As a member of the original 1977 expansion team, catcher Bob (Scrap Iron) Stinson didn’t contribute a lot to Seattle Mariners lore besides a cool nickname. He did say something memorable, to the point of unintended prophecy.
During the first spring training in Tempe, AZ., he was asked by Seattle Times baseball writer Hy Zimmerman when he thought the Mariners would be eliminated from the pennant race.
Scrap said, “Opening day.”
Of course, that was never true, then or now.
Just seems like it.
The remark represents the thick cynicism that envelops the Mariners among long-time fans. Even if you’re too young to remember the Scrapster, you can still feel his pain uninterrupted across the decades, except for four postseason appearances.
Hey, you don’t need to be old to experience it. A nine-year-old baseball fan can feel it too.
Because as long as that youngster has been mature enough to appreciate baseball standings, the Mariners have been stepping back, not stepping forward. For – as kids often like to put it – “my whole entire life.”
The futility spanning parts of two centuries comes to mind as fans wrestle with the notion of what they saw last week – four compelling wins in four tries by one of MLB’s youngest teams against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays – versus a baseball lifetime built on the twin pillars of aggravation and dismay.
The Mariners came from behind in all four games and won three in walk-off fashion with an exemplary assembly of pitching from starters and relievers, timely hitting that included two grand slams, and complemented with mostly sound defense and baserunning.
The easy resolution for managing this contradiction is to default to cynicism. It’s safe, comfortable, reliable. Your dismissal of optimism likely will prove you right.
While I would never attempt to walk anyone back from comfortable inertia, I will offer the idea that MLB has just created a wrinkle that is going to be trouble.
They changed the rules in mid-season.
They didn’t pursue my suggestion to shorten the basepaths to fast-pitch softball dimensions. What’s wrong with every batter having an OPS of 1.000-plus?
Instead, the commissioner’s office ordered pitchers to stop gooping baseballs with every substance found in a Home Depot adhesives aisle. Monday began the new ritual of pitchers experiencing a frisking by umpires who were fearful of their hands getting stuck in public on the bodies of other gentlemen.
Even though the rules have been on the books for years, gooping was widespread and pervasive. The practice accelerated with the use of high-speed cameras that documented that spin rates, and thus ball movement, can be enhanced by a tighter grip. Regarding the sanctity of the game’s rules, pitchers on every team suddenly went all-Astro.
The result has caused the MLB batting average to fall below .240 for most of the season, a near-record low, and further underscoring the strikeout/home run narrative of most at-bats to be as dreary as a Seattle November.
As to how this pertains specifically to the Mariners, I can’t tell who among their pitchers did or did not goop. That’s not really the point. The point is that changing the rules in mid-season will hurt the teams built to succeed in 2021.
The first overt casualty came last week with Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow. He was shut down after an elbow injury he blamed on switching from dirty to clean in advance of the rules changes that MLB warned were coming in March — the most recent suspension for pitch doctoring was 2015 — but not implemented until after pitchers emptied out Home Depot in their devotion to sticky lotion.
“I switched my fastball grip and my curveball grip,” Glasnow said on a videoconference with reporters. “I had to put my fastball deeper into my hand and grip it way harder. Instead of holding my curveball at the tip of my fingers, I had to dig it deeper into my hand.
“I’m choking the s— out of all my pitches.”
Mock Glasnow as you will, his point about changing in midseason has merit. MLB could have waited until after the season, or more likely before the season, because the anecdotal evidence was plentiful.
The impact of the change is already being felt. When MLB on June 5 gave two weeks of warning that pitchers will be fined or suspended with pay for 10 days (with pay), and their teams not allowed to replace them, ESPN reported the league-wide slash line was .237/.312/.396 and the strikeout rate was 24.2%. Over the next 14 days, the slash line rose to .248/.320/.416, while the strikeout rate dropped to 23%.
So the desired effect seems underway. Regarding the Mariners, starting June 6 and ahead of Tuesday’s series opener against Colorado, their record is 9-5. While I suspect the Mariners pitchers are no more or less competitively crooked than elsewhere, they were the worst-hitting team in baseball at a collective .198 for awhile in May, a mark that if sustained would be an MLB record.
They are now up to .216, and ahead of Milwaukee at .212. Cart in the champagne.
Factors contributing to the uptick are several, including warmer weather. And it could be attributable to a term we have come to know well — a false positive.
Obviously, Mariners manager Scott Servais likes to think otherwise.
“Couldn’t be any more excited about this group,” he said Sunday afternoon following the 6-2, 10-inning triumph over Tampa Bay that concluded with a preposterous walk-off grand slam by Shed Long — his first home run of the season. “We’re playing on top of our game right now. It’s really fun to watch young players’ confidence grow and the excitement they bring.”
Tuesday update: Long struck again, an eighth-inning solo homer providing the difference in a 2-1 win over Colorado, the MLB-leading 14th time the Mariners have won in their last at-bat this season.
Not only are the kids learning, Seattle’s 50-some uses of the injury list — the MLB leader –perversely has a positive effect of creating opportunities for major-league playing time to players who missed out in the 2020 stump season. Good showings increase the Mariners’ assets available ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.
Combined with the disruption that teams will go through with the mid-season rules changes, the Mariners have enough elements with upside to hang with most teams outside of the top tier. And even embarrass one of them.
It’s hard to ask the longtime Mariners fan to shed the crusty exoskeleton built over the years, particularly after a brutally painful layer was added just a month ago in the 16-1 loss at San Diego, part of a 31-7 deficit in the three-game sweep. But that’s also when a COVID-19 episode temporarily decimated the bullpen that now seems healthy and ornery.
The Mariners can’t put away Scrap Iron Stinson’s accidental curse until they win it all. Meantime, the current outfit is in a world, a sport and a season that all change faster than ever. Perhaps even before July 30.