Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A Ken Griffey, Jr. Moment

Father’s Day, 2009.

It was the first Father’s Day I’d come close to celebrating in years, as I’d lost my father two decades earlier. That year, my aunt and uncle were visiting town with their two teenagers, and I’d arranged for a nice day for my uncle: A brunch for the four of them, after which, I’d meet up with them for a Felix Day game at Safeco.

The years since have diminished the luster of 2009, but that year felt magical at the time. Jack Z.’s first offseason had led to an overhaul of the team, which suddenly seemed respectable for the first time in years. Ichiro was still Ichiro!, Guti was earning the nickname Death to Flying Things, and the Kid had come home. Baseball in Seattle felt good. Exciting, even.

On Father’s Day, the Diamondbacks send lefty Doug Davis to the mound against Felix, so Griffey sat, part of a platoon with Mike Sweeney. But in the eighth inning, following a Gutierrez RBI Fielder’s Choice, the Mariners held a thin 3-2 lead. A couple batters later, with Guti on third, the Diamondbacks went to their bullpen. And I knew what was coming.

“They’re going to pinch-hit Griffey,” I told my family.

I missed the first Ken Griffey, Jr. era in Seattle, watching it from afar, his charisma so great that I idolized him even after becoming disillusioned with baseball following the 1994 strike. His return was a chance for something special, a grand farewell, and I was thrilled to see him hit a home run the first time I saw him play in a Mariners uniform, earlier that season.

“He’s still playing?” my aunt asked, apathetic about baseball, but recognizing the name. I tried to explain how he had become diminished by age, but was still a reasonably competent hitter, if no longer the perpetual MVP candidate he was his first decade-plus.

After my explanation, she asked another question, one that made it clear this was her first visit to the Emerald City. “If he’s not that good anymore, why’s he on the team?”

Just then, Griffey was officially announced as the pinch-hitter, and Safeco Field erupted, a standing ovation in mid-June. I waved my hand at the crowd, ecstatic to see a living legend stride to the plate.

“That’s why.”

Griffey flied out to left field that at-bat. The Mariners held on to win the game.

And today, Seattle’s greatest player is the newest Hall of Famer, with the highest vote percentage of all time.

Congrats, Junior.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Short Days and Long Waits

This site was supposed to be a joke.

Launched on a day whose name is synonymous with distress, a fraction of a way through a season we didn’t believe was lost. Mehriners, a would-be ironic portmanteau that never quite turned out to be that way.

I hate to say it, but we gave up on this season. Or rather, I did—I can’t speak for my fellow contributors, but the months-long radio silence coming from this page speaks for itself. We all have our distractions, our other priorities, and as the Mariners’ season sunk deeper and deeper into the mire from which it never recovered, it was easy enough to give up and walk away. It wasn’t so funny when it was true.

I kept up with the Mariners this summer, but not in the way I hoped. The fervor faded, like in all lost seasons, and I got caught up in the whirlwinds that are life. I worked on my book. I swam in Lake Washington for the first time. I traveled a bit. The day I arrived in Boston, I watched the last few outs of Iwakuma’s no-hitter on my cell phone, narrating it to my mom and sister as we walked from our hotel to have dinner on a harbor patio. Two days later, we watched the team get bombarded in Fenway, a Kyle Seager home run the only redeeming moment for the few Seattle fans in the crowd, my mom screaming “Good!” with every blow struck against the M’s. I cheered too, rationalizing it as a better draft pick for the Mariners, and a better experience for the Fenway Faithful. Bigamy means rationalizing a lot.

The next day, as we killed time before our respective flights out of the city, I expressed remorse at missing a Felix start in my favorite ballpark, only to change my mind when I checked the score. It was that kind of season, where even missing out wasn’t really missing out.

Jack Z. got fired, Jerry Dipoto replaced him, and all sorts of long-awaited staff shuffling took place. As much as I occasionally enjoyed Lloyd McClendon’s antics, his managerial tactics always struck me as atrocious. In fact, in all these lean years, Don Wakamastu was the only manager I really liked. But the real changes, the necessary changes, are yet to come.

