Random Nostalgia: Mi$$ion Accompli$hed

This seems appropriate as Robinson Cano officially becomes a Mariner today. Written my freshman year of college…13 years ago (seriously?!), it’s quite the interesting trip down memory lane, and it’s quite different being on the other side of the fence. I prefer this side.

In 1995 a core group of players became forever imbedded in Mariner fans’ hearts. Much like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle are the classic Yankees, these players were seen as the Mariner players for the ages. Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Dan Wilson, and Jay Buhner. Of these six, three stood out. They were superstars. As the new millennium dawns and the haze of euphoria from six years ago has perhaps finally worn off, Mariner fans awaken to the knowledge that these three are gone.

Johnson was the first to go. He left in the middle of controversy and finger pointing that soured the chemistry of the defending division champions. Traded to a contender in the eleventh hour of the trading deadline, his departure left sorrow and anger in its wake. Didn’t he always give his all in every game he pitched? His intensity was legendary, his drive incredible. He returned from back trouble in 1996 to finish second in Cy Young award voting in 1997. He hadn’t had a hint of back trouble since. And yet Mariner brass determined that he was too old, too hindered by “chronic back trouble,” too expensive. They announced that he was to be traded. No contract talks. No negotiations. It was set in stone; the Big Unit would not be a Mariner much longer. He left on July 31, 1998 for Houston. In his free-agent year he was lured to Arizona where he has been nothing short of overpowering.

Nearly as soon as Johnson left, we began to hear whispers about Rodriguez and Griffey. Would they stay or would they go? Every week there was another rumor and more speculation about the situation. Both insisted all they wanted was a chance at a ring, the Holy Grail of baseball. It’s not about the money they insisted. Both had misgivings about the Mariners new ballpark. The fences are too far back; our power numbers will suffer. Both expressed discontent with Mariner management and player development. Then Pat Gillick arrived as the new General Manager to save the day. Possessing baseball savvy that had won World Championships, he began to fill the Mariner roster with roll players, players with solid fundamentals who would complement the power of the big two. But by this point, they had lost Griffey. He demanded a trade to Cincinnati. His abrupt departure stung. The Mariners first legitimate superstar just packed up and left without saying good bye. He had some harsh parting shots, but they were to be expected. After all, in his ten years in Seattle he had often played the spoiled child.

Two of our most loved players had left. We should be used to this by now. Every year another one leaves. Then why does this hurt so much? Losing Arod was an event we all prepared ourselves for. But we thought we knew him. We thought he was, maybe, different from all the other egotistical athletes out there. He seemed to genuinely care about the future of this team. He showed up to play every day. He never bad mouthed teammates or made excuses. He was honest and passionate about the game. He led the new look Mariners to victory in 2000. They won the wild card and earned a trip to the American League Championship Series. We all thought he was serious when he said he wanted to play for a winning team. They finished well over the .500 mark, and proved themselves to be the second best team in the AL. They were a winning team and showed signs of being just as good next year. But more than that, they were his team.

So why all the demands for private jets, shorter distances down the right field line, and ten year contracts? Not about the money? Could have fooled me. If he wanted to play for a winning team, why did he sign with the Rangers? Rafael Palmeiro, in a Sports Center interview, is under the impression that he will add twenty to twenty-five wins to the Rangers paltry 70 in 2000. If one player were capable of an impact that great, then shouldn’t the St. Louis Cardinals be celebrating their third consecutive World Championship? The Rangers have average power, average defense, and average pitching. Yet, they finished below .500. Arod will certainly help out the power and defense, but he is only one player. He can’t defend all nine sides of the diamond. He can’t stop an opposing team’s big inning.

His role in Seattle was to provide some pop from the three hole, amazing defense at shortstop, and leadership. The Mariners have other players who can hit and perform other offensive duties. They have players that can catch and throw. His role with Seattle was to accent these other players and in that way put the Mariner heads above the other teams in their division. The Rangers have too many holes; one player cannot fill them all.

He said he left feeling disappointed in the Mariners offer of a five-year contract. You almost get the feeling that he was leading us on, feeding us these lies about winning in Seattle and wanting to play here. With Griffey it was different. He simply said screw you, and left. Arod said I love you and want to be with you, but still walked out without a word. We’re left feeling betrayed and wondering what happened. It all comes down to one simple truth. Alex Rodriguez is like every other superstar athlete. In the end, greed won out. We were wrong about him and now we look to the next star to lead the Mariners on the field while Arod enjoys his 252 million new best friends. Perhaps this outfielder from Japan, Ichiro Suzuki, will step to the plate and fill the holes in both the roster and our hearts that Alex left.

