There’s a national perception Seattle-area sports commentators aren’t equipped with the attack-dog fangs confronting athletes in such savage media markets as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The perception is not inaccurate, and does not scream for impassioned defense.
Take the case of former Mariners starting pitcher Michael Pineda, traded to the Yankees during the winter. When Pineda showed up at spring training a few pounds overweight – a detail that might’ve garnered a mere note around here – he found himself pummeled in the headlines of the New York tabloids.
If Pineda experienced arm discomfort early in camp, you can understand his disinclination to make his problems public. In any case, Pineda has been lost for the season with a labrum injury likely exacerbated by his silence. Nothing good came from the media-driven furor surrounding his weight gain.
But the Mariners aren’t always treated with kid gloves. The other day, the frustration fans felt after a listless season-opening homestand was expressed by an opinion published in this newspaper:
“This year’s Mariners team is unbalanced – too heavy on youth and inexperience. It’s almost as if the ‘powers that be’ delight in insulting the fans …
“The Mariners do not belong in the major leagues. If you’re not in it to win, get out (of) the game. The people in charge should be ashamed of themselves for what they’ve done to baseball in the Northwest.”
I didn’t type those words, nor did any of my colleagues. Those words were submitted in a letter to the editor received last Tuesday at 2:08 p.m.
The anger reflected the region’s impatience with a Mariners’ rebuilding project that since 2004 has produced more seasons of 90-plus defeats (five) than playoff appearances (zero). During a four-game losing streak at Safeco Field distinguished by the perfect game Chicago White Sox pitcher Philip Humber threw on April 21, it was easy to imagine the team stumbling through another endless summer.
When the letter to the editor was received, the Mariners’ youth and inexperience were evident. Justin Smoak, the 25-year old first baseman, was hitting .203. Michael Saunders, the 25-year old center fielder, was hitting .209. Jesus Montero, 22-year old designated hitter/catcher obtained in the Pineda trade, was hitting .241. Dustin Ackley, the 24-year old second baseman heralded as a future All-Star, was hitting .242. Kyle Seager, the 24-year old third baseman, was hitting .255, but figured to provide minimal power from a position associated with power hitters.
At least Alex Liddi, the 23-year old corner infielder, was hitting a little – four singles and a double in five games – but did anybody envision Liddi as an everyday player? The born-in-Italy angle made for a cute story, but if his name were Alex Jones, and he’d been raised in San Diego instead of San Remo, he’s be just another Mariners prospect with mixed-bag potential: A bit of power, a lot of strikeouts.
Among Smoak, Saunders, Montero, Ackley, Liddi and Seager, manager Eric Wedge was left with a crop of kids to chase the two-time defending league champion Texas Rangers in the American League West. Oh, and then there was the road trip through hell looming, a 10-game, meat-cleaver journey to Detroit (2011 AL Central champion), Toronto (an emerging beast in the AL East) and Tampa Bay (2011 winner of the AL wild-card berth).
Ace Felix Hernandez would start twice, giving the Mariners a puncher’s chance in two of the 10 games. Otherwise, the prevailing sense was one of hopelessness.
“The Mariners do not belong in the major leagues,” the letter-to-the-editor writer opined Tuesday afternoon at 2:08.
Two hours later, the Mariners began an assault on Detroit pitching that produced seven runs on 15 hits. Another 15-hit barrage, worth nine runs, followed on Wednesday. On Thursday, The Team That Does Not Belong In The Major Leagues concluded its sweep of the Tigers.
Trailing 5-3 in the top of the ninth Friday night at Toronto, the Mariners rallied to send the game into extra innings. More specifically, an extra inning: Saunders’ grand slam in the top of the 10th, his second homer in two at-bats, extended the winning streak to four.
Since that desultory conclusion to the homestand at Safeco Field, each kid has contributed something: Smoak and Montero with their middle-of-the-lineup power; Ackley with his three-hit audition as a leadoff hitter; Saunders with the clutch salami; Liddi with a breakthrough game at Detroit (three hits, including a homer and a stolen base); Seager with two hits during the otherwise forgettable defeat to the Blue Jays on Saturday.
Winning four of five during the first half of a grueling road trip does not mean the Mariners are playoff material. Winning four of five since last Sunday does not alter the reality that progress can best be measured by how close this team finishes to .500.
But the letter to the editor last week was absurd.
“I will not be at the ballpark or in front of the TV after yet another year of nothing,” it concluded. “Goodbye, Mariners.”
I am reminded of some lyrics by the Beatles. They knew nothing about baseball, but sang in a key of life best appreciated on a spring morning.
You say goodbye, I say firstname.lastname@example.org