While the world struggles through Myanmar, the credit crunch, and seemingly ceaseless Democratic bickering, the sports section has provided a bastion of light for the dark days in which we find ourselves. Tales of unbridled generosity on the softball diamond, a Boston Dream Team for the ages, and a certain Webb awing audiences with his gems over the Sedona desert. Even when tragedy strikes, as with the felling of Eight Belles, the sports world marches on with the knowledge that an athlete (though not always human) gave its all for an oftentimes unattainable dream.
But for those who follow the Seattle Mariners, that light emanating out of the sports world has been hampered and beaten, bloodied by malaise and slowed by apathy. For the fans of the once-great M’s, the days are often darker within Safeco Field than the intentions of Eddie Cicotte or the future of Mr. Red.
When I realized I would have to skimp on my finances and avoid an MLB.tv package this season – who knew textbooks could cost so much? – my grief was second only to my desire to drop school and head straight for the Safe. For the first time in a long time, I wouldn’t get to watch my team mash during the first month of baseball. No ESPN outings, no TBS stops, not even a WGN break. The days were truly dark, for me at least.
My grief abated a tad when the Mariners came out of the gate a bit slower than expected. Splitting the two-game set with Texas precluded a four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Baltimore Orioles. Half of the defeats to the O’s came from bullpen hiccups, each deploying from the arm of baby-faced Eric O’Flaherty (who was promptly relegated back to the minors). The Mariners rounded out the month with a 12-14 mark, but the sub-.500 record belied the teams’ potential: With a +15 run differential, Seattle seemed poised to breakout with a May schedule holding 19 opponents who were looking up at an even record. Granted, some of those challenges included the pitching-laden Indians and the team Sports Illustrated picked to knock off the Cubs for the World Series title, but the Mariners were looking at one of the (theoretically) easiest months they’ve had since their early-millennium heyday.
But as Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, however, there is.” Berra’s prescience was apparently not limited solely to 21st-century military endeavors in Iraq — with a splash of Nostradamus, the aforementioned platitude is perfectly applicable to the situation in which the Mariners find themselves stumbling, bumbling, and making a mockery of the game (not to mention any publication which predicted they would finish second or better in the AL West.)
The Mariners’ May malaise actually fomented as the April showers began to wane. Kenji Johjima, one of Seattle’s most reliable contributors over the past three seasons, received a strangely-healthy contract extension on April 25th. While financial terms were not technically disclosed, FSN’s Ken Rosenthal reported, Joh received a three-year deal worth about $24 million. While the deal may have been considered fair by both sides, the signing unveiled the hubris of a certain baldheaded, goatee-sporting M’s GM: a willingness to set the market despite a lack of (or at least misinterpreted) hurriedness — although the Carlos Silva contract can be eschewed on another day. Jason Varitek and Pudge Rodriguez will be highlighting the offseason free agent catcher market, and while the Mariners may have saved a bundle by locking up Johjima just four weeks into the season, it’s very possible that they overpaid for a mediocre backstop.
What made Johjima’s signing all the stranger was the fact that his replacement, Jeff Clement, had been waiting in the wings for three years. Although often overshadowed by his draft counterparts — Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ryan Braun were all selected after the M’s took Clement at third — the USC alum had been progressing nicely at the plate. Despite Clement’s questionable defense, the Johjima signing put Clement’s future in a pit of uncertainty. Add to that the fact that Johjima’s average at the time was a worthless .194 — while Clement mashed .375/.550/.688 through the first 19 games in AAA — and the Johjima extension cast a strange and eerie pall over the start of the season.
As May’s opponents whacked apart the Mariners, the team’s widespread weaknesses came to light: the young bullpen had been exposed to brain- and arm-curdling radiation (or the hitters had seen them just a few too many times), the starters — namely $9.85 million man Jarrod Washburn and his 5-plus ERA — decided to take it easy, and the hitters enjoyed displaying their best Richie Sexson imitations, with Johjima, Jose Vidro, and the entire Mariners bench garnering early-season rewards (while Ichiro — Ichiro! — finished a close second).
A brief reprieve came when Brad Wilkerson and Greg Norton were designated for assignment, but the M’s young replacements so far have proved equally abysmal. As of Saturday, young right fielder Wladmir Balentin had logged just nine hits in 38 at-bats — although he had brought in seven RBIs — and Clement owned the dubious honor of being the only regular with a slugging percentage under the Mendoza Line. Furthermore, Clement plugged up the DH spot — why is less-power-than-my-dead-grandma Vidro still on the team? — which prevented finally removing Raul Ibanez and his enlightening defense from the field of play.
The offensive drought that the mires the Mariners has reached grandiose proportions as we enter the middle of the month. A 24-inning scoreless streak, including 14 against the decrepit arms of Jose Contreras and Sidney Ponson, was broken only when Contreras gifted the M’s a run-scoring wild pitch. It wasn’t until the bottom of the ninth that a Mariner crossed the plate on his own accord as Balentin displayed a glimpse of his possible power on a solo shot into the night.
But are these immense struggles, the basic death pall that overtakes every non-contender (though not usually this early), really that out of the blue? Are the fans’ broken hearts, with salt poured in after the “contender” title was bestowed, justified? The Mariners’ 2008 PECOTA win prediction was a paltry 79-83, after all. With Felix and Bedard. A nine-game dropoff from the previous season. (For those interested, Seattle’s win prediction had dropped to 76-86 following an 8-4 thumping at the hand of the Chicago White Sox on Saturday.) Perhaps some of the fans put too much stock in McLaren’s claim that “Richie [will] have a big year for us” — assuming he meant smacking dingers, not Kason Gabbard with his helmet — or expected J.J. Putz’ numbers not to balloon to ridiculous proportions (6.43 ERA and 2.24 WHIP as of Sunday).
The all-knowing Mariners blog U.S.S. Mariner made a very astute, quasi-damning observation last Tuesday: “This will sound overly dramatic, but it’s simply a realistic assessment of where this team stands – the Mariners have exactly five games to save the 2008 season. If they don’t perform well between now and Sunday, the rest of the year will simply be playing for second place, because the hole will be too large to overcome.” And how have the Mariners performed in those five games since? Four drubbings from Texas and Chicago, a 24-inning scoreless streak, and a Saturday defeat that saw the M’s go down 8-1 before rallying to bring the score within a grand salami of tying the contest. The stretch also saw president Chuck Armstrong claim that “this is the worst schedule ever” — clearly he hasn’t heard of the New Orleans Hornets circa 2005-06 — and a record-low crowd turnout to see the Rangers bend the Mariners over 10-1 on Tuesday.
Awful. Atrocious. Abominable. Too many synonyms to name.
Fortunately, Ken Griffey Jr. seems to be on the market, and expressing interest in returning to Seattle in the immediate future. But knowing the way Bavasi et al. operate, I’m sure it won’t be long before we see a different lefty slugger don the Seattle threads. And the day Barry Bonds becomes a Mariner is the day that will be darkest for us all.