It’s time now

It’s no longer about what should happen. It’s just time to yell.

1) You will recall, or you will not, that in the past we have written some overwrought, and angst-filled words in this space to the effect of what the Mariners making the playoffs would mean to us, and to our surrounds. That was for the 2017 Mariners, a team that slogged through a mediocre, depressing season while watching a division rival vault to a World Series championship, and final slaying of whatever power Sports Illustrated held on the national mystique. It was a very Mariners season.

The death of a Mariners season, however, for once, appears to have left behind something besides the nostril-stinging sweetness of death and decay. The corpse has fertilized the soil, and the 2018 Mariners, a team that by all accounts should be at or slightly above .500, is reaping a generational harvest of good luck and good timing. They are 41-24.  A quick view of the landscape of the American League, and where the Mariners sit amidst it tells a pretty clear picture, although uttering it aloud risks tapping into the vast ocean of ennui, paranoia, and superstition that is rooting for one of the most failure-ridden franchises in all of sports:

The Mariners are going to make the playoffs this year.

2) The truth is that, outside of a happy cosmic accident from 2000-2003, the Mariners have just not been very good. Clearly, there have been misfortunes, bad-timing, busted prospects, and injuries. For fans the slow, steady, geological-event style feeling of the years of same have led to a feeling of something like a curse.

There was no curse, and never has been. While Mariner fans exist in a world where mystical snares and devilish traps lay ready to trip us up the moment we let ourselves relax or expect even a single good thing to happen, those foibles never extended onto Safeco Field itself. The truth is the players were not good enough, the front office not adept enough, and ownership not committed enough to seeing it through. The fact that for thirty-seven of their forty-one and change years of existence the Mariners have not suffered under some gypsy’s vengeful hex, but rather the weight of their own shared failings may provide comfort, or push you further to despair. Which is largely up to you, but face that reality with honesty and courage, because reality it very much is.

3) We don’t really know how exactly the Mariners are 41-24, and will not pretend to have any deep insight into it here. By and large it has something to do with Edwin Diaz ensuring that in every game decided by an eyelash, which is almost all of them, the Mariners are the ones who did the best job getting those babies full and luscious. It involves a group of players that with few exceptions does not do anything spectacular on any given day, but also does not do that most Mariner of things: Horrifically fail. It is a team built upon a generally higher baseline of competence than is typical, and while we are resistant to offer too much credit towards Jerry Dipoto by habit, that is probably by his design.

We do know that this season, regardless of final outcome, represents an experience Mariner fans have not had in a very long time: A mid-season spot in a prime playoff spot, a summer of scoreboard watching, and a very real pennant chase.

There is magic in First Place, and as of the day of this writing, June 12th, the simple matter is that a quick look at the standings in the AL West, when read from top down, starts with “Seattle Mariners”. Beyond that simple, joyous, dopamine-providing exercise, the American League has shaken out to make the Mariners playing a Game 163 a (relatively) simple task. There is one team fewer than five games behind the Mariners in the Wild Card standings, and one other fewer than ten games. That second team, the Cleveland Indians, is also leading its division.

Of all the different Mariner seasons: undermanned, plucky group that stands just outside playoff contention. Spectacular, expensive, old, franchise-crippling failure. Losing season endured at the expense of Playing the Kids, and on, THIS Mariner season represents something so lost to time as to be basically new: The Blitzkrieg. The rapid, dominant, overpowering assault, followed by stockpiling provisions, shoring up supply lines, and praying that it all lasts long enough to ensure victory.

Regardless of where the Mariners are in late September, what happens between now and then is, for the people inside and outside of this organization, virgin, unspoiled territory. And that is a very exciting thought.

4) We are old. That is not a new thought, nor a new fact, but it bears repeating. It bears it because one of the byproducts of age is a narrowing of one’s emotional spectrum. Highs are lower, and lows higher. We imagine that much of the challenge of middle and old age will be trying to keep that spectrum from merging into a single line, but that is not the discussion for today.

