The Oakland A’s are the closest thing to a rival for the Mariners, the Mariners are as close to .500 (16-19) as they’ve been since early on, the weather is forecasted to be as close to summer as May gets around here. And the three weekend games against the A’s are the only ones at Safeco in the first 24 days of the month. Close enough to get you to attend?
Or, as Dr. Seuss might have put the question: Do you need to be given a bat, a cat, or a cat in a beard hat?
The question comes about because the Mariners recently hit the bottom of the major league baseball attendance standings — a 17-game average of 17,852 — a milestone believed to be a first in Safeco’s history.
And that included crowds of 30,000-plus on giveaway nights for Dustin Ackley bats as well as the beard hats, the quirky chapeaus that were as inexplicable as they were popular. Sort of the Munenori Kawasaki of fashion.
Can free kittens be far behind?
Kansas City and Cleveland since have sneaked under the Mariners average, partly due to inclement weather, but that is minimal salve. The Mariners are being outdrawn by the A’s in Oakland, a notoriously baseball-resistant town, and by the Rays in Tampa and the Marlins in Miami, both of which are in Florida, a state that always has believed the baseball season ends April 1; drug-running being the only year-round athletic event enjoyed by all.
The Mariners are even being outdrawn — not to mention outplayed — by the Astros in Houston, which was ordered out of the National League and granted refugee status by the American League West, thanks to pressure from the United Nations, whose only alternative was Uzbekistan.
Seattle’s franchise nadir was reached April 29, when 9,818 attended a series opener against Baltimore. Yes, it was a cold Monday school night, but 10 years ago the Mariners would get that number for a poetry reading by Ichiro. In Japanese. In a car.
When baseball teams promote throwback nights, crowds under 10,000 aren’t what they mean. But for you kid-lets and newcomer-lets, intimate gatherings were a long, distinct part of the Seattle baseball tradition.
For their first 13 years in the Kingdome, the Mariners didn’t have a single year that averaged more than 17,000 a game. Even in the fabled breakthrough year of 1995, the count was 22,655.
But that summer six weeks of good baseball was so intoxicating that less than four years later, a publicly subsidized, $538 million stadium was open for business, and the Mariners appeared set for approximately infinity, leading all of baseball in 2002 with 3.5 million customers.
Turns out they don’t make infinity like they used to.
While every remaining member of the secret society of Mariners fans — they do walk among us — knows the decade-long litany of decay, a new sore has developed: Starting pitching.
Behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the veteran hires of Joe Saunders (one year, $6.5 million) and Aaron Harang (two years, $12 million, but Mariners pay only $1 million, with option on second year) and the call-up of rookie Brandon Maurer, haven’t worked out so well. None are terrible, just inconsistent. But it is the desperate need for their stop-gap presences in 2013 that is the vexation.
They are starters because Brandon Morrow, Cliff Lee, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas are not. The five are starters of average or better major league talent who the Mariners have traded in the past five years primarily for offensive players who did not or have not to date worked out. (The Mariners also caught a bad break with the arm soreness of promising young starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.)
Obviously there remains hope for Justin Smoak (Lee) and Jesus Montero (Pineda) to become major league average hitters, as is Kendrys Morales (Vargas). But there is little dispute that, to this point, that the sale of pitching assets to fix hitting deficits has allowed the Mariners only to tread water. It’s better than drowning, but another disturbing example of the apparent inability to make other than incremental progress.
The invitations to spring training of veteran pitchers Jon Garland, 33, and Jeremy Bonderman, 30, to be this year’s Kevin Millwood, 38, were signals that the absences of the traded, prime-time vets were not going to be filled by the supposed wealth of talent in the farm system. Then the club cut Garland, who was picked up by the Rockies, for whom he is 3-2 with a 4.75 ERA in six starts over 36 innings. Bonderman is building arm strength in AAA Tacoma and remains a possibility.
Nobody who knows baseball was expecting the Mariners pitching to be the 2009 Phillies. The rotation still could work itself out. But because the offense — eight hits in the past two games in Pittsburgh — still can’t carry its weight, the Mariners remain lopsided, with too few carrying too many.
Lopsided is no way to roll.
Nor is it a way to attract customers. The fading constituency has seen so much of the same for so long that they have pushed back, locked elbows and turned for the door.
Thanks for the beard hat, they say. Keep the kitties. See you someday.