I was thinking about the shape of things last night, in the moments after the Royals won the World Series, when I couldn’t bear to turn off the TV because when my screen went black, it would mean baseball was gone. Gone, and far away, as far away as it will ever be, spring training but a distant concept featuring names we don’t yet know.

There’s a wonderful essay by A. Bartlett Giamatti, who would later go on to become commissioner, which he wrote about his beloved Red Sox on the final day of the 1977 season, the year our Mariners debuted. “The Green Fields of the Mind,” it’s called. There’s one part that struck me last night, at home, out of the (Royal) blue:

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

The irony of being a Mariners fan is that, for so many years, we’ve felt the opposite. That while so many other fan bases treat the offseason as a time of rest, and the summer as a time of celebration, we’ve been forced into a parallel universe, where hope only exists when our team isn’t on the field. Maybe this trade. Maybe this signing. Maybe our front office has finally figured it out. At the beginning of this calendar year, all the projection systems pegged the 2015 Mariners as a sure success, but instead, the team faltered and failed and was dismantled, as best as possible, before our eyes. We blossomed in the winter, and withered in the sun.

And so, yesterday, on the day we stopped saving daylight, the baseball season came to an official end, five long weeks after our team’s games ceased to matter, and a month after they stopped being played at all. Once again, on the outside looking in, now longer than any other baseball team.

Three days after the Mariners were eliminated, I went to a game at Safeco. One last game, as part of the final homestand, as has become a tradition for me. I paid a fraction of the face value for my ticket, and enjoyed the mostly empty stadium, even taking advantage of the apathy of ushers to go sit with an old friend who happened to be there, directly behind home plate. Last year, my final game of the season featured Felix on the mound and the hope of a drought ending. This year, there wasn’t even the hope of a tomorrow. Next year, maybe.

Maybe.

Maybe.

There’s no word that encapsulates the Mariners fan experience more than that, on the day after baseball went into hibernation. We look at Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Felix, and think that, if we squint, we could see these men celebrating on some field next November. That “miracles” and “Mariners” are both the same number of letters, and former’s felt overdue for oh so long. That, now that next year is only two months away, now that a dead season has given way to dying leaves, we can see the shape of the future, and perhaps some promise therein.

After all, this site was supposed to be a joke. Maybe it still will be.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Dustin Ex Machina

Last week, I rewatched my current contender for film of the year, Ex Machina. The technotriller revolves around three central characters: Nathan, the Elon Musk-like founder of a search engine/social network, who has turned his attention to developing an A.I.; Ava, Nathan’s newest creation, who he’s subjecting to his own version of a Turing Test; and Caleb, one of Nathan’s employees who’s unwittingly recruited to judge whether Ava is actually sentient.

About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Caleb begins questioning himself, wondering if he might not be human after all. The test he comes up with for himself is to take a razor blade to his arm.

Despite my squeamish nature, when I saw Ex Machina in a theater a few months ago, I watched the scene long enough to see what the results of this act would be. Last week, though, knowing the results, I averted my gaze before the blade sliced Caleb’s skin.

Which is where the Mariners come in.

Yesterday, Dustin Ackley, the Mariners’ highest draft pick since Alex Rodriguez 16 years earlier, was traded to the New York Yankees1, in what will hopefully go down as one of the final moves of the Jack Zduriencik era. If this is nearly the end, as so many Mariners fans are hoping, it’s an appropriate bookend. Ackley was Jack’s first draft pick, and his incredible performance after his 2011 call-up seemed to signal a new, better era of Mariners baseball was just around the corner.

Now, we know how that all went.

In the four years since, Ackley peaked at just above league average, even as he shifted from second to center to left. His bat disappeared, his defense fluctuated, and his status as a future Mariners icon dissipated like so many prospects before him, and, more importantly, like every heralded prospect since.