It’s How You Made Me Feel

There are a few things I knew for a fact when I was a kid. Parents never understood, summer was too short, and center fielders always made spectacular catches. Especially that last one. That one I knew beyond a doubt.

Try telling any kid growing up in Seattle in the 90’s that center fielders didn’t always make acrobatic plays in the outfield. You’d be mocked and shunned for such a ridiculous statement.

Alas, adulthood has a way of erasing the certainties of childhood.

Not all center fielders make diving catches, it turns out, and I realized how spoiled I’d been watching Ken Griffey Jr. turn the Kingdome’s center field into his own personal playground all those years. It’s almost crazy to think that I watched him his entire career and didn’t realize just how good he was until he became a Cincinnati Red.

My eyes drank in an enormous amount of baseball, particularly in my teen years. It should have been obvious that he was leagues ahead of every other outfielder. But I still practiced diving catches with a tennis ball in the backyard because that’s what center fielders did.

I’m not a chick who ever dug the long ball. Diving, leaping plays in the outfield have always been more my speed. As such, you would think the tape loop of Junior’s catches would be omnipresent in my mind when I think about him. They aren’t. That attitude of his elbows his outfield acrobatics aside.

Like the time the Kingdome stopped the fireworks after a home run because it bothered him.

Or, how Safeco Field had a space in the locker room designed specifically for his chair.

Or, calling himself the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball.

When he kept his mouth shut, I adored him on the baseball field. When he started complaining, I’d just roll my eyes. Everyone bowed and kissed the ground he walked on, but he still didn’t get enough respect?

Twitter is practically erupting with collective genuflection because he’s being inducted into the Mariner’s Hall of Fame tomorrow. It’s figuratively nauseating. And I think to myself, “If you can’t say something nice…”

I suppose if anyone is entitled to be entitled, it’s Ken Griffey Jr. I’m never going to feel all-encompassing Griffey love, but I’ll never forget his otherworldly talent.

Especially those catches. Show me a highlight reel and I’ll be Griffey giddy.

Just leave out the one with the broken wrist in 1995. I still cringe every time I see it.

Steroids and Jerks

Back in olden times, baseball players had to get jobs in the off season because playing baseball didn’t pay very much. I like to imagine them playing with an aching love and undying passion for the game. I like to pretend they loved their teams and fans and played purely for joy. I know it’s misguided and inaccurate, but it’s so fun to make believe that baseball used to be that way while watching these modern baseball players make me despise modern sports.

Oh, these effing steroids.

Oh, these arrogant jerk baseball players.

Funny, how they seem to go hand in hand. In fact, sometimes I think I’m more bothered by the arrogant showboating in baseball than I am by steroid use.

There’s so many complaints we throw at steroid users. They’re ruining the integrity of the game and corrupting our children and they’re cheaters and liars and bad people. I think they’re just a symptom of a narcissistic culture that thinks it can cheat fate.

The problem with baseball in a narcissistic culture is that baseball is humbling. There isn’t as much opportunity for chest thumping and gorilla yelling as there is in other sports. So, naturally, you ingest steroids, pump iron, and hit home runs so you can enjoy a few moments of glory and adulation, and a really big paycheck.

Size matters, y’all, when it comes to muscles and money.

It’s not steroids that are ruining baseball. It’s taken me a long time to see that. Cheating has always existed and will always exist. It’s sad that we probably won’t look back on this era of cheating as cute and fuzzy, like we do scuffed balls and spitballs. (Although Ray Chapman doesn’t think the reality of that era is so nice.)

My problem with baseball all these years hasn’t been steroids after all. I don’t like the arrogance, or the egotism, or the narcissism.

It seems silly to complain about those things since they’ve always existed in some form. It seems stupid to make the past into something it’s not in order to wax superior about the attitudes of modern athletes. None of those things are absent from baseball at any level, I completely understand and accept that.  But Major League Baseball just isn’t as attractive to me because it has so much of those things. And many fans like that. I realize I’m in the minority. So, consider this my little “This Is How I Feel” diatribe, on which I don’t expect anyone to agree.

If I had to choose, steroids are less bad than gambling was because gambling directly changed the outcomes of games. While steroids have certainly changed the game itself, it can be argued that the lasting damage is born only by the user.

So, I guess, if you’re going to juice, just don’t be an arrogant jerk about it and I won’t hate you so much.

The Long Slow Ride to the End of the Trolley Line

The Mariners are bad and depressing and there’s just no way around it, not enough sugar for the coating required to make it any less so.

