I walked to T-Mobile Park by myself today. This was borne of circumstance, but went unaltered by any efforts of my own accord. As a functionally only child, with older half-siblings and now a younger half-sibling as well, I spent plenty of youth alone, or near to it. I am easily entertained, so my memories are not laced with any recollections of bouts with boredom or loneliness. Moreover, then, as now, I am blessed with good people in my life, many of whom share many of my passions, and even the foremost among them: baseball and the Seattle Mariners. And yet it’s been in the time where I can be alone I’ve cherished and anticipated opening day this year, with a job that demands my fullest social performance, classes that ask similar engagement, and even the most treasured social escapades leaving me feeling emotionally like the energy juice box late in a game of Backyard Baseball.
One of the things I love about Lookout Landing is that this place, this community, serves that purpose for all of us. We can choose to engage, we can choose to come together, and we can step away when we need to. When the Mariners bring us frustration, like a half-dozen well-struck balls with the type of line drive contact to the right-center gap that makes hitting coaches sing, including multiple scorched liners from Julio off Cleveland Guardians ace Shane Bieber this evening that narrowly evaded purchase in the spotless T-Mobile Park grass, we can step back. When they strike a rhythm, like Luis Castillo carving through a retooled and tough-to-strikeout Cleveland lineup to the tune 6.0 scoreless innings that were a fluky redirect of a Will Brennan shot up the middle (that J.P. Crawford was perfectly in position for) short of perfection, we convene, we fall in, and we all feel the building anticipation of the crescendo.
It is that sensation, the consequence of the individual nonetheless joining itself to something greater and more unified, that draws me to this sport, year after year. The solitude of the pitcher is a striking in moments, but they must deliver to a catcher, and rely on their defense, even if each pitch leaves their hands as their own creation. Each hitter steps into the box themselves, yet odds are one player alone (as Tungsten Arm O’Doyle proves time and time again) is insufficient to grab victory alone. José Ramírez learned that this evening, as Matt Brash undressed him more thoroughly than I have seen in some time.
One more time for good measure.— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) March 31, 2023
Sound up for Goldy! pic.twitter.com/jX4KAq8nPw
And each of us in the crowd, arriving alone as we always do and departing as we have and always will, eventually, in that moment we are something larger. “De tal palo, tal astilla,” a young Julio Rodríguez was told by his father so many years ago, “Like the stick, the splinter.” Tonight, and almost every night from this one through what will hopefully be late into October, the Mariners will be our stick, and we their thousand, thousand splinters.
When that is the case, things can spiral as they did tonight, as nearly every single one of a sold-out 45,268 splinter crowd seized upon the frailty of mercurial Guardians reliever James Karinchak, whose arrival in the top of the 8th came on the heels of steady work by Bieber to elude a few jams, as well as steady work by recently-extended relief ace Trevor Stephan. To the point where Karinchak entered, while the pitch clock had made a subtle impact on the game, most 0-0 games without a single free pass issued would be expected to have made great haste. Karinchak, however, was one of the deliberate players widely expected to require significant adjustments to his Garciaparra-esque between-pitch routine, which has previously included ball flips, hair strokes, and any number of tics that, along with a track record of seemingly suspicious sticky stuff-based spin rate enhancements. The righty got ahead of J.P. Crawford quickly to lead the inning, but his mind was apparently elsewhere, as he got called for the lone pitch clock violation of the day to get Crawford a ball back in the count.
At this, the splinters dug in, the crowd roaring in unison and beginning to call the pitch clock out in booming stereo like a taunting college basketball student section, and Karinchak wilted at the challenge. He airmailed the next pitch, giving the effective gift of an air-balled free throw to a crowd that smelled blood in their waters. Crawford battled to 3-2 and then “drew a walk” that, no, okay, he absolutely didn’t, but it also was not a shocking outcome to imagine after another pitch, especially seeing how Karinchak crumbled entirely subsequently, with Julio just missing the barrel on a fly out and then swiftly hitting Kolten Wong as the crowd boomed their glee to cap off a lengthy plate appearance with Karinchak’s command slipping further away from him. After the game, Scott Servais noted just how influential the crowd was in turning the tide (h/t to Kate Preusser in the press box for the quotes tonight):
“It did affect the game. We’ve seen Karinchak a lot in the past. He has a routine, a very lengthy routine, and he’s had to try to make adjustments with that, all the things he does with the ball-flipping and all of that, and he was a little out of whack. But credit to our crowd; they got loud, they made it hard for him to focus and concentrate, and that’s truly the difference home field advantage can make. Again, hats off; it made a huge difference in the ballgame tonight.
Two runners, one out, first pitch not close, second pitch France, who’d clobbered the ball twice already on the night, just missed the barrel as he spoiled an elevated heater. He took a breath, and took another swing, this one just a few splinters higher.
Servais and several players spoke of the atmosphere returning to the ballpark where their season ended on 18 scoreless innings, what feels like a lifetime ago. France remarked it felt like “October all over again,” and we can certainly hope so. The Mariners have rarely disappointed on opening day, but this was a performance that felt new. New can be scary, it can be nerve-wracking, it can come full of expectations and uncertainty, but new is full of hope, full of possibility, full of every bit of opportunity that this can be something great. That they and we can come together to create something marvelous like this, fused shut despite some bumps by El Bombero Jefe, Andrés Muñoz. They and we will return again tomorrow, alone but only as needed, with just a little more hope to believe in a season full of expectations, to take a leap of faith that even when you fear the nightmares, it’s still worth it to dream.