The last time Major League Baseball did Seattle a solid was in 1994, when each league realigned into three divisions that put only three other teams in the American League West, none of them powers. Fans witnessed how the Mariners leaped upon that expressway: Four times in the subsequent 18 years, Seattle made the playoffs.
As you catch your breath, consider that the Mariners were three times the kings of baseball’s smallest division. That sounds almost healthy until it is realized that the Rangers, Angels and A’s have each won the AL West five times in the same period. Getting beat out by teams from two of the nation’s top five markets is two things; but getting beat by Oakland in an intolerable third thing, like being posted up and dunked on by Bart Simpson.
MLB apparently recognized that its leaky tire in the Northwest needed to be pumped up again. In 2011, it announced another solid for Seattle: The move of the Houston Astros from the 16-team National League to the 14-team American League, which had the added dividend of bringing peace to millions whose symmetry obsession previously allowed them little sleep because of baseball’s unbalanced form.
Even though the Astros were nestled in the short-sheeted West, baseball made up for it by assuring the old neighborhood, mainly the Mariners, that the Astros would be no trouble because they were very bad. With their $25 million payroll and back-to-back seasons of 106 and 107 losses, the Astros were the worst team since the Ben & Jerry early years of ash-flavored ice cream.
Now that we’ve had a week of regular season baseball, the Astros’ ineptness, at 1-6, seems to be true. After the meteor-to-Chelnyabinsk anomaly in the opener, an 8-2 win over the Rangers, Texas responded with 7-0 and 4-0 victories, followed by Oakland’s 8-3, 6-3 and 9-3 bashings in Houston over the weekend.
Now comes Monday, the first encounter between the Astros and Mariners as division rivals. It is the home opener for Seattle, where more fans have been lost over a 10-year period than fans of any team in any major American team sport. Having been last in the AL West for seven of the past nine seasons, the Mariners were spurned as well by the big-timers in the free-agent market.
As if the alienation wasn’t thick enough, the Mariners aggressively resisted the potential building of a new arena to host the return of the NBA next to their shop in SoDo. They may have had their reasons, but in opposing the potential return of the Sonics, the Mariners volunteered to an already dismayed community to put on horns and tails to go with the pitchfork.
While a series of pleasant results in spring training raised some hopes, the typical remaining Mariners fan has arms tightly locked across the chest, and a foot is tapping. Yes, Safeco Field is newly tricked out, with closer fences, new bars and a video screen larger and more valuable than Monaco. But the remodel is paid for partly by ticket prices raised unannounced in the off-season for reasons not discernible in the standings. A talking-buffalo TV commercial rarely is sufficient to heal the blackened heart of a baseball fan asked for too much for too little in return.
Predictably, nothing definitive emerged in the first week of play. This group of Mariners may have more mystery attached to more players than any previous edition. The 3-4 mark against two above-average teams can be taken multiple ways. The Mariners have hit nine homers in seven games, a notable uptick, but the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 pitchers in the rotation — Monday’s starter Joe Saunders, rookie Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan — have given up collectively 15 earned runs in 15 innings.
So, given the tentative start and a fan base whose skepticism is weapons-grade, the argument is made here that the Astros series is just about the biggest April series in the franchise’s turgid tradition.
The Mariners have expended considerable promotional capital on the theme that fan “loyalty will be rewarded this year.” For these guys, that’s a stout commitment. So to lose two or three games out of the box to the limp Astros screams, “Do not take us seriously!”
Yes, we all know it’s early. But as Yogi Berra once said about something else, “It gets late early out here.” When a sports team has rounded that emotional bend with its fans where disbelief is the protective reaction, all it takes is one bad thing to unleash the dragons.
The opposite is visible with the Seahawks. At the moment, Pete Carroll could invite local news anchor Jean Enerson to a tryout for the backup QB job, and most fans would provide the benefit of the doubt. “She hasn’t played in a while, but she’s been around this offense a long time,” would be the thinking.
The Mariners need to know that while expectations haven’t been raised, MLB’s introduction of the Astros into the AL West has lowered the floor. To start going up, a team first has to stop going down.