I have a tough time with the fans preaching optimism and decrying the cynicism that so naturally erupts from the Mariner faithful. I don’t get it. How can they not want to punch walls in frustration, being stuck on this treadmill of fandom, barren of scenery, rolling on and on?

Non-sports people wonder why I’m a fan. “Why do you care when they’re so bad?”, they ask, shaking their heads in confusion. I just sigh and tell them that they don’t understand.

But the truth is, I don’t understand.

I’ve run through the explanations ad nauseum. I’m masochistic and love the pain. I’m an eternal optimist and think that someday this will turn around and all be worth it. I’m naturally cynical and pessimistic and the Mariners justify my world view.

Each of these explanations is true, but none gives a satisfying answer.

I have even less an explanation for why I stopped watching. I do know that on a cold April evening at Safeco Field the scoreless innings piled up and I reached a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wearily closed my scorebook, despite having started a new page for the double-digit inning that was beginning. I left the stadium and I haven’t seen a full game since.

I hate not watching. I sneak a peek every now and then because I miss my stupid team. Yet, I find that it is physically painful to watch. I observed Mike Zunino’s first Major League at bat with a gnawing in my stomach that warned me not to get attached and an ache that told me not to let hope twist the blade already bleeding my heart. I glance at Twitter and read that another game has unraveled.

Maybe this new batch of sprouting prospects will grow into superstars. Maybe Jack Z’s 7-Year – nee 5-Year – Plan will work. Maybe it’s true the team will never improve until Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln are gone, and a new owner takes charge. Maybe they’ll never be good again and the beautiful 1995 run and 2001 dream season are the best we’re going to see.

But the Red Sox were cursed for 86 years before they won the World Series. The Mariners have only been around for a fraction of that time. As stupid as it feels, I still believe it can happen.

I haven’t given up or abandoned my team; I’m just clinging to the little sanity I have left.

I Love a Cliche

“Is this some kind of religion?” Richard asks. He has risen and stands a few feet away from me, his expression one of absolute bewilderment.”

“It may be, “ I reply, trying to picture the world through his eyes.

“You’re all crazy,” he says with my voice. But we don’t pay much attention to him. Annie is talking to Shoeless Joe, Karin has returned with a hot dog and a Coke. After the national anthem, I watch as Moonlight Graham trots to right field. If he is nervous he does not show it, for his stride is solid and his shoulders confident. He turns to face the infield and pounds his fist into his glove.

“Crazy,” says Richard.

– From Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

I just finished rereading Shoeless Joe, the beautiful baseball novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based. I bought it at Logan Airport in Boston, on my way home from my first semester at UMass and devoured it on the plane ride, swept away by the mysticism and romanticism of the book’s pages.

Naturally, the book was better that movie. Immensely so, and different. The famous author Ray kidnaps and takes to Fenway Park is J.D. Salinger. After picking up a hitchhiking Moonlight Graham, the gang breaks into the Twins’ stadium (pre-Metrodome) and takes batting practice in the middle of the night. The themes of family and love, of connections to the earth and something bigger than yourself, themes of dreams flit and float throughout an entirely unrealistic story, bring it to earth and, despite the mysticism, it is a relatable romance that only a baseball fan can wholly understand.

I don’t normally read books like this. If it wasn’t about baseball, I’d never pick it up. Mysticism and fantasy just aren’t my things. As I reread this book I wondered why there aren’t more novels about baseball. There is a handful of fantastic baseball fiction on my bookshelf. Why isn’t there more? It seems like baseball lends itself to the metaphors that make fiction work.

I was pondering this question as I found myself wanting to wax poetic about baseball. I desired to write a beautiful soliloquy to this beautiful game. So, I sat at a keyboard and ran through my options.

Baseball as a metaphor for life? Trite.

Baseball as a connection to generations past, particularly the father-child connection? Hackneyed.

Baseball as poetry, romanticism, and first love? Cliched.

Taking the time to write about how baseball tropes are trite, hackneyed, and clichéd? That is quite possibly the worst kind of cliché out there.

None of that changes the fact the baseball is all of those things. It’s a fantastic metaphor for life. It IS poetic, romantic, and for many, a first love. Its lingering appeal is directly linked to this connection we feel to players past and the fans who passed down their love of baseball.

Baseball is the most clichéd sport. You can’t talk about baseball without speaking in clichés. And sure, we all roll our eyes from time to time at the flowery language these clichés draw forth. But, we love these clichés, we need these clichés.

