it is is a roulette wheel designed for heartbreak. Maybe the Astros winning the World Series again gets under your skin a little more than another team. On the other hand, who cares? Once it wasn’t the Mariners, why not the Astros? At this point, it’ll only make their downfall all the more glorious. So many years of hitting the iceberg, maybe one day there’ll be a different ending. The hard part is that we’re left wondering, will it ever happen? Can it? Is it just a dream?

And yet, it was not so long ago that it was too unrealistic even to dream. For the first time since 2003, or maybe 2016, it’s not that the Mariners were bad, just that they weren’t quite good enough at the exact right moment. The difference is that those were the endings of competitive windows (though maybe we didn’t know it). This is still the beginning. To be a Mariners fan is to constantly learn new ways to be disappointed, and once again, we have. But at least we finally know the feeling we’re chasing. Our hearts will go on, and so too will the chase. One day, our time will come.