SEATTLE — The familiar sinking feeling returned quickly, in the first inning of the first game of the most anticipated Mariners homestand in a long, long while.
The team had entered Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game bathing in the glow of a 14-game win streak, an expectation-less squad suddenly turned bully. Coming out of the break, last weekend’s three-game series against the AL West-leading Houston Astros was to be a litmus test.
Was it finally OK to hang real hope on the Seattle Mariners?
Whack. With one clean swing, an Astros home run confirmed the answer.
In Friday’s opener, the Mariners’ starter, the left-hander Marco Gonzales, had thrown a four-seam fastball that Jose Altuve could not resist: too slow, too near the heart of the strike zone.
It felt like an omen. Like the Mariners’ marvelous and unexpected winning streak was about to end, soon to be replaced by well-founded doubt.
This is baseball. It breaks your heart. In the 21st century, no team, and no city, understands this more than Seattle.
Twenty seasons without a postseason appearance, the longest such drought in big-time American professional sports. The only MLB franchise to never make the World Series.
Seattle baseball fans possess two traits in abundance: dogged, unrewarded loyalty for the Mariners and the sports version of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As a native Seattleite and longtime Mariners fan who spent too many afternoons watching losing baseball in the dark dankness of the long-gone Kingdome, I can attest to it. In the Pacific Northwest, defeat tends to be endured politely. And when it comes to the Mariners, with profound resignation.
Things only got more ominous Friday after Altuve’s homer when the Mariners went to bat, determined to even this tense affair — a home game played before a rare midseason sellout crowd — with a run of their own.
The Mariners’ magnetic leadoff hitter, the player almost everyone in the stands wanted to see, was a no-show. Julio Rodríguez, the 21-year-old phenom center fielder who had just blasted 81 balls over the outfield fence at the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles, had been scratched from the lineup because of a sore wrist.
Walking through the stands at T-Mobile Park, I could hear a collective sigh of deflation emanating from the crowd.
“This is so on brand,” Evan Riggs, a longtime fan, told me. “Of course, they’d go down early. Of course, their best player wouldn’t play because he just got hurt, probably in the All-Star Game.”
“This is the Mariners.”
I couldn’t have put it any better.
Through June 20 the Mariners struggled to manage a record 10 games under .500. But then they suddenly became baseball’s hottest team — victorious in 22 of 25 games — and came within 10 games of Houston in the chase for the AL West crown.
Out of nowhere, the Mariners suddenly dangled on the precipice of hope.
So it hurt, deeply but also unsurprisingly, when the Astros took an easy, wire-to-wire win, 5-2, Friday. The pain deepened Saturday, when the 39-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander propelled the Astros to a second victory, 3-1.
On Sunday, with Rodríguez still injured and out of the starting lineup, Seattle fell behind 6-0 after three innings and succumbed, 8-5. The big series turned out to be an agonizing sweep. Same as it ever was.
A quick review for those who don’t understand the level of this team’s suffering.
In its 46 years of existence, no organization in baseball has been worse. Some of the game’s most iconic stars have worn a Seattle uniform while in their primes — Ken Griffey Jr. at the top of the list — but the Mariners have been to the playoffs only four times, and all in a short window from 1995 to 2001.
But these, supposedly, are the new Mariners. A team trying to break ground and slough off a past most current players had no part of. Fans in Seattle want to dare to dream big. But we can’t quite let go. We expect the shoe to drop — or a bum wrist to start another losing spiral.
Fans at the series last weekend echoed my apprehension:
“Cautious optimism is the best I can do.”
“It’s like we’ve been here before, but every time we get burned.”
“It feels like they can finally make the playoffs. It also feels like they will probably go on a losing binge.”
Then there was this from Dusty Baker, the Astros’ manager, as he stood by the batting cage before Friday’s game, asking me what the mood of the city is. They’re ready to win big, I told him, but I’m pretty sure your team will have something to say about that.
Baker smiled. “Yes, we will.”
He isn’t so much a soothsayer, as he is used to leading a real contender. His Astros are 5-2 against the MLB-leading Yankees this season after sweeping a doubleheader in Houston last week. Against the Mariners, their indefatigable precision was reminiscent of a great champion I watched at Wimbledon two weeks ago. Like Novak Djokovic, when Houston puts the clamps down, they don’t let go.
I’m almost scared to dream that the Mariners are close to becoming that kind of team. Funny how sports can turn “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called hope, into a weight to be shouldered.
In April, I was warily certain that Seattle, having built this team with smart off-season moves and by creating one of the best minor league systems in baseball, might eke further than 2021’s result, when they were eliminated in the final game of the season.
Then came that win streak in which they zoomed past the slow and steady progress befitting charming underdogs.
Now I’m thinking about what it will take to completely shred Seattle’s reputation as polite losers dressed in aqua jerseys. Guts. Daring. Words no one was using a month and a half ago.
Management should be emboldened by how close the Mariners seem to break the long cycle of despairing defeat. Lay down the chips and go all-in. The major league trade deadline is Aug. 2. Washington’s Juan Soto is on the trading block — an extreme rarity because 23-year-old superstars are the most coveted asset a team in any sport can have.
Do something big, something akin to the early 2000s reeling-in of then 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. Now is the time to break what feels like a curse. All those talented players in the minor leagues represent nothing more than potential. Wrap up a bunch of them in a bushel, add a quality starter from the major league team, and make the Nationals an offer they’d be fools to refuse.
Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto has talked for weeks about making a sharp, stirring move before the looming trade deadline. He won’t say what, maintaining a secrecy that only tightens fans’ grip on the doubt that defines us.
“We haven’t been to the playoffs in 20 years,” Dipoto underlined to me this weekend. “We are the franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series.”
“Fans shouldn’t trust us until we get there,” he said, in the next breath extolling his team’s carefully calculated journey of improvement.
But one of the beautiful traits of a sports fan is the way the games allow us to hope for the impossible, even the irrational. The outfield of Rodríguez and Soto is just that, but I’m dreaming it anyway, and I’m hardly alone.