As twenty-one year old newlyweds, my wife and I spent our first year of marriage in a small apartment in Huntington Beach, California. It was not well appointed, it was not fancy. It had those horrific white, slat blinds that are always in various states of missing a slat or two. The interior was a variety of shades of off white, no doubt the more off the white, the older the paint/flooring/countertop/cabinet. It was in Los Angeles, and had no air conditioner, meaning the windows were constantly open, and the sounds of hundreds of other apartment dwellers’ daily lives were the soundtrack of our existence. We both worked waiting tables. We were poor, stupid, and happy.
The complex stood approximately a mile from the Pacific Ocean, and we would spend our late mornings (once the previous night’s work and drinking had worn off) walking to and from its vast expanse. Looking back I now realize that at twenty-one it’s a near impossibility to know someone well enough to make an informed, lifelong commitment to another human being, and so we spent those walks in many ways getting to know each other.
On one such walk the topic turned to baseball. My wife knew I loved it, and she asked me why. So I told her the legend of the 1995 Seattle Mariners. I spared no detail, from Ken Griffey’s shattered wrist, Alex Diaz’s three-run home run, and, of course, The Double. On and on I went, losing myself in the memory of how a miserable, success-averse franchise made Seattle a baseball town, by coming back from 14.5 games back in six weeks to capture its first playoff appearance, only to somehow top itself in a five-game divisional series against the Yankees.
As my wife silently half-listened, half-endured my rambling, at one point I stopped. Right there on a busy Los Angeles sidewalk, the smell of the ocean surrounding us, I imitated Dave Neihaus’ call of the moment the team cemented its first playoff appearance:
After a pause, my wife continued walking toward the water. To my relief, she stopped when she reached it.
It is the evening of October 1st, 2016, and I am in the air, traveling somewhere between my living room and that sidewalk in LA, twelve years earlier. The 2016 Mariners, a flawed, frustrating but nonetheless talented and joyful team, with a flair for dramatics, have won seven of their last nine games. With a win today, they may pull within a game of the playoffs. It has been fifteen years since the Mariners made the postseason, almost as long as the nineteen-year streak that 1995 team snapped so many years previous.
The Mariners stubbornly rallied from down 4-2, and 7-4 and now in the seventh, with Robinson Cano on first the team’s great slugger, Nelson Cruz, is at the plate. My neighbors are over for dinner. They are not sports fans, and I do my best both to explain why I must watch this game in its entirety, and why they should care. I tell them this is potentially a generational event, something that will reignite the city’s dormant passion for baseball and teach a new generation, my children, to love the game with the same fervor I have never been able to shake.
“This is the guy”, I say.
Cruz swings, the ball takes off, and I see Edgar Martinez taking a Scott Kamieniecki fastball off his belt buckle and putting it into the stands to tie Game 4 of the 1995 Divisional Series. I feel the echoes of that team, now more legend than reality. I leave my seat, and in my excitement, the ground itself. Don’t wear socks on hardwood.
Cruz’s home run tied the game, but an Oakland run in the 8th makes it 8-7, Athletics. We’re in the bottom of the 8th now, and the first two Mariners are retired. It’s then that the 1995 deja vu begins to pop in my brain with rapidity, as though someone were playing flashcards with my memory.
With two outs, the utterly anonymous Mike Freeman doubles, or is that Joey Cora bunting for a single down the first base line? Two batters later, fellow faceless man Ben Gamel singles, and I see a Ken Griffey Jr. groundball through the middle. The crowd is roaring, is that Safeco or the Dome? The game is tied again, and I am convinced utterly that the 2016 Mariners, the most enjoyable baseball team I have experienced in adulthood, will make the playoffs.
Two innings, and one A’s run later, a Kyle Seager flyball falls with a gentle “thunk” into Jake Smolinski’s glove, and the Mariners are eliminated from the postseason. Felix Hernandez, long the franchise’s best player and totemic figure of this team, of this region’s desperation for success, sits in the dugout, the look of utter helplessness. In spite of all the walkoffs, the smiles, the celebrations, the joy of the 2016 season, it is the image that currently defines the franchise:
(Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
In the early autumn of 2017, I held my children as they wept. Baseball did this to them. The Mariners did this to them. My children did not inherit my natural passion for the game of baseball. They are fond of it, they enjoy it. Until this season, they did not love it. It took something like the 2017 Mariners, of 162 games of immense struggle, of battling not only the Astros, Angels, A’s, and Rangers but the last fifteen versions of themselves. It took watching Robinson Cano hit .330, Kyle Seager being an MVP candidate, and Felix Hernandez and James Paxton front-lining a shockingly effective rotation.
More than those things it took the communal obsession and daily, region-wide Mass that only a pennant chase and playoff team can bring. It took a Thursday getaway game in mid-September, being played over the PA in the lunchroom at their school. It took friends on the bus, all wearing team clothing talking about what happened the night before, and what could happen today. It took winning, not so much the satisfaction of victory but the having of something beautiful, that everyone around them, regardless of age, gender, or creed, could agree was something worth being happy about.
So it was that when the 2017 Mariners were eliminated by the Red Sox in six games in the ALCS, they cried. They cried the tears of losing a game, yes, but also the loss of something that over the past six months became a sort of ever present entity, like a friendly ghost. The love of baseball was no longer something to tolerate from dad, or to occasionally play in the front yard. This time, it was real; a connection of team, township, and individual. As I age, I worry less about how long I last, but how long the things I pass down do. This thing now, this baseball, will outlast me.
A week before the end of the regular season we took some savings and splurged on four nice seats, bought on the secondary market at a steep premium, for what we hoped would be the pennant clincher. It was hard, because it had to be. Edwin Diaz walked the first two batters of the ninth, and went to a three ball count on two of the next three. But a popout and a fielder’s choice later we stood together with forty-five thousand others, and there, September 24th, 2017, on a chilly Seattle Sunday afternoon, Edwin Diaz struck out Carlos Santana, and the Mariners won the American League West.
He looked to the sky.