Zduriencik. was hired on the strength of his draft classes with the Brewers, the mastermind behind Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder/Rickie Weeks contenders of a few years ago, a core that seemed poised for greatness, but only managed to disappoint the entire state of Wisconsin2. Here in Washington, with Zduriencik’s seventh trade deadline at the helm now in the rear view mirror, those teams seem like juggernauts compared to the Mariners he’s assembled, especially when it comes to homegrown talent.

Nick Franklin. Mike Zunino. Justin Smoak. Jesus Montero. Mike Carp. At this point, Zduriencik’s reputation for targeting young talent to build a team around lies in shambles, his few successes more indicative of good luck than anything else. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, who were supposed to be the #2 and #3 starters behind Felix in a grand playoff run, have shown flashes of brilliance, but have just as many question marks. Kyle Seager, the one position player Zduriencik’s drafted who’s managed to exceed expectations, was basically an accident. Supposedly, Seager was only picked by the Mariners because he was college buddies with Ackley, who they thought might sign for less if he had a friend in the system.

More than six years in, it’s increasingly clear there’s something fundamentally broken about the Mariners’ player development machine, of which Ackley was the most visible victim. It can’t be as simple as misjudging talent, because everyone else seems to be on board with the choices the team has made. Look at the Mariners’ projected 2015 lineup from this 2012 Baseball America article—the only hitter that’s contributing to the actual 2015 team is Montero, and he’s hanging on for dear life. The failure lies not in identifying talent, but in converting it to wins on the field.

But that’s always been this team’s problem, hasn’t it?

The Seattle Mariners have a long and storied history of trying to extended streaks of futility by investing in magic beans, and it’s yet to work out. Bill Bavasi’s trade log was filled with abominations like the Carlos Silva contract, Eric Bedard trade, and the underrated disaster where he overpaid for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez in the same week. Zduriencik was supposed to be a breath of fresh air, someone who valued prospects and built this team from the ground up, but he’s turned out to be just as incompetent in a different way.

In a year that was supposed to be the Mariners’ return to glory, we instead crossed the trade deadline as sellers—tepid ones, at that. With two months to go in the season, the Mariners are only 1.5 games out of last place in the American League, featuring the second-worst run differential, an assortment of bad contracts that will hamper the team for years to come, and a front office that lacks imagination and good judgment.

As of yesterday, Dustin Ackley is no longer with the organization. We can only hope that tomorrow, Jack Zduriencik follows.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Falling Off the Wagon

Every year. This happens every year.

I’m not talking about the Mariners’ ongoing offensive struggles, the 2-9 homestand, or even getting nothing out of the first round of the draft1. Over the course of fifteen seasons of following the Mariners, I’ve developed a sense of Stockholm Syndrome when it comes a team whose front office’s roster construction strategy appears to be trying to dig up.

My problem is more personal.

Every year, when April begins, I get swept up in a whirlwind of excitement over the return of baseball, podcasts, snark, and Pyramid Curve Ball. I blow through the first third of the season watching MLB.tv as dark nights turns into cloudy evenings, which turn into clear still-days. But inevitably, as Memorial Day weekend arrives to unofficially announce summer’s presence, I get thrown off my horse.

Summer, peak baseball season, always arrives in a confluence of what local band Harvey Danger once perfectly summarized as “Wine, Women, and Song,”2 and the Memorial Day holiday disrupts all the rhythms and habits I’ve spent the previous two months rebuilding from scratch. This year, like so many previous, it was the Sasquatch! Music Festival that did me in.

Over the course of several days of scrambling around town to prepare for the weekend, followed by the better part of five days camping, drinking, and band-watching at the Gorge Amphitheatre, I lost the thread. With hit-or-miss cell phone service at the Gorge, I could still follow the team via tweets, but streaming video was impossible, and audio was out of the question, even if my attention span hadn’t been split in a million different directions. I spent five days on a different planet, one where beers were somehow even more expensive than at Safeco, and one where baseball practically didn’t exist.

When I got home, it was hard to return to the grind.

