Gary Bell was born in 1936. George Kirby was born in 1998. Their career arcs as right-handed pro pitchers crossed Saturday afternoon in Seattle through the ethereal Pilots, a single-year sports wormhole that flawlessly connected flawed moments in major league baseball.
Bell was 32 in 1969 when the Pilots made their teensy yet memorable skidmarks in the baseball universe. He threw out in spritely style the ceremonial first pitch, which was witnessed from the stands by Kirby, in town for the first time as the No. 1 pick (20th overall) in the recent amateur draft by the Pilots’ successors, the Mariners.
Splayed in front of both athletes at T-ball Park were the Mariners and Orioles, teams deliberately debarked upon seasonal doom. The 1969 throwback uniforms could not disguise the fact that the franchises were operating in the ghastly fashion of the day — intentional badness in order to get to goodness.
The Mariners (34-47) were better at badness than their guests, ending an unexpected three-game win streak by helping the Orioles (22-55) end their expected 10-game losing streak, 8-4 (box).
The Orioles are in year two of their teardown, after a worst-in-the-majors 47-115 record in 2018 that left a scar visible from space. As the losing streak indicated, 2019 is no better for the O’s.
It’s a small sample size, but the Orioles’ pace nevertheless counts as an example of how these step-back things can go.
The Mariners, on the the other hand, think they can show legitimacy starting in the second half of 2020. Kirby is expected to be part of the Mariners’ ascent somewhere down the road. As a junior at Elon University in North Carolina, he was a star, but Saturday he was just an awe-struck kid meeting big leaguers, including manager Scott Servais.
“He told me to just control the zone and throw strikes,” Kirby told reporters pre-game. “I did pretty well with that in college, so I’ll try to do that and it should work out pretty well.”
Pilots manager Joe Schultz probably told Bell the same thing, and Bell likely responded in a similar way. Some things in baseball don’t change.
But given the dubious achievements of so many of the Mariners’ previous first-rounders, it can’t hurt to ask Bell to keep alert to calls from the 206 area code during this year of extended spring training. Another bullpen implosion Saturday left the impression that churn will be as relentless as it is futile.
Entering Sunday, the Mariners have gone through 77 lineups, most in the majors this season. Anyone who witnessed the Pilots’ season of a half century ago would see a similar pattern of random desperation. Circumstances were vastly different; results are not.
Servais is too young to remember the Pilots, but since he grew up in Wisconsin, he benefited by their collapse, bankruptcy and exit from Seattle. They became the Milwaukee Brewers of his childhood.
“Not much to say about the Pilots other than they ended up in Milwaukee, the part of the country when I grew up,” he said post-game. “It’s fun. You get a chance to look back on the history of the Mariners and Pilots here, the uniforms.
“Not a huge fan of the hat.”
Servais was in the minority on that. The first 20,000 of the 27,545 on hand were given replica Pilot lids complete with the semi-notorious “scrambled eggs” on the brim. Even though most of the customers weren’t alive for the Pilots’ eye-blink upon Earth, the hats were in prominent view around the park, presumably connecting in a manner like a walk through an unfamiliar cemetery: Not directly related, but curious about lives gone before.
The other accoutrements of the day were fun — the video scoreboard identified as Sicks’ Stadium, and the between-innings organ music, as well as walk-up songs, that were anthems from 1960s bands and TV shows (anyone of sufficient vintage who doesn’t smile at the Get Smart theme has a soul as barren as the Sahara).
And of course, Go Go You Pilots! the classically cornball ditty from the fertile mind of late broadcaster Rod Belcher, was played after most Mariners accomplishments. The fact that the song hadn’t worn out its welcome by the end of the game was more a testament to Mariners ineptness than sophisticated musical taste.
Club marketers took a risk in inviting the inevitable comparisons between the 2019 team and its hapless ancestors from Nixon’s first term. Booking as opponent the worst team in baseball was a good hedge. Didn’t work out.
In June of their 43rd season, the Mariners remain closer to their past than their future. To make the point, the Orioles will show them their scar.