Saturday, October 08, 2005

History of Heartbreak

Now that the regular season is long gone, and Tony Graffanino has demonstrated the folly of counting heavily on former Kansas City Royals as on-field pieces of a would-be championship team, it is time to assess our 2005 experience. No, I'm not going to take apart every statistic, trade, lineup card, and disaster of the season. Instead, I propose that we take a careful look at our beloved Mariners from a larger perspective.

Seattle's baseball franchise has a history of futility, but they're not anywhere near teams like the Cubs in terms of a "lovable loser" status. Instead, the very city of Seattle has long been suspected of not "really" being a baseball town, in large part because of the performance of the team and the weird relationship between team and fans. The 2004-2005 seasons, in hindsight just the roller coaster downside of our nice run from 1995 to 2003, may have confirmed this interpretation, and indeed I expect to see some hand wringing over this in the press in about May 2006. Do Seattle fans really understand and love the game, or were we merely swept up in the magic of 1995 and then attached only to that team and its success?

Before we pooh-pooh this idea, there is some merit to the idea that Seattle lacks a real commitment to baseball. It wouldn't have been unjustified, given the fiasco with the Pilots, and then the atrocious first 14 seasons, in which the Mariners posted no record at .500 or above at the same time that fellow expansion team, the Toronto Blue Jays, won their division twice, and came in second while winning 96 games in a third year. Moreover, the Kingdome genuinely sucked for baseball, in ways that I will not attempt to describe adequately here. Still, even with these perfectly good reasons, it was not really the case that Seattle had a large fan base supporting the Mariners on an annual basis. Let's just say that even if the advent of blogs had been twenty years earlier, there would have been very little traffic at the few sites that might have followed the Mariners. Indeed, even in the current atmosphere--in which the run of success at developing star players (from Griffey to King Felix) and actually winning games (from 1995 onward, until the collapse in '04) has produced a plethora of Seattle fans in Safeco seats, and a constellation of different blogs online--it might be said that the recurring complaint of suspicious Seattle Mariners fans marks them as not "really" fans. How often do you hear the semi-conspiracy theory that 'current management is not interested in fielding a winning team, but just wants to stay competitive enough to make money'? For many, this is a way to emotionally divest themselves from the team--unless, of course, it gets back to actually contending for pennants again. That is, their loyalty as fans may be questioned a bit.

Whatever the proper gauge of Seattle as a "baseball town" is, I would argue that there always was a small core of M's fans, those of us who grew up with the new Seahawks and Mariners in the new Kingdome, and who knew the Seattle in which home football games were always sold out despite the futility of the Jim Zorn-era Hawks, but knew that you could always park free and walk to the Dome to catch a Mariners game. Any Mariners game. If I had to park further away than Carpet Exchange, it was Opening Day. (Soak that in for a moment, those of you who do not recall this phenomenon. Free parking. All over near the Dome.) The M's were potentially like the Cubs, only they didn't have as long a history of futility. Or a colorful curse. They were also potentially a team that could one day win, only they didn't have baseball-oriented owners. George Argyros--yeesh.

But in the pecking order of the Seattle sports fan in that environment, it made no sense to have more than just the radical, small core of Mariners' fans. There was football, with both the Huskies and the Hawks. There was the championship past of the Gus Williams-Jack Sikma SuperSonics (and they WERE Super), even if the pathetic present of the 1980s Sonics was somewhat less interesting. And then there was summer, when you could listen to the dulcet tones of Dave Niehaus on the radio while spending time outside in the beautiful weather that extended late into the day. OR, you could go walk up and buy tickets and enter the Kingdome to see...futility, and not very interesting futility at that. I remember Alvin Davis and the mid-1980s teams as fondly as anyone, but the organization was essentially trying to sell us a defective package. The one time that someone in my circle of friends seriously talked about a 20-game ticket package, the choice of games to attend was NOT based on opponents that Seattle could defeat, but instead on opposing teams whose real major league players were worth paying to see in person.

Of course, perhaps this phenomenon of a small core of loyal fans, plus a larger, less devoted group that will support a winner, is the norm in baseball fandom. Perhaps only the teams with the longest histories in one city (the Baltimore Highlanders/New York Yankees, Cincinnati Red Stockings/Boston Red Stockings/Pilgrims/Somersets/Americans/Red Sox, Chicago Orphans/White Stockings/Cubs, etc.) have a permanent, huge, loyal fan base, but the more recent additions to their cities (including expansion teams like the Houston Colt .45s/Astros, as well as teams that moved like the Brooklyn--Los Angeles Dodgers) have fewer fans. It's hard for me to say.