Distractions. So many distractions, so many things to catch up on besides a flailing, failing, mess of a franchise whose promises of “This year!” always fall short. At a friend’s birthday party last month, while Dylan and I discussed the sorry state of the team, I pointed out to him the surest sign that this season, management actually believed its own hype: After two decades of celebrating the shining moment that was the 1995 Mariners, this year—the 20th anniversary—was bereft of official celebrations. Why embrace the past when you might finally be creating a brighter future? So much for that idea.

Just like every year, that future grows dimmer by the day, even as the days grow brighter and perfect weather entices to me to abandon my TV in favor of more joyous pursuits. I’ve been trying to get back into the Mariners’ rhythm, but there’s always something else that feels less futile.

Last week, I was jolted back to attention: A Wednesday day game against the hated Yankees, which commenced right as I arrived home from the gym. The Mariners lost, of course, in a fashion that made Masahiro Tanaka, a pitcher whose UCL is in only slightly better shape than my career as a trapeze artist3, look like vintage Greg Maddux. Following that embarrassment, Jack Z. decided the best way to improve the team’s offense was by trading for Mark Trumbo, a player whose offensive profile was nearly identical to that of the Mariners’ collective offense. (Trumbo’s 2015 OBP, as of the trade: .299. The Mariners, at that moment: .298.)

I fumed. I protested. Then, that night, I went out to see a SIFF film with some friends, and went to an after-party which featured Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Distractions. So many distractions. Just like every year.

I know, that sooner or later, I’ll fall back into the rhythm. The season isn’t even half-over, and while the Mariners’ playoff odds have tumbled precipitously, maybe they can right this ship. Improbable? Yes. But it’s far from impossible, and whatever reasons for optimism I had two months ago are still there, somewhere, buried beneath today’s offensively inept performance in Cleveland, their 14th in the last 15 games. Today’s was the first game I’ve caught more than half of since that Yankees game a week ago, and when it ended I asked myself why I’d bothered.

Soon, the trade winds will start blowing, though I don’t know which side the Mariners will be on. (Anyone want a mediocre center fielder?) Soon, this team’s direction will become clear. Soon, the campaign for King Felix to start the All-Star Game will begin in earnest. Soon, I’ll shake off my usual early-summer apathy, and care again.

But today, the sun is shining, and I’m tired of spending yet another June complaining about yet another year of Mariners malaise. I have plans for tonight: Drinking, friends, and karaoke. Wine, women, and song. Right now, baseball is fourth, at best, just like the Mariners in their division.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Real Talk: Is Logan Morrison Attractive?

[Preface: I have absolutely no qualms about judging Logan Morrison about his physical appearance because he has no problem doing it to female celebrities and I believe in equal objectification.]

Recently, while watching a Mariners game in a bar, I heard a woman comment as Logan Morrison came up to the plate.

“Oh, he’s cute,” she noted to her friend.

Him? I thought? That guy?

And then, less than a week later, a woman I follow on Twitter inquired about whether or not he was single.

So I started asking around. Is Logan Morrison attractive? For friends who had never seen him, I would pull up photos. But, like the Two-Faced Girl from Seinfeld, it was honestly extremely hard to determine.

Sometimes he’s cute. Sometimes he’s not.

For the record, I’ve always had a few definitive opinions that are not up for debate. I believe that LoMo is a.) a pretty great first baseman because he has really long arms and legs, so he can reach and keep one foot on the base and b.) a strong hitter when he’s not injured.

I also think that often, right before he takes a swing, he makes an exceedingly creepy half-smile, and that he seems like kind of a turd, personally, which makes it hard to be attracted to him.

And yet, some people find him extremely hunky, tats and all.

So I asked on Twitter, and I got mixed responses.

“He’s no Brad Miller,” one person commented, which is decidedly true — but we’re not concerned with whether or not he’s the most attractive Mariner (Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley, and Robinson Cano are, in my opinion, vying for that position). What I’m wondering is: Is he attractive, period?

One response that came up several times is that no matter how pronounced his jaw, or how (sometimes) dashing his smile, Morrison’s personality simply can’t be overcome and thus, he is patently unattractive.

