Freaky observation from a startling baseball week in Seattle: Jarred Kelenic was two years old when the Mariners were last in the playoffs. He was born the day after then-Safeco Field opened.
Now, he’s in center field, as well as in the corpulent American League playoff race.
Wednesday night against Oakland, he struck the decisive blow, a two-run double in the sixth inning to support another well-pitched triumph, this one 4-2. Kelenic’s arm pumps standing on second base were so intense, he appeared to be one away from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Afterward in a video conference, he was no less ebullient.
“Dude, it was so loud,” he said of the moment of his big hit. “It was just kind of surreal. It’s like one of those things that you see in movies when you’re young, or you see on SportsCenter. When you’re just there, you can only just sit there and look around and soak it in.”
Cute kid, Kelenic. Understandably, he has little clue about anything in Seattle prior to his birth, a date that to some of us seems like the day before yesterday.
Indeed, the park was loud, but, well . . .
Attendance was 17,366 Wednesday night. The average for the season is 13,887 in a park that holds 47,476. Years of management entropy, torpor and perfidy, preceding a pandemic now in its 18th month, made weak one of the tightest embraces in major league sports.
In the first three seasons of The House That Griffey Built, in which he barely played, the Mariners averaged more than 43,000 fans a game. From 1996 through 2007 in two stadiums, the Mariners averaged more than 30,000 a game. During that time, the city and its team slashed ruthlessly at the canard popular among MLB executives of the era that baseball would never work in Seattle.
It was never a bad baseball town; too often, it had been town of bad baseball.
Now, good baseball is back.
It’s a splendid time for fans, adorned with masks, to follow suit and come back too.
Winners of 10 of their past 11, the Mariners are 18-8 in September and 46-27 against AL West opponents. They begin Friday at home the final three regular-season games against the Angels at 89-70, in pursuit of a wild-card playoff that in late May was unforeseeable even if you owned and operated the Hubble Telescope.
Thursday night, the necessary outside help the Mariners require to advance came in a double scoop.
The 107-loss Baltimore Orioles defeated the Red Sox, 6-2, winning the series 2-1, and the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, also 6-2. The Red Sox fell into a tie with off-day Seattle at 89-70 for the No. 2 wild-card spot, two behind the Yankees (91-68), and one ahead of the Blue Jays (88-71).
That sets up a delicious weekend among baseball fans of scoreboard watching, incantations, lucky-charm rubbing, calendar-rearranging and baby-sitter-summoning that are all part of a ritual unique to the sport: The must-watch, daily chase for the post-season.
The permutations are numerous, nerve-racking and delightful. This time around, it could produce extra drama: A do-or-die, play-in game for teams tied after Sunday’s regular-season conclusion, for the right to play in a do-or-die wild-card game.
Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone sussed out a remote but diabolical possibility: The Mariners could play at home Sunday, travel to a play-in game Monday, and if they won, travel to another city for a wild card game. Winning the wild card would send them to a fourth city in four days to begin the AL Division Series.
See what we’ve all missed by the Mariners’ self-imposed exile over the past two decades?
Again, chances are slim for that scenario. Yet longtime Mariners fan may recall a three games/three days/three cities carnival ride in 1995, when Seattle made its first playoff appearance.
Leading the AL West on the final Sunday, the Mariners lost at Texas to drop into a tie with the Angels, forcing a one-game playoff in Seattle for the right to meet the AL East champion Yankees for the Division Series in New York (no wild-card round then).
In my 2002 book, Out Of Left Field, about the franchise’s successful attempt to save itself from numerous perils, I describe the urgency and intensity that envelops a team scrambling to reach the postseason. The excerpt below begins after the loss in Texas:
As the team flew home, the front-office staff went into an all-night frenzy to create tickets and prepare for a game that hadn’t been scheduled. The 1:35 p.m. start, to allow travel time to New York for the start of the ALDS the following evening, forced Kingdome operations to double its workforce to more than one hundred to quickly convert from its football configuration.