Even so, Seattle fans seem different. We have not embraced our history of futility, and indeed many seem to have forgotten it. To be sure, many current fans did not live through the excitement of we LeFebvre Belebvres when the 1991 team finally posted a winning record. So now, although this franchise has experienced as much heartbreak as any other in the last 29 seasons, fans do not know what to think about two 90-loss seasons in a row. Shoot, the M's hadn't lost 90 in any season between 1992 and 2004 (although they would have had a shot in 1994). So we have a current generation of fans, who joined the hard-core group since The Strike, and who effectively have no real memory of the early, awful Mariners. Believe it or not, this group sees Seattle's baseball franchise as a big-market team (!), which ought to be contending every single year in the four-team AL West. (There is some merit to that assessment.) Meanwhile, the older generation of fans remembers, perhaps with just a little too much fondness, the pain of watching the pre-Piniella Mariners navigate their way into shark-infested waters, year after year, burdened by a small-market mindset and perennial rebuilding, trading away any players who became good enough to think about demanding higher salaries.

That's right, folks. WE were the Kansas City Royals in the 1980s. (And coincidentally, the Royals were pretty good in the '80s, despite their powder-blue unis.)

This, this is why we DEMAND a clear blueprint to get back to contention. Not a quick fix (let that be the lesson of Tatonka), but a long-term plan that takes advantage of the superior revenue stream of the current team to build a winner. On the one hand, newer fans expect that, and hence complain about the seeming penury or lack of commitment on the part of owners who are spending ~$95 million a year on salaries, seemingly ineffectively. On the other hand, fond as we are of our memories of watching Ivan Calderon in the outfield (yes, that was sarcasm), we older fans intrinsically expect that the Mariners are not fundamentally a winning franchise--but we love them anyway. For both reasons, it is imperative that Bavasi and company right the ship.

So we're fans. But we're schizophrenic fans. Dear Mariners Front Office: please give us an identity that we fans, old and new, can get behind. We would prefer that it be the identity of a winning franchise, but really, any authentic identity will do. If there really IS an ownership conspiracy to run the team only as a business, then say so. If there is actually a desire to build a winner, then show it. I actually see some steps in the right direction, but there is so much more work to do. So much.

2005 has thankfully come to a close, and both kinds of fans can agree that there was real progress made, even if the season itself was a stinker. What happens to the dual fan base, though, if 2006 doesn't look a lot different in the standings? How long can the hope of the glorious future of the team hold the interest of the Seattle-as-annual-contender fans? What if we finish no higher than third in a four-team division, again, in 2006? 2007? How long does Bavasi have, and what happens if attendance drops drastically?

Perhaps I'm simply observing the development of a "new" wave of "old" fans. Perhaps Seattle DOES have a baseball identity. We just don't want to embrace it, since it SEEMS so possible to avoid being losers, lovable or otherwise. Indeed, that is a big part of the unease over the team's fortunes: with all that revenue, surely the team could at least match the Oaklands and Minnesotas of the league, who have enjoyed good seasons recently with smaller payroll commitments.

This last observation is an important feature of the current frustration of all Mariners' fans, and it makes a 69-93 season in 2005 FAR more painful than was, say, Bill Plummer's 64-98 season as Mariners manager in 1992. Sure, we Mariners fans were excited to see what Kevin Mitchell could do to the team that had finally broken the .500 barrier. But we were not at all surprised when the team imploded. Current fans ARE surprised when adding Beltre and Big Sexy nets barely perceptible gains over last year's squad. It remains to be seen whether that emotional reaction is warranted.

Can the Mariners plot a new course? Or will they, like the Crimson Permanent Assurance, find certain modern theories concerning the shape of the world to be...disastrously wrong? Stay tuned.


At 9:53 PM, Blogger Tad said...

Very good thought provoking post, Jason. One interesting note is that the M's still drew 2.7 million fans, good for 12th in baseball. They were easily the worst team in the top 12 and the only one that wasn't in some semblance of a pennant race. the Dodgers and Giants were the only other team with losing records above them.

Further they were 4th in the AL in attendance! Sure its way down from the 2001 peak of 3.5 million but its way better than all but a couple of the Kingdome years.

Its only paid attendance of course, we don't know how many people actually showed up, but so far, the fans haven't left in droves. More like bunches. Or maybe herds.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Adult Personals said...

hehehehe good topic, like the site.


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