The Mariners are stuck in the middle. They are neither excellent nor awful.
A Mariners team has not reached the playoffs since the spectacular 2001 season, when Ichiro, Edgar, Bret Boone, and Mike Cameron led a team that matched the record for wins in a season, before not making the World Series, because Seattle sports.
That seventeen year streak is the longest playoff drought in North American sports: the tragic Buffalo Bills, whose greatest player is O.J. Simpson, and reached its greatest glory as a franchise when it lost four consecutive Super Bowls during the time he was on trial, have reached the playoffs more recently than the M’s.
Yet what’s remarkable is that the Mariners have not, in recent memory, matched the Bills, the Sacramento Kings, the Cleveland Browns, or other star-crossed franchises in stretches of extended misery.
Most of the time, with a few exceptions, the Mariners haven’t been awful. Certainly they haven’t had alleged murderers on their roster, though some I did have some had violent thoughts about Steve Cishek.
In recent years, after a lost decade, the Mariners have been fine. Last season, the M’s missed the playoffs by seven games, which isn’t really that terrible. You were nearly as likely to see them win as lose if you went to a game; they were 40-41 at home. They weren’t ever really out of it, but they were never in it, either. The Mariners have averaged 78.8 wins over the last six years. It’s just good enough to be respectable and just bad enough to ignore—a break even team wins 81 games, and a good one wins 90. The Mariners have, since the dark days, have mostly rested in that mediocre middle.
Last year’s Mariners were a mildly interesting collection of formerly excellent players who (like King Felix, Robbie Cano, and Nelson Cruz) are now just pretty good, and exciting young guys who are hurt all the time (e.g. Mitch Haniger and James Paxton.) The Mariners always seemed to be one or two players away from really mattering.
The Mariners more or less ran it back this year. They signed a new relief pitcher, but that’s about it. They pretty much just stuck to their guns. They will be mediocre and streaky again, unless everything goes right all at once. I do not expect them to make the playoffs.
That’s why the Mariners are a prime candidate for tanking. After a streaky spring, national columnists will predict that the M’s are screwed despite their high payroll. Fans might tentatively suggest a rebuild with, cheap, young players with potential replacing old, expensive ones who have reached or passed theirs. The Mariners will always be just short of the playoffs this year, but come tantalizingly close.
Yet I’ll take that mediocrity over what was going down in the Aughts. The Mariners teams assembled by former general manager Bill Bavasi were truly awful. Sometimes it was cathartic to be pissed off about those teams. I could transmute some of my teenage ennui and self-loathing to those teams, which wasted the primes of Ichiro and Adrian Beltre.
But that got pretty boring after a while, just like the three up, three down innings that were the trademark of those squads. I just stopped paying attention after a while. Anyone who says they watched those Mariners every day were getting paid to, or they’re lying.
The mediocre Mariners of now are anything but boring. They contain multitudes. One week in 2017 they’d be the best team in baseball, and the next they’d be the worst. They’d win four and lose seven, then the other way around, all the way through August and September.
Sure, they were frustrating, but at least they inspired some interest. The win streaks were genuinely exciting. It was fun to imagine the team in the playoffs when they were a game or two out of the wild card. I could daydream about Nelson Cruz stepping into the box against Justin Verlander in the cold October air, the whole city watching each pitch with bated breath.
A tanking team would take away those moments. They would deprive the now with the promise of some perfect future. I love sports, and baseball especially, because they let me participate in a tangible, contemporary story that is larger than and outside of myself.
When I am driving around all day going to dumb meetings and running useless errands, it’s nice to have the radio on and something to be excited about. I can feel like part of something greater and escape the mundane. I can talk to a total stranger at the bar or the grocery store, and together we can feel genuine emotion and connection about something, even if it’s as trivial as gushing about James Paxton’s curveball.
If the team is trash, nobody cares, and nobody listens. They may as well not exist. The losing becomes natural and inevitable, like the rain and closed roof of an April baseball game at Safeco Field.
This year’s team will probably be like last year’s. It will be like a sunshower: confusing, weird, and not enjoyable enough to overcome getting soaked, but exciting just the same.