Broadcaster Dave Niehaus, who had spread his syrupy baritone over nearly two decades of baseball dreck, was so fired up about the big game that he was at the park by 8:30 a.m.
“I wasn’t tired at all,”he said. “The teams were running on adrenaline. This day was for the whole damn year.”
Or as outfielder Jay Buhner put it a little earlier, trying to capture for interviewers the significance of something Seattle had yet to experience: “Every throw, every pitch, every at-bat . . . every everything means everything.”
Never had the the sports crucible been described with more loopy eloquence.
When every everything means everything.
In sports, the final baseball weekend doesn’t get more intense. Twenty six years later, every everything has returned to Seattle.
Some stakes are different now than in 1995. MLB was plotting to move the franchise to Tampa, and politicians were attempting to stop the relocation by hammering together a tax package that would fund a new stadium to replace the Kingdome. The players were well aware; their critical contribution was to win to prove voters wanted to keep the Mariners in Seattle because they cared.
No such stakes exist now. There’s a different sort of threat: Ennui.
Mariners fans have tattooed upon their souls the curse of the longest absence, since 2001, from the post-season in major North American pro sports. Oh-for-19 is the same batting average bunny rabbits have against wolverines.
Another way to look at the futility is that the Mariners have four playoff appearances in 44 years, all from 1995 to 2001, under manager Lou Piniella. And of course, the lone team to never have made the World Series.
This weekend represents the chance to break the overwrought attachment to an epic but distant time, and to become contemporary, relevant and sports-cool.
After beating Oakland for an absurd 12th time in a row Wednesday, manager Scott Servais made note of an intriguing baseball demographic. The night’s axis had a 24-year-old, Cal Raleigh, at catcher, a starting pitcher, Logan Gilbert, also 24, and Kelenic in center, at 22.
Some premier kids have arrived. More are coming. The smile on Servais’s face this week seems close to perpetual.
Another aspect of the weekend’s intensity is one that happened in 1995 as well: Discovery by newbies. This is when connections are made to fans disaffected and/or oblivious.
If you count yourself in either group, please let me describe Servais’s tenure.
He’s been here six years in his first managing job, but the past two years, he’s had to navigate the pandemic, wildfire smoke and protests against racial injustice. In spring training, he had to de-frost his players when the team president publicly denigrated some of them, and caused a national labor controversy too; then at mid-season, Servais had to hit the de-frost button again when a controversial trade provoked clubhouse-wide ire.
Injuries forced him to use more players than any team in MLB. He got nearly nothing from premier talents James Paxton, Kyle Lewis and Evan White. He helped create one of the game’s best bullpens from mud and leaves. The Mariners are on the precipice of the playoffs despite being the worst-hitting team in baseball.
If he’s not the American League Manager of the Year after these trials and an MLB-high 33 one-run victories, light my torch, and hand me a pitchfork and a map to the castle.
While you’re connecting with Servais, do the same with RF Mitch Haniger. Many players have done remarkable things to help deliver this weekend. But none of them have lost a year and a half to injuries and surgeries, including one to a testicle, yet returned an undiminished warrior.
Wednesday he hit his personal-best 38th homer, the 100th of his career, and third-most in MLB history by a player who didn’t play a game in any professional league the previous year.
With three games left, he can overtake Willie Mays (41 in 1954) and Ted Williams (38 in 1946).
Just typing that last sentence delivered a chill. He has my player of the year vote.
As as rule, I’m stridently non-partisan when it comes to fans spending their money. The sports-fan dollar is entirely discretionary, and you should spend/withhold it not out of obligation but out of enjoyment, or lack thereof. The marketing machines of the sports monopolies and their cronies at the networks don’t need my help.
I’m breaking the rule for this weekend. Exceptional moments require exceptions.
Screw journalistic ethics, cynicism, and the pandemic (except for wearing a mask).
Show Kelenic how it was in Seattle when he was a zygote, when every everything was everything, when Ted Lasso was learning his coaching truths.