Today is about what we want, and have always wanted: We want the next generation of baseball fans in this town to come into its own. Watching the Mariners of the mid to late 1990’s make the playoffs, and the region’s accompanying daily devotion to them, is still, decades later, the cornerstone of our entire fandom of all sports. We found heroes, we fell in love, we made relationships that survive to this day.

We were not alone in that. The powerful, intoxicating effect of those teams, combined with their early 2000’s brethren provided the momentum and voices that have kept Mariners fandom a largely enjoyable experience, despite all the Mariners baseball involved. It has been a long journey, with various factions and figureheads popping up, only to pass on the burden to the next group. For a short while, we carried the banner, and then had to lay it down. It was heavy and, frankly, smelled a bit. We figure Gary left it on the floor of his apartment and let his cat piss on it. That’s a total Gary move.

But now, finally, it’s time. The Mariners are good, one way or the other. The Maple Grove and other fan groups have provided a way for new fans to connect with each other and the team. Safeco Field stands poised to be a summer home for fans, new and old, to congregate and learn to love what we very truly believe to be the best game in the world.

It’s time to imagine. Look at a calendar, and circle October 2nd. Imagine the Mariners ending the Red Sox season in Fenway Park. Imagine watching it with your friends and family. Imagine filling Safeco for a viewing party. Imagine the first pitch. Imagine the final out. Imagine everything in between. Imagine sinking a frankly inadvisable amount of discretionary income into tickets for that first playoff game at Safeco. Imagine the pregame buzz in that place. Imagine trying not to cry.

This is not for us, and never has been. This is for Seattle, and for the future, and all the people who have never done this before. It has been long enough. It’s time, now. The Seattle Mariners are going to the playoffs. Have the summer of your lives, dear friends.

Go M’s.

 

The Mariners need a sweep

The Mariners lost yesterday, 4-3. It was a disappointing loss in a few ways. First, losses are always disappointing. Second, watching Felix continue to fight Father Time and his historical first inning struggles is not exactly my idea of a great time. Third, and I don’t have the stats in front of me to back up this claim, but losing to a team on their bullpen day probably isn’t the expected result.

But there’s one more reason to be disappointed, and that’s the lack of a series sweep. Despite the myriad of injuries, lack of pitching depth, and the loss of their best position player for 80 games, the Mariners at this point are, from all indications, still focused on making the playoffs this year. And they’re running up against a hidden deadline.

Since the introduction of the second wildcard in 2012, 60 teams have made the playoffs (for the purposes of this article, we are considering the second wild card a playoff spot, despite it being closer to the March Madness First Four than what I’d consider a real playoff spot, but that’s another article for another day). Of those 60 teams, 44 of them, or 73%, had completed a three or four game sweep by the end of April. Another 12 had done so by the end of May (which puts us at 93%), leaving only four teams. Let’s examine those four.

2016 Blue Jays – First 3-game sweep completed: June 1. OK, technically not May, but close enough.

2012 Giants – First 3-game sweep completed: June 4. Also pretty damn close to May, plus this could easily be a side effect of those strange odd year/even year spells and incantations they were performing during the early part of this decade.

2012 Athletics – First 3-game sweep completed: June 14. This version of the A’s caught fire in the second half, playing .671 baseball in their last 76 games. This is your outlier.

2014 Pirates – First 3-game sweep completed: July 6. Do you remember this team? Cause I don’t. Plus they got blasted in the play-in game getting 4-hit by Madison Bumgarner and losing 8-0. Yikes. I don’t think this is the team we want the M’s to emulate.

I’m not the first person to point out that June has the potential to be a brutal month for the M’s (let’s not talk about August yet, either). After feasting on the soft underbelly of the AL Central, June sees the M’s get seven games against a frisky Rays team, and ten games against the Yankees and Red Sox, the teams with the two best records in baseball. Not to mention two games in Houston, and three against the team that looks to be the M’s main competition for the second Wild Card, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County of the great state of California, USA. If the M’s are going to sweep a team, they need to do it now, at home against a Twins team missing a few key pieces of their own (Mauer, Castro, Polanco, and Santana).

