Pursuing perfection in sports is usually a fools errand. But on the occasion of the death of Osama bin Laden by American relentlessness, I cant get out of my mind a perfect moment 10 years ago: The celebration of the formal clinching of the division pennant by the Mariners.
As eventual winners of 116 regular-season games a feat that grows more Everest-like with each passing season the development was a formality, the circumstances anything but.
After the obscenity of 9/11, Major League Baseball resumed play. The Mariners were in the middle of a home game when Oakland lost elsewhere, giving the Mariners the title. But the moment was no time to celebrate. In fact, no celebration of any kind seemed appropriate.
Then again, the Mariners were completing a baseball season of the ages. Is that unworthy of salute?
We thought about what we might do, but we really didn’t know how it would go, because none of us knew how we would feel,” said Jamie Moyer, the starting pitcher. “I mean, how do you know each night how things will turn out?”
At the end of the game, a 5-0 victory over Anaheim, the Mariners gathered upon bended knees on the field, then stood and waved to the fans and, led by utility player Mark McLemore and manager Lou Piniella, began carrying the American flag around the field.
The ovation and tears at Safeco Field were of equal and searing intensity.
Begging your indulgence for a self-quote from my column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the next day:
Watching the Mariners find a way to honor achievements, fans and country without histrionics, triteness or bad taste was a seminal moment in a season of greatness, stuck in the heart of a year otherwise from a steamy sub-basement of hell.
During a period in which the region has endured riots, an energy crisis, an earthquake, the loss of Boeing headquarters and now, sharing with the world an assault on humanity, the Mariners must bear a heavy local load.
They have become, through no fault except their own good works, the best thing going.
Unsurprisingly, they were up to the task.
The power of those moments were indelible, re-animated by the news of Sunday evening. It wasnt as if Osama had remained in our daily consciousness Americans are, after all, the inventors and exporters of Short Attention Span Theater but his death brings up convulsively a lot of buried ache. And it also brought up a sports team of unusual character that brought a little balm for the savagery.
Later on, the Mariners success pushed them into the middle of the pain.
After one of the great seasons in history, the Mariners in the first round of the playoffs barely escaped past Cleveland. Next up was the American League Championship Series against the Yankees in New York.
As many around the world said in support, I am an American, many in this country said, I am a New Yorker.
Suddenly, perhaps the most resented team in sports became Americas Team. The world cheered as the Yanks won 4-2 and 3-2 in Seattle. The series moved to New York. On the travel day, several of us in the media party debated whether to visit Ground Zero during the day of Game 3, or skip it, having virtually lived there every day for the past five weeks.
I walked from midtown to the financial district. Along the way, faces were somber, serious, avoiding eye contact even more than usual for New York. I shook the hand of anyone wearing NYPD or NYFD, feeling foolish at so lame a gesture but unable to stop.
As I approached, the air had a metallic smell. Upon the site came the standard realization that the TV camera sometimes cannot comprehend things. I felt regret at having gone, at the same time feeling connected in a visceral way that I had not experienced.
So too, for Mariners manager Lou Piniella. A sensitive guy, Piniella said he couldnt visit pre-game. But team officials suggested a group visit a nearby fire station. That, Piniella said, he could do.
A group of about 30 Mariners executives coaches and and wives were escorted to a station near Ground Zero, where Piniellas presence caused the place to light up and grow weepy at the same time.
It was unbelievable, but I’m real glad I went,” he said before Game 3, which the Mariners won 14-3. It was so good to talk to those people working there. They were happy to see us and talk to us. In our own way, I think we helped them a little.”
Pitching coach Bryan Price said the bond with Piniella was striking.
A lot of them remembered his Yankees years,” said Price. “When you win a World Series here, you get remembered for life. Lou being there had a real big impact on them.”
At the station, the Mariners offered Mariners hats and AL West championship souvenirs. The firemen responded with FDNY hats.
“I got mine signed,” Piniella said, beaming, “by all of them. It’s a keeper. They took a lot of pictures, too. Most of them were in their late 30s and early 40s, which means they were kids here at Yankee Stadium when I played.”
In the big picture, it was a small gesture. But small gestures were all anyone could manage.
The Mariners lost the series, and have yet to return to the playoffs. Some say the 116-win Mariners were not the same after the tragedy and the layoff.
Well, who was?
Winning never mattered less. Coping mattered most. The Mariners of 10 years ago were an admirable lot, maybe no more or less than other teams, but they were the ones in front of us in Seattle and atop the American League.
Through the prism of their experience, they helped us cope. The startling, triumphal news of Sunday evening passes through that prism, and there is a satisfaction about good people having done hard things well.
Follow Art on Twitter at @Art_Thiel