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The existential guilt crushing the Seattle Mariners

Neurotic anxiety wracks these Mariners, who are expecting to be something they simply are not.

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

While I have been turning this article over in my head for months, the catalyst for its conception can be credited to a question we received for the Meet at the Mitt Podcast this week: “How do I stop worrying and learn to love this [Seattle Mariners] squad?” I have been wondering about the challenges inherent to what should be such a simple issue and have found myself drawn to a philosophical explanation. I hope you’ll indulge me a dollop of background.

The core of existential theory and therapy centers on the conceit that is universal to human existence: the inescapable inevitability of death. Because death comes for us all, a cheery slogan that has echoed through the technological series of tubes halls of Lookout Landing since my earliest years here, existentialism promotes a pursuit of life with an eye to making meaning, such that the time we each have may bring us fulfillment and satisfaction. Seminal existential theorist and therapist Rollo May remarked on this goal in “The Courage to Create” in discussing the core struggle to make meaning lasting and satisfying in a world desperate to deny it to you:

Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings. It is based on the experience of one’s identity as a being of worth and dignity.

This satisfied joy is not a pursuit without its challenges. In fact, it is argued by May and many of his contemporaries, “existential anxiety” is not merely a challenge experienced by individuals but a necessary stress to spur self-reflection and, ideally, growth towards one’s authentic self. However, powering through the many sources of ennui our daily lives can muck up our paths with is no mean feat. For many of us, struggles with recognizing, accepting, and overcoming the immutable facts of life and death, as well as other challenges that may be functionally out of our control, creates fixations, frustrations, uncertainty, and guilt.

This spiraling behavior is referred to as “neurotic anxiety”, an imbalanced and out of proportion discontentment that festers and grows out of failing to take responsibility or make peace with the fact that you are living inauthentically compared to your values and/or holding yourself to expectations that are unrealistic or infeasible and spawning “existential guilt”. It is here we see things truly grow dire, confronting the inexorable impossibility of a human being to reach all their theoretical potentialities and that we each must accept and make our peace with the constraints of mortality or live a life of ever-growing disillusion and incongruence with realistic expectations.

Shivering at this crossroads in the chill of a moonless midnight we find the Seattle Mariners. They sit, once again, at .500, a mediocre team meeting exactly or only barely undershooting the projections PECOTA (82-80) and FanGraphs’ (84-78) cold, unfeeling mathematical systems laid out for them preseason. In a sense, then, there is not a significant gap between what these Mariners are and what they are realistically expected to be. But too often that is not what teams, nor we as individuals hold ourselves to, particularly in our heart of hearts.

The Mariners’ front office proclaimed their club to be “legitimate contenders to win the World Series” preseason, with a stellar hype video narrated by manager Scott Servais setting their sights no lower than to “Win it All”.

Fans were derided as “spoiled and greedy” by the preeminent national reporter in the sport (since recanted) while other notable national writers lauded the M’s for one of the best offseasons in MLB. And yet, when the projections rolled out, even the people behind the projections seemed not to believe their lying eyes, expecting Seattle to outperform expectations, a sentiment I firmly believed as well, predicting them for the second Wild Card. It’s a sentiment I’m sure Seattle’s players and personnel believed as well, and yet as we’ve seen them flounder for nearly 100 games, vacillating in performance from the beauty of three-dimensional Dorian Gray to games more evocative of his two-dimensional secret. They are, as Paul Sewald put it recently and exasperatedly, “on the bubble”.

This manifests in the particular frustration on the field evoked by failing to meet expectations, reasonable or not. The crack of a bat over his knee by Eugenio Suárez is that of a man who, just having celebrated his 32nd birthday, is on pace for his worst full healthy offensive season since 2016, seeing what surely feels like a thousand fly balls reach merely the warning track. Julio Rodríguez’s swings for a 12-run home run reek of the pressure of a 22-year-old endeavoring to will every atom of the world to alter itself around his central impetus, knowing he is his club’s best hope. Manager-led team meetings in late April and early June, followed by a players-only meeting at the end of June. And yet, as Sewald notes, and Dipoto stated publicly in the past month, these are the guys, and they are being expected to justify the improvements they’ve needed from the start.

To watch the 2023 Mariners is to see nine Jarred Kelenics of 2021-2022 take the field each night. Individuals who know they are good enough to succeed, yet aren’t quite able to meet their own internal expectations, and in so doing crush themselves into precious metals under diamond-crafting pressure. Like Servais’ beloved Ted Lasso extolls the virtue of the short recollection of a goldfish, the power of focusing merely on the present, such that it is possible, is central to growth in existential theory and therapy. “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk,” wrote existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in “The Devil and the Good Lord,” tragically born seven decades too early to be a sports psychologist. Kelenic, arguably, has been one of the few bright spots of 2023, showcasing a plan in keeping with Sartre’s ethos, one day, one plate appearance, and only your own response to it within your control. And yet the team continues to press, “caught up in trying to be the hero” as Servais put it recently, attempting to compensate for the inauthentic space between the expectations placed upon them and the roster placed around them.

These Mariners are playing like the team they were projected to be; they are better on the mound, worse at the dish, but in function there should be no shock, if we were to trust the projection systems alone on Opening Day. And yet, we did not, just as the players did not, and therein lies the infuriating and particularly frustrating nature of watching these Mariners.

The gap is there for us as well, between expectations and reality, particularly as those expectations ballooned internally, projected outwards and taken at faith in spite of ourselves here, as well as nationally. It’s easy to watch a good team thrive, and not so tough to watch a team with no expectations step on a rake every evening around 7:10 PM. But expecting better from a club that says all the right things and can cut the shadow of a contender convincingly when the sun hits just so, only to be revealed as a cardboard cutout upon closer inspection, that is exhausting.

Fandom and playing the game itself often are disparate experiences, but right now the Mariners and their fans are aligned. We cannot change the nature of the sport’s immutable truths, that the season’s death is nearer now than its emergence, that the results of the season thus far are what they are, or that the only people in ownership with the wealth and positions of power to infuse the nature of the roster with the caliber of talent to match the expectations placed upon it continue to “feel great about where we are,” neglecting their responsibilities to improve the ballclub. It is incumbent upon us, like it is on the players, to re-align our expectations and our efforts to our reality, because we have been unable to drag those unchangeables to where our dreams would have them.

That means, perhaps, treating each plate appearance as a small battle, something that can be a victory or a defeat, but one that builds knowledge for the next opportunity. Seeing the potential for growth and for the future is what can keep spirits fulfilled far beyond the present reality. In each plate appearance or play, the Mariners must recognize that there cannot be a focus on anything more, no implications or expectations can penetrate. Likewise, as fans, our pursuit of meaning may need to see its scope narrow to the size of a pin. There is a struggle in narrowing our focus to such a fine point, but it is how we can see every moment of greatness, every misplayed ball, every borderline call as something far more satisfying. More joyful. And, in the case of the players, perhaps playing with an approach more in keeping with their realities can allow them to push their ceilings after all.