Most preseason predictions had the Mariners missing the playoffs. Despite a strong first two months, those projections still have the team on the outside looking in. If they want to finish the Cinderella story they’ve begun writing these first two months, they’ll need to start the same way Cinderella did.

Get to sweeping, M’s.

James Paxton threw a no-hitter, and is still nicer than you

On the Mariners newest ace pitcher

1. This is a story of tears. Not mine, certainly. I was raised with the tired and foolish notion that tears show weakness. My emotions can get plenty stirred, but years of that foolish notion have dug a pretty deep pit for me to keep them, so it takes quite a bit of turbulence to get them so agitated and bubbly that they actually come out. When James Paxton threw the sixth no-hitter in Mariners history last night, I silently put my arms over my head. My wife patted me on the shoulder, and said congratulations. Then we went back to our game.

It’s not about your tears, either, and I don’t say that as a rebuke. There are approximately fifty million things about our world today that could bring a person to tears, and almost all of them also require us to avoid that actual release of emotion. They require us to protect ourselves. Baseball’s beautiful, simple stories provide a wonderful exception to that, and if you found yourself with wetness trickling down your face while watching Paxton and his teammates jump up and down on the mound well congratulations you’ve found a way to use sports in a potentially healthy manner. I’m envious, really.

But still, the tears in focus here, the ones that purchased last night’s history, are those of a kid in his backyard in British Columbia. He’s a pudgy guy, one of those kids on the playground who becomes “it” in tag and can never catch a classmate, growing increasingly red, sweaty, and embarrassed as they remain forever just out of reach until he either quits, or the bell frees him.

He’s in the backyard, and he’s running, and he’s tired.. He wants to play sports, and he’s committed to get in better shape. His mother, watching all this play out in front of her, goes out to tell him “James, honey, you can come inside. That’s enough.” But he stays, and he runs, and he hates it, and he’s crying. When I think about that kid, and his tears, and flash back to last night, and this:

Pax No no

Well let’s say a better man would at this point add his tears to the party. I won’t, but I get mighty close.

2. I’m the jackass who, years back, in an effort to make up a nickname equal parts catchy and biting, coined the “Dadgut” term for James. Over time I’ve realized how insecure James may have been about his non-typical for an a professional athlete physique, and the very real harm in the idea of body shaming. James may never have heard that nickname, and he almost definitely won’t read this but still, James, I’m sorry for that. That was wrong of me.

3. It’s hard to define when exactly the listening/viewing experience of a no-hitter goes from the casual, background noise of another evening at home to “holy shit everyone shut up no I will not turn it down go play in your room”, but in this case it was exactly when Kyle Seager threw out Kevin Pillar.

The impressive thing isn’t the stop. It’s not that the ball was hissing and spinning and hopping like a demon on that hateful turf, actually getting past Seager before he snatched it out of nowhere like Rose’s sister the bomber pilot grabbing the detonator at the beginning of The Last Jedi. It’s not even really the throw either, which he accomplished without pausing to even look at first base, trusting that a decade of fielding hundreds of groundballs every day had built in the necessary motor memory to make actually seeing his target an unnecessary indulgence. No, for me, the most amazing thing about that play is what happens between the stop and the throw.

Do me a favor here, and go lay on your stomach, and stretch one arm above your head. Are you doing it? I don’t know how if you’re reading this still but if so thank you. Now, I want you from that position to see how long it takes you to stand up and be ready to do something else.

Did you do it? Wow you’re very compliant I’ll ask for your social security number next time. Anyway, the point here is neither Seager’s stop nor his throw matter at all if he doesn’t exert some incredible, kung-fu Matrix-level nonsense getting from one to the other in the time it takes to snap your fingers. In Seattle we’re spoiled by third base greatness but given the context game situation and speed of runner that is just about as fine a play as you’ll see a third baseman make.

Seager said afterward if the ball had gotten past him he wouldn’t have been able to sleep, because Kyle Seager’s mechanism for greatness is not a press towards success, but an eternal, endless-runner style flee from failure. We are sympatico in that way. I love Kyle Seager.

