I love September baseball.
And it’s not just the excitement of the pennant races (which this year was generated by the wild card contests — both photo finishes decided in overtime games — you couldn’t ask for much more.) September has more subtle pleasures too. There can be something pure and beautiful about two teams at the end of the season with nothing to win or lose playing baseball the way we all played it as kids, just for the joy of the game. I’ve seen those kinds of games, and they’re as wonderful as anything in sports.
The Seattle Mariner/Oakland A’s season closer, on September 28th, was not one of those games. Seattle closed out their season the way they have played too much of it: with a lackluster performance and total offensive failure. The A’s scored two runs early in the game and that was pretty much all it took. The Mariner’s lose too many games like this, in situations where just stringing together a few base hits in a row would make a game of it. But that’s what happens to Major League teams where no one is hitting close to .300. No one. So the chilly winds blew through the upper decks, fans in my section entertained themselves teaching Japanese visitors how to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in English, and I spent more time focusing on the pretty young lady beside me than on the game — even though usually, in my life, I’ve found baseball to be much more reliable than romance. Meanwhile the Mariners lost their final series and finished up the year with 95 losses. As much as I always love being at Safeco, it was a disappointing end.
Very different from the first game I ever saw at Safeco, almost exactly ten years ago. That year the season was delayed because of 9-11, or I probably wouldn’t have been there at all. I’d only recently moved back to Seattle, and the delay allowed me to make one game that season. It was October 5th — the night the Mariners tied the American League record of 115 wins. (They went on to win more games to tie the Major League record, of course.) It was also the night that Barry Bonds hit his 71st homer off Chan Ho Park to break the single season home run record. When they interrupted the game to show his accomplishment on the scoreboard, everyone cheered. It was one of those magic baseball nights when history was being made everywhere. Nights like that are what make us baseball fans.
What a difference a decade makes. Since 2001 the Mariners have had only three winning seasons and haven’t made the playoffs once. The “steroid era” has (supposedly) come to an end, and box scores are showing the hangover. Barry Bonds went from being a hero to everyone’s favorite villain (don’t get me started on that — I miss Barry Bonds).
There have been a lot of wonderful things happening in baseball in the last decade but almost none of them have included the Mariners. The exceptions of course have been individual players — Felix Hernandez’s rise as one of the dominant pitchers in baseball and Ichiro’s fabulous string of 200 hit seasons. But this year, even that streak came to an end.
2001 (and the two strong, but non-playoff seasons that followed) was the tail end of the most successful stretch in Mariners’ history. The teams of the late ’90s had a lot going for them — good pitching, powerful aggressive offense, legendary players both on the mound and behind the plate. But most of all they had Lou Pinella. He remains the only Manager in the entire history of the Mariners franchise with a winning average. I think it’s fair to say that Lou’s shoes have not been filled.
There are questions the team needs to answer looking forward. I’m sure Eric Wedge and the coaching staff have their own list. Personally, I’m an offense hawk. A team that scores a lot of runs can get by with faults that will kill a less productive squad. The Mariners haven’t been that kind of team for quite a while now, and as a consequence, all their other faults have been glaring. Not a single player on the team hit .300 this year. Mike Carp finishes up the season as team leader with .276. Only three other players hit above .250. In 2010 Ichiro hit .315, the only player over .300 and only three other players hit above .250 for the season. I think when you’re hitting like that you don’t need to crunch the numbers much further. A lot of other stuff becomes irrelevant. You don’t score runs, you don’t win games.
Even in this age of sophisticated statistical analysis, sometimes it’s just that simple.
But that’s the real magic of September. When the final out comes and the impatient seagulls swoop down to clean up the spoils left by the fans, no matter how badly your heart has been broken, once again, next April is out there, shining like the promise of love or the laughter in the eyes of a girl you just met.
There’s always next year.