It may be there is no original way to write about or think about baseball. It may be that the poetry of baseball has been waxed more times than a 57 Chevy.

My 10th grade English teacher was a poet, and a devout fan. He counted down the Mariner’s Magic Number in the fall of each year (this was the late 90’s, when they had such a thing) and often scribbled out baseball poems on the classroom chalkboard. But he railed, RAILED, against the use of clichés in both prose and poetry. They were antithetic to his very existence.

So how does a creative type like that become a baseball fan and embrace all the banality that comes with it?

Because the clichés are true. The truthiness (thanks, Stephen Colbert) is stark and vivid. We love to bask in those clichés that envelope us like a sunny summer afternoon at the ballpark.

The only thing more cliched than baseball may be love. Yet, when we feel love we rhapsodize about it as if it’s something new. But anyone can fall in love. Not anyone can be a baseball fan. There are infinite paths to love. There are finite paths to baseball fandom, to understanding the game, to recognizing its tempo in your soul.

These paths are cliched because there are so few. The uninitiated don’t understand and sigh heavily at the metaphors and the rhapsodizing.

But we know. We understand. We are baseball fans.

That Feeling That You Get

Your bladder is burning. Under any other circumstance, you would have high tailed it to the bathroom.

You are out of beer. Under any other circumstance, you’d be grabbing one from your fridge or braving the line at the stadium.

But your seat is firmly planted in a seat. You are not getting up. You are not taking your eyes off the field or the tv.

One of those players is up.

As I write this, I’m sitting through MLB Extra Innings’ commercial break because Bryce Harper is up next. He has hit a homerun in each of his at bats so far today and despite the 3 cups of coffee I’ve had since the game began, I’m not going anywhere.

For so many years, it was Ken Griffey Jr. He is, to me, the very personification of those types of players. You never, ever, not for a nuclear war, got up when he was due up. No matter how commonplace it became, you never missed a chance to see him cut loose that achingly beautiful swing.

Old time baseball scouts love to say that you just know when a player is special.  You feel it in your gut.

With all due respect to baseball wisdom, I say you feel it in your bladder.

Happy Opening Day!

It’s Not Hope That I’m Running From, It’s the Heartbreak I Know Will Come

“A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;”
– Ernest Thayer Casey at the Bat

Dave Niehaus used to read Casey at the Bat during the radio pre-game show each year on the anniversary of its publication. The poem so perfectly captures the tumult of sports fandom; despair, hope, elation, then tumbling back down into dispirit despair. It so perfectly captures the tumult of being a Mariners fan.

I often think about the 1997 Mariners, the team that holds the single season home run record. Steroids, schmeroids, that team could hit baseballs very hard and very far very often. The 1997 Mariners had on their roster Future Hall of Famers like Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez (Cooperstown, Schmooperstown he’s a Hall of Famer).  The 1997 Mariners were picked to win the World Series by people who were supposed to be smart enough to know those things, leading my poor, naive 15 year old self to believe them.

The 1997 Mariners won one playoff game.

That is a season that lives so vividly in my mind I think you’re crazy for suggesting that it happened 16 years ago. That is a season that grows ever more heartbreaking as the years pass.

So here we stand on the threshold of another season that I know I’ll only survive thanks to a healthy mix of sarcasm, subterranean expectations, and several kegs of the finest Northwest microbrews. I know this because I’m a wizened Mariners fan who has had her heart broken too many times to risk it again.

But here we stand on the threshold of another season and all I see are home runs. All I hear is that perfect crack of perfectly placed bat on ball. I can smell, taste, and feel that stupid hope hopping around down there in my chest.

Homers, bombs, dingers, mashers, going yards, moonshots, four baggers, round trippers, long balls, taters, big flies, roof shots, jacks.

Be still, my heart. It’s only Spring Training.

Like You Imagined When You Were Young

I’ve always felt like the players I watched when I became a baseball fan were better than ones who play today. Memories put a soft hue on the past and the moments that were so monumental, because there were so few to compare them with, stood as towering accomplishments, whether they actually were or not.

(Of course, I became a Mariners fan in the 90s, and it’s tough, nay impossible, to argue the Mariners of the 90s actually weren’t better than they are now.)

The first no hitter I saw was Chris Bosio’s. I had already gone to bed and my Dad woke me up to see the end. The specialness of that moment has always branded Bos as a better pitcher in my mind than he was. I’ve never cared that Randy Johnson’s career was defined on teams other than the Mariners. My childhood worship of the fastballs he slung through the strike zone and the way Mr. Snappy made batters look like over matched fools are no match for reality

We view things differently when they are new and fresh and perspective hasn’t tainted our wide eyed wonder. I’d long accepted that I would never see the moments and players of my adult fandom with the same reverence and awe that I did when I was young.