4. As an American in 2018 the idea of national pride is a thing I view with increased cynicism. We are a nation in many ways at war with ourselves over who are, and who we want to be. As such the concept of being the first Canadian to throw a no-hitter on Canadian soil in the major leagues is an achievement difficult for me to fully grasp. The sight postgame of Paxton looking into the crowd, pointing at his maple leaf tattoo, was something I would and do scoff at when I see Americans do similar things. Perhaps patriotism is something best experienced from the perspective of an outside observer, because this, this felt pretty damn cool to see. The crowd loved it, James loved it, I loved it.

5. As he continues to write what is increasingly becoming a story very worth telling, the tale of James Paxton is going to come back to the first half of 2016, and a start in San Diego when he got hit to hell. 3 2/3 IP, 10 H, 8 R is not the kind of line you point to and say “that’s the birth of a star,” but it was. Paxton struck out seven, and walked one. His delivery, once a confused mishmash of half ideas and awkward pauses and springs, was smooth and unencumbered. His arm slot was slightly lower. His command was improved, and oh by the way, the threw one hundred miles an hour now.

Since that time, the only thing that has stopped James Paxton from being one of the ten best starting pitchers alive has been health. He has taken everything, the bad nicknames from bad bloggers, the speculation that he profiled as a reliever, the arduous journey from the University of Kentucky to the big leagues, losing out on a rotation spot at the beginning of 2016, and he has done what aces do. He has shoved. He has shoved, and so far this year the Mariners have shoved right along with him. He stands now as one of the American League’s best pitchers, fully formed, a looming terror for any opponent every fifth day. He has thrown a no-hitter. He has bought it all with tears, seen and unseen, and no one can touch him now.

Go M’s. Go James.

 

Adventures

So, what are you gonna do today?

The season asks you to walk a path, every day. More often than not, your travels will be simple enough. Whether uphill or down, the slope will be gentle, and you’ll walk it pleasantly enough. Your view will be a landscape filled with outs, hits, wins, and losses that, while all unique, are similar enough to keep you feeling mostly safe. You may have started these walks seeking something else entirely, perhaps you don’t know exactly what, but inevitably you’ll find these ever so slightly different features provide you comfort, and that comfort maybe has crept its way into your reasons for doing this. Maybe it has, over time, even become the reason.

It is important to remember, during these peaceful times, that the season is still in fact an unexplored wilderness. Eventually, without fail, you will find a path like yesterday’s; one you had never seen before. You will wonder as it offers a series of breathtaking vistas, gorgeous waterfalls, and exotic wildlife beyond description. You’re going to get caught up in it, rushing heedlessly forward, every bend and turn bringing a fresh, thrilling, historical strikeout. Your parents, your ancestors, will have told you of sights like these, but oral history is but a roughewn cave painting compared to ocular reality, and you’re finally seeing something you’re going to pass down to your children, and you look down and you’re running now, careless, heedless of all caution. The endless beauty and thrill of discovery provides a rapturous ecstasy, and you will inhale it deeply.

Then, the bridge will go out, and you will find yourself falling. Unlike everything else about these adventures, in a fall the key part is really the distance traveled. During this day’s excitement you had, without realizing it, pushed higher and higher into the wilderness. Your fall is going to be a long one. It is going to hurt.

Back home, you’ll nurse your wounds, apply your poultices, and drink your tonics. You’re going to be despondent with pain both physical and emotional. You’ve injured yourself plenty of times outside, but this one was different. You were close. Close to something special. You could feel it. It may have just been on the other side of that bridge.

A flicker of doubt will flash. Was it real? Or had you just imagined it in your joy? The pain from that fall is real enough. Yes, that’s a reality you won’t question for some time. You will lay yourself to bed that night, a mixture of confusion and hurt.

Tomorrow, you will wake up, still sore. You will look out your window. You will see there’s a path you have never walked before. It’s probably just another one of those comforting strolls, and that will sound pretty nice after yesterday. But, you’ll let yourself think, maybe it’s not. Maybe you didn’t imagine whatever you were close to before that bridge broke. Maybe this is an alternate route! Maybe, maybe there’s something even better out there.

All the season asks is, go find out.