LoMo to be extremely animated on Twitter, though his repeatedly offensive and often inexcusable comments seem to have prompted the league to advise him to spend more time at batting practice and less time opining about what women can do with their bodies. Still, the bad taste remains with a lot of people.

So it seems that the answer is: Nobody knows. Or maybe it’s just down to what you’re into. If you like tall athletes with shitty attitudes on things, he might be your guy. If not, well, he’s not a bad ball player.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Talking Socks

baseball low-cuff pants

Aside from maybe a Hanes factory, I can’t imagine a place where socks get more attention than in baseball. And as our beloved Mariners played a team literally named after socks this past week, I was once again struck by the way that baseball uniform fashion has changed and by the sneaking suspicion that baggy baseball pants have simply got to be impeding performance.

Decried by everyone from sporting insiders to Tim Gunn, to-the-ankle, baggy baseball pants have been called every mean name in the book (that you can reasonably call pants, which to be fair, is a rather thin book). Low-cuff baseball pants aren’t exactly new — Uni Watch, a blog that’s literally just dedicated to uniforms, has a useful timeline if you’re wondering about the history of this stylistic choice — but they have become largely the default, as only a handful of players today choose for high-cuffs and visible socks.

Most of the arguments for low-cuff socks are, to be honest, cosmetic. Players have cited everything from credibility (basically, cool kids wear low cuffs) to mosquitos. In addition to simply being more stylish, long, baggy baseball pants are also subtly tactical; a baggier pant makes it more difficult for the umpire to discern the strike zone. But what about the practicality of having your legs relatively free of added material?

There is, it seems, no scientific study of the impact on baseball pant length on game play. So perhaps there’s no real change at all, except on the relative appearance of the players. Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all.

But what if it does?

I can’t help but wonder if a snugger fitting pant might benefit a player like Kyle Seager, who’s already pretty quick to round the bases, get to where he needs to be faster. Or if, in a moment like Logan Morrison’s impressive Sunday splits, a less baggy pair of trousers (which LoMo used to wear, by the way) could have aided in the necessary fractions of a second needed to make the play.

The science on tighter clothing in sports other than baseball also isn’t entirely conclusive; skiiers and swimmers both still swear by the nanoseconds shaved off by a skin-tight suit, and compression leggings are extremely popular with distance runners. Studies have gone back and forth on whether compression apparel actually improve endurance or speed, though recovery and next-day performance has been shown to be benefitted by compression apparel — including socks. Which could be applied to baseball players, who, after a grueling game, are expected to come back 12 hours later and do it all again.

And there is some anecdotal evidence that less baggy clothing could possibly be tied to slightly better performance; Brad Miller, this week’s AL Player of the Week, and something of an experiment for the Mariners seems to be playing well in his high socks. And what about Austin Jackson, who had notably more RBI in the 2012 season, when he, too, opted for a more traditional pant length?

The ease of play in longer trousers was, after all, what initially led baseball players to the original stirrup pants; players stated that the woolen pants they used to wear would catch on their shoes, and that in a well-fitted pant, they were able to play more freely.

Still, today’s players say that the “pajama” look is simply more comfortable — and it gives them a way to express themselves in an otherwise prescribed world of polyester and team logos.

Someone who is more statistically-minded than myself might be able to come up with a more nuanced report on whether or not low-cuff pants hinder play (paging Nate Silver), but in the meantime, I’m happy to align myself with the legions of sports fans crying foul over the low-cuff look of players like our own King Felix and Nelson Cruz.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Visiting, Safeco

Yesterday afternoon, Safeco Field was as packed as I’ve seen it in years—officially, attendance was about 900 fewer than last year’s Game 162, but there were less visible swaths of empty seats, so I can’t say for certain. It certainly felt more full, and yet surprisingly mellow1.

As a bigamist, I make it a point to attend at least one game of every Red Sox series2, usually clad in the visitors’ garb.