Felix Hernandez came along at a time when I was mad at baseball for tarnishing my unblemished memories with steroids, and I was disappointed with the Mariners for squandering the chance to become a real team. I watched him with curiosity and appreciation, but I didn’t let myself get attached.

Then, during a tough part of my life, baseball was there. Felix was becoming Felix. Happy Felix Day was a thing, and I relished watching him develop and channel his cocky swagger of talent into the most entertaining pitching I’ve ever seen. I started to feel like he was special and I could be excited about the Mariners again.

But, he still didn’t feel like the fuzzy memory players.

Then, at 3:00 this afternoon, I was shut in my boss’s vacant office, clutching my phone like it was the source of life, listening to the game through its tiny speakers. Every time Felix set to throw the ball, my heart thumped like I had murdered and buried someone below the floorboards. My head was dizzy, my body was numb.

He did it.

Felix threw the perfect game he had been building towards his entire career.

I felt a feeling that I hadn’t felt since the Indians were defeated in the final game of the 2001 ALDS.

That moment, that pitcher. I am going to love them forever and they will live forever in that part of my brain devoted to sacred baseball memories.

The One That Got Away

For every No Hitter in history there are stories about people who could have been there, but weren’t.

Today, Phil Humber threw the 21st perfect game in baseball history against the Mariners and I missed it.

Today, I joined the ranks of baseball fans who could have seen history, but didn’t.

If I felt any worse about this, I’d be on suicide watch. No perfect game in my scorebook. No “I was there” stories. No admission into one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball fandom.

Did I mention I turned down FREE tickets today? A certain someone who’s initials are MM pretty much owes me his first born child in a pagan sacrifice.

My perfect game story involves me checking Twitter and praying to every god I could conjure that it wouldn’t happen.

But it did. And I missed it.

And that really fucking sucks right now.

The Nostalgia of Fun

Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy, something inside, that was always denied, for so many years.” – The Beatles

When I look back at my period of fandom between the ages of 0 and 14, before I become the obsessive fan I am today, I feel like one of my favorite players was always Brian Turang. Turns out, he only played on the team for 2 seasons and a total of 78 games. But I loved that his at bat music was He’s So Fine by the Chiffons and that a 1994 issue of Mariner Magazine describes him as an “avid surfer.” Despite his brief stay in Seattle, many old Mariner fans fondly remember Brian and his at bat music.

He didn’t make a mark with his performance on the field (his career batting average is an even .222 and his Wikipedia page is a single sentence). But fans who remember him always react with surprise and delight when he’s brought up. Brian Turang is a fun player to remember.

Last night when Munenori Kawasaki came into the game, I was thinking about how much fun it will be to look back on his time in Seattle.

Only one word can possibly describe Kawasaki and that word is delightful. He flaps his hands, he does push ups when he’s on base, and the dude never stops talking, mostly to himself it would appear. He’s the most Japaniesiest person I can imagine (I have a Japanese friend so I can say that. Hi, Deena!) all wrapped up in one adorably delightful package. He is so delightful I don’t care what he does as a baseball player as long as I get to watch him play.

Kawasaki reminds me of the things that get lost in professional baseball, namely the chaotic joy and excitement of playing a game.

I like to think of the game as being real, gritty, nostalgic baseball, like I remember my brother’s Little League games. It’s played on uneven fields in stained and patched uniforms by players who live and die with every at bat. Every hitter is chased from the batter’s box by a cloud of dust, churned up by determined cleats and a steady stream of chants and cheers as background noise.

In Major League Baseball everything is so aesthetic-al from the obsessively curated playing surfaces to the perfectly honed player mechanics. There’s just smooth infield dirt, the perfect mix of soil and sand and water. Expertly manicured outfield grass for easily catching perfectly read fly balls. Surgically exact chalk lines enclose the batter’s box around the precise swings of professional players. Even bad swings and throws put arrogant Major League skill on display.

Of course, that isn’t a bad thing at all. We want to see polish and refined skill. It’s just that sometimes the exactness of professional baseball takes away the joy.

Munenori Kawasaki is to Phoebe running through Central Park on Friends, as Albert Pujols is to Usain Bolt. Not as good, but ridiculously more fun.

We won’t forget the polish or love it any less, but it’s the fun that we’ll remember in 20 years with surprise and delight.