Postseason hope weighs heavily on Seattle Mariners fans

SEATTLE – The familiar sinking feeling returned quickly, in the first round of the Mariners’ most anticipated team’s first game in a long, long time.

The team had entered the Major League Baseball All-Star Game bathing in the glow of a 14-game winning streak, a squad with no expectations suddenly turned bully. Coming off the break, last weekend’s three-game streak against the AL West-leading Houston Astros would be a litmus test.

Was it finally right to put real hope in the Seattle Mariners?

knock. With a clean blow, an Astros home run confirmed the answer.

In Friday’s opening, the Mariners’ incumbent, left-hander Marco Gonzales, had launched a four-turn fastball that José Altuve could not resist: too slow, too close to the center of the shooting zone.

It looked like an omen. As if the Mariners’ wonderful and unexpected winning streak was about to end, it would soon be replaced by a 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 drought in major American professional sports. The only MLB franchise to never reach the World Series.

Seattle baseball fans have two traits in abundance: single-minded, unrequited loyalty to the Mariners and the sporty version of PTSD. As a Seattle native and longtime Mariners fan who has spent many afternoons watching baseball losses in the darkness of the Kingdome, I can attest to that. In the Pacific Northwest, defeat tends to be tolerated politely. And when it comes to the Mariners, with deep resignation.

Things only got more sinister the Friday after Altuve’s homer when the Mariners took to bat, determined to balance this tense affair – a home game played in front of a rare sold-out mid-season crowd – with a run of its own.

The Mariners’ magnetic hitter, the player nearly everyone in the stands wanted to see, did not show up. Julio Rodríguez, the phenomenal 21-year-old defender who had just shot 81 balls over the field fence at the Home Run Derby in Los Angeles, was dropped from the lineup with a sore wrist.

Walking through the bleachers at T-Mobile Park, I could hear a collective gasp of deflation emanating from the crowd.

“This is a brand,” Evan Riggs, a longtime fan, told me. “Of course, they would come down early. Of course their best player wouldn’t play because he just got injured, probably in the All-Star Game.”

“These are the Marines.”

I couldn’t have put it better.

Until June 20, the Mariners struggled to manage a record 10 games under 0.500. But suddenly, they became baseball’s hottest team — victorious in 22 of 25 games — and were 10 games away from Houston in their quest for the AL West crown.

Out of nowhere, the Mariners suddenly fell on the precipice of hope.

Then it hurt, deeply but also unsurprisingly, when the Astros took an easy 5-2 win over Friday. The pain worsened on Saturday when right-hander Justin Verlander, 39, propelled the Astros to a second 3-1 victory.

On Sunday, with Rodríguez still injured and out of the starting lineup, Seattle lost 6-0 after three innings and succumbed 8-5. The big streak turned out to be an agonizing sweep. The same as it always was.

A quick review for anyone who doesn’t understand the level of suffering this team has.

In its 46 years of existence, no organization in baseball has been worse. Some of the game’s most iconic stars wore a Seattle uniform while at their peak – Ken Griffey Jr. at the top of the list — but the Mariners only made the playoffs four times, and all in a short window from 1995 to 2001.

But these, supposedly, are the new Mariners. A team trying to break through and get rid of a past that most current players weren’t a part of. Seattle fans want to dare to dream big. But we can’t let go. We hope the shoe falls off – or a weak wrist starts another spiral of defeat.

Fans of the series this past 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 looks like they might finally make the playoffs. It also looks like they are likely to miss a spree.”

Then there was that of Dusty Baker, the Astros’ manager, as he stood by the batting cage before Friday’s game, asking me what the weather is like in town. They’re ready to win big, I told him, but I’m sure his team will have something to say about it.

Baker smiled. “Yes, we are going.”

He is not so much a fortune teller as he is used to leading a true candidate. His Astros are 5-2 against the MLB-leading Yankees this season after sweeping a double game in Houston last week. Against the Mariners, his relentless precision was reminiscent of a great champion I watched at Wimbledon two weeks ago. Like Novak Djokovic, when Houston lowers the clamps, they don’t let go.

I’m almost afraid to dream that the Mariners are close to becoming that kind of team. Funny how sport can transform “the feathered thing”, as Emily Dickinson called hope, in a weight to be carried.

In April, I was cautiously certain that Seattle, having built this team with smart offseason play and creating one of the best minor league systems in baseball, could outperform the 2021 result when it was eliminated in the final game of the season. season.

Then came that winning streak in which they overcame the slow, steady progress suited to charming underdogs.

Now I’m thinking about what it will take to completely destroy Seattle’s reputation as polite losers in blue shirts. Stomach. Daring. Words no one had used in a month and a half.

Management should be encouraged by how close the Mariners seem to breaking the long cycle of desperate defeat. Drop your chips and go all-in. The major league trade deadline is August 2. Juan Soto of Washington is on the negotiating bloc — an extreme rarity because 23-year-old superstars are the most coveted asset a team in any sport can have.

Make something big, something like the early 2000s of Ichiro Suzuki, then 27 years old. 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 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 been talking for weeks about making a strong and exciting move ahead of the impending trading deadline. He won’t say what, maintaining a secrecy that only tightens the fans’ grip on the doubt that defines us.

“We haven’t been to the playoffs in 20 years,” Dipoto pointed out 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 his next breath extolling his team’s carefully calculated journey of improvement.

But one of the beautiful characteristics of a sports fan is the way games allow us to expect the impossible, even the irrational. A Rodríguez and Soto outfield is just that, but I’m dreaming anyway, and I’m not alone.

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