The varying trajectories of the two franchises since the dawn of the millennium have made the dynamic interesting over the years—long ago, there was a sympathy between the teams’ two fan bases, and it even felt like Mariners fans were slightly happy for the Sox in 2004, when everyone outside of the New York metro area was relieved to see them get over the hump. As the Mariners would-be dynasty crumbled, that first pennant still out of reach, seeing the Red Sox and the White Sox break their ancient droughts in consecutive years gave even the most beaten-down fan bases reason to hope. After all, how long could a team with both Ichiro and Felix stay bad?

Unfortunately, Boston’s success came with a huge bandwagon effect, and the Mariners’ simultaneous decline inspired bitterness. As the Red Sox ran up a nine-game losing streak at Safeco in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Seattleites seemed to delight in knowing that, putrid as the M’s may be, they could at least beat down the team that droves of fans were invading Safeco Field to see. Attending Sox-Mariners games in the latter half of last decade was a strange experience, where M’s fans, who normally didn’t make a peep unless the scoreboard told them to, suddenly grew aggressive—once, a guy wandered over from an adjacent section to taunt me as J.J. Putz closed out another win, despite the fact I was at the game with a friend in a Jay Buhner shirt.

To be fair, the degree of aggression varied over the years, that man’s in-your-face-ery being the most extreme example. In 2010, as I entered the stadium to celebrate my birthday, a Mariners staffer playfully suggested that I was wearing the wrong team’s clothing, to which I responded that the M’s got me for 153 games a year. In 2011, I can’t remember any harassment at all, but I was in the club level, which has historically been generally apathetic.

Since then, though, there’s been a detente, fueled by commiserating and fatalism. Both teams were putrid in 2012. The Sox won in 2013 while the Mariners sucked, and last year, things flipped. This series was the first in forever that might actually matter for both teams. At yesterday’s game, despite Paxton’s pitching gem, you never would have known it.

Maybe it was my position on the third base line, as opposed to the lower outfield seats that tend to get a little rowdier. Maybe it was the father sitting next to me, with his wife and six-year-old daughter, with whom I struck up a running dialogue. But there was no aggression, no taunting the entire game, from anywhere. There was barely any back-and-forth at all: The only “Boston Sucks!” chant I heard was from a few apparent frat boys, sitting on the steps outside the CLink on my way in. When I got home, I read headlines like “Paxton dominates Red Sox,” and felt like I’d experienced a different game entirely. I mean, shouldn’t a dominant pitching performance inspire some sort of reaction from a crowd of nearly 40,000 people? Something at all? One outfield section couldn’t even get the Wave started, for fuck’s sake.3

The game breezed by yesterday, its two hours and 31 minutes feeling even faster. By the time I finished my two-mile walk home, it felt like I’d barely been at Safeco at all. My last trip there had been interrupted by the heartbreak of the Mariners’ elimination, the feeling that, even when they won, they still couldn’t win. Yesterday, they won again, which meant my other team lost. But the whole experience felt muted, washed out by some combination of sunshine and complacency.

Nobody complained about my Sox jersey yesterday. Nobody complained at all, about anything, on either side, at least not that I heard. Which makes yesterday the strangest Safeco experience I’ve had yet.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Bigamy

It’s a rare feeling to go to the ballpark and know, with absolute certainty, that your team is going to win that day—even the 2001 Mariners lost more than 28 percent of their games. In more recent years, Felix has been as automatic as anyone could possibly expect, and yet his home record is only 70-441.

I’m lucky, though. A few times a year, I can head to Safeco Field and know, for sure, that I’ll be happy with the game’s outcome. That’s because I’m guilty of one of the cardinal sins of sports fandom: I am a bigamist.

Despite being the founder of this here website, I’m actually a Red Sox fan first. Put into percentages, I’d place my rooting interests at 49% Red Sox, 47% Mariners, and 4% Whoever’s Playing the God-damned Yankees. The Mariners are my team, but the Red Sox were my father’s, and his father’s before him, and as a result, my mom, sister, and I all bleed Boston red. When I visit Boston, I only sometimes go to my father’s grave, but I always to go Fenway2.

Most of the time, rooting for both teams conflicts less than you might expect. Aside from the fact that, 155 or 156 games per season, I can root for both teams simultaneously, it helps immensely that, for the past dozen years, there hasn’t been a single season when both teams looked like playoff contenders3. The only time that both teams made the postseason, I had yet to set foot in this fair city.

Because of the lack of competition, until now, it’s been easy to govern my bigamist leanings with a single rule: I root for whichever team the win benefits more. For ages, this meant purely rooting for the Red Sox—especially in the mid-2000s, when every Mariners win seemed to buy Bill Bavasi two more weeks of job security—but last year, fortunes flipped, and despite attending one game in a Pedroia jersey and Sox hat, I was actually rooting for the Mariners all three games of the series. For the first time.

This weekend, it’s all up in the air. While neither team has lived up to preseason expectations as of yet, there’s reason to believe either, if not both, of them could turn it around. For the first time I can remember, there’s conflict.

Sunday, I’m going to Safeco for my first game of the season, likely clad in my Boston best, knowing I’ll have plenty more chances to root, root, root for the home team later in the year. But it’s early yet, and my family and I have tickets to see the Mariners at Fenway in August. I’m hoping the choice is easy then, that both teams will be so far in first that I can opt to not care. Failing that, I’d settle for one. Already, I’m looking three months ahead, and picturing the possibility of something I’ve never done before: Representing Seattle in a sea of Sox fans, subjected to the opposite of all the taunts I’ve endured at Safeco, like the photo negative of who I’ve been for the past dozen years.

Sports bigamy is vilified because it seems insincere—sooner or later, any two teams will inevitably come into conflict, and sports is about picking sides. In a case like mine, where you genuinely want to see both teams succeed, and think that they truly could, the situation gets even tougher. Every win for your team is a loss for your other, one that might come back to haunt them. Joy and sadness cancel each other out.

In my favorite book, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, Chuck Klosterman dissuades the reader from infidelity thusly:

Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one.

Such is the joy and the curse of sports bigamy. For the next four games, my team can’t lose.

But my team can’t win, either.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Evaluating Talent, Regretting Purchases

“Why would you buy a Jarrod Washburn jersey?” I asked as we crossed from the Pyramid Brewery to the stadium itself, some time in the summer of 2008, steps behind someone who was wearing the very article of clothing I criticized. “I mean, that’s basically saying, ‘I’m a huge fan of overpaying people for being mediocre.'”

A lot of shade was thrown in those three sentences, aimed, in decreasing order, at a) the front office that had signed Washburn, b) Washburn himself, and c) the fan who presumably purchased, and definitely wore, the jersey. Washburn was in the third, and ultimately worst, season of a four-year, $36 million contract in that moment. In the first two, he’d accrued 4.0 WAR, making him the picture of league average. Which is fine—sometimes, even necessary—but not exactly the kind of thing you want your front office to treat like a big splash, and far from a franchise savior.

I keep thinking about that guy in the Washburn jersey, because I fear I’m becoming him. In the waning days of the 2011 season, I decided to use the merchandise discount that came with being a partial season-ticket holder to purchase a jersey. Not wanting to blend into a sea of Felixes, and already owning Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez shirseys, I looked to our then-rookie sensation, Dustin Ackley. A player whom scouts said had a can’t-miss swing like Ichiro paired with potential Gold Glove defense at second base, and who was going to be under team control for another six seasons. The first time I wore that jersey to the stadium—on my birthday, no less—I spilled food and stained it before I’d even walked in the gate.

Which might have been a warning.

His rookie season, Ackley put up a stellar 3.8 WAR in only 90 games, which projects to more than six wins in a full season. Ackley was going to be a perennial All-Star, maybe even a MVP. He looked so amazing that we might even forget how Yuniesky Betancourt’s only good weekend ever, in the final days of 2008, had cost the Mariners Stephen Strasburg1.

Of course, Ackley never turned into that player. His WAR numbers since then—2.6, 1.1, and 1.9, with -0.6 to date in 2015—suggest the sort of decline you’d expect from a player ten years his senior. Which means I have a jersey in my closet I’d almost be embarrassed to wear to Safeco these days.

In the decade since Felix made his debut, the Mariners have been blessed with a remarkable number of hyped prospects or trade returns, and cursed to see almost all of them fail, at least while they still wore the compass rose: Yuni. Jeff Clement. Adam Moore. Justin Smoak. Jesus Montero. Erasmo Ramirez. Carlos Triunfel. And it’s starting to look like Mike Zunino might join that list, too2.

Strangely, we got the player we thought we were getting in Ackley, without the hype, from the same college and the same draft. Kyle Seager has turned into the kind of player we were told all of those others would be, who was worth more last year than Ackley was in his 2012-2014 seasons combined. Seager’s success, paired with all those flops, condemns the Mariners’ scouting and player development machines, who misevaluate talent so regularly that it’s almost comical.

Why is it the Mariners top prospects always flop, while unheralded gems rise through the ranks? Why have so many can’t-miss players done just that?

And most importantly, can I exchange my Dustin Ackley jersey? We’ve got at least six more years of Seager, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday, 3 May 2015

On Winning and Wifi

April, 2011. Opening Day of the first season without Dave Niehaus.

As expected, the pregame ceremonies were stellar enough to not only bring me close to tears, but to get my then-girlfriend—who had moved to Seattle the previous August and only really knew Dave through reputation—choked up as well. It was the most beautiful Opening Day I’ve experienced to date.

At least until the second batter. Because that’s when this started to happen.

Then, this happened:

I wasn’t exaggerating. From the start of the pregame ceremonies until the mass exodus began in the top of the fourth, my phone’s signal was weaker than Brendan Ryan’s power stroke. But as the fans left the stadium, my signal returned. While we stuck out the slaughter, I explained to my girlfriend how this was the most typical Mariners experience possible: The marketing department did everything right, while the baseball operations department did everything wrong.

A lot’s changed since then. Last year, the team pulled off a surprising turnaround, and in an even more shocking development, this season, Safeco Field got wifi. Why was the wifi so shocking? Because I hadn’t heard about it until Dylan mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

As recently as September 2013, the Mariners claimed there were unexplained difficulties preventing them from blanketing Safeco in wifi, even though in San Francisco, the Giants had managed to deploy stadium-wide coverage way back in 2004, and Safeco was covered by a Nintendo-device-only network already. Even during the Mariners’ most putrid seasons, the only real complaint I heard about the ballpark was the internet situation.

And yet, when the organization finally solved a problem that had (supposedly) vexed it for a decade, not a word1. I’ve watched some portion of probably two-thirds of the games this season, and in all the talk of beard hats and bear hats and bottle-opening hats and girly hats and fedoras2, there hasn’t been a word about the free wifi, which by all accounts, is blazing fast and remarkably reliable. They’re advertising given nights, but not the greatest improvement to the stadium since Safeco opened.

Granted, I don’t go to baseball games for internet access, but having it adds significantly to the experience. For example, last June against the Red Sox. Ackley made what appeared to be a stunning diving catch in left, only to have it overturned when replay revealed the ball had rolled out of his glove, hidden from the umpire.

Sitting in right field, I couldn’t tell what had happened, nor could anyone around me, and the scoreboard wasn’t much help either. And, even with an iPhone 5S on LTE, it still took an inning for the replay footage to load. By the time I knew about the ball rolling out of Ackley’s glove, half the people in my section had forgotten the play even happened.

I realize it’s a little ridiculous to complain now, when, after years of wondering if Safeco Field was the only place in Seattle without wifi, the Mariners finally, if quietly, acted. But that’s kind of the point: It’s always seemed as though this organization fundamentally misunderstands what brings fans out to the ballpark. A tribute to Dave or a free hat might convince people to attend a single game3, but the two things that bring fans out sustainably are a great ballpark experience and a winning team.

All I’ve wanted from the Mariners for the past decade was winning and wifi. I only wish they’d realized the latter was less important.