One of the first things I learned upon my 1991 relocation from Chicago to Tacoma was that the seasons around here don’t correspond with the calendar.
“Summer can be beautiful,” natives assured me, “but it really doesn’t begin until July 5.”
Same with the Major League Baseball season, at least this one. Watching the Seattle Mariners win two of three over the weekend against a Reds team with playoff aspirations, I got the sense they were present at the creation of something substantial.
Through April, May and June, the Mariners looked to be in the midseason form of weary pro athletes playing out the schedule. They would trudge to the July 31 trading deadline before Jack Zduriencik, taking perhaps his last swing as general manager, dealt veterans in the annual exchange for low-grade prospects.
Fans were less angry about the inevitability of 95 defeats than just plain tired — tired of the product on the field, tired of the front office off it, tired of talking about a team that provided almost nothing to talk about.
Then the weather turned warm, and Seattle turned to its Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma to supplement a big league roster riddled with players who either were injured (Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Morse) or incapable of reinventing themselves (Brendan Ryan, Kelly Shoppach). The influx of kids hasn’t turned the Mariners into contenders — with a 39-49 record, it’ll require a mighty effort
to finish .500 — but they’ve helped create a different, better, infinitely more interesting vibe.
Out of nowhere (well, somewhere: Tacoma), manager Eric Wedge is writing lineup cards with a double-play duo that also packs energy at the top of the batting order. Shortstop Brad Miller and second baseman Nick Franklin have developed an effective synergy, even though they don’t have a lot of experience as teammates: Miller began the season in Double A, Franklin in Triple A.
Maybe it’s a raised-in-Florida thing, or a Clemson University thing. (Miller excelled there for three years; Franklin had a Clemson baseball scholarship on the table before accepting first-round bonus money to sign with Seattle.) Whatever its origin, the Mariners’ new keystone combination looks like a keeper — heart of a Southern-fried infield that includes third baseman Kyle Seager (North Carolina Tar Heels), first baseman Justin Smoak (South Carolina Gamecocks) and catcher Mike Zunino (Florida Gators).
Starting pitcher Joe Saunders was the odd man out Sunday, and not because of his college ties (Virginia Tech Hokies). Saunders, who is 32, was the only player in the Seattle infield over age 26.
Zunino, as expected, is seeing lots of breaking balls he’ll need to resist, and Smoak remains a work in progress. Connecting on fastballs for opposite-field home runs, as Smoak did Sunday, is an indication of progress.
Big picture? We’re talking about an infield with all five position players under the team’s control — an infield whose third baseman is worthy of All-Star consideration, a shortstop who during his first week in the big leagues hit two doubles in one game and two triples in another, and a second baseman who has emerged as a leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year.
Immediate picture? Boston is in Seattle for a four-game series beginning Monday night, which means seats typically empty for the likes of the Astros and Twins will be occupied by our obnoxious, insufferable friends from Red Sox Nation. Hey, a crowd is a crowd, so bring ’em on. The twilight climate will be perfect, and the rest of the forecast is calling for a rare buzz at Safeco Field.
It’s taken three months, but baseball finally owns the major-sports stage. The NBA and NHL playoffs are done, and NFL training camps won’t open for a few more weeks. If ever a time has come for the Mariners to remind us of the joy and fulfillment of following the most fascinating sport ever invented, that time is now.
Beating the Red Sox tonight would help. Sweeping the Red Sox — a tall order, because they’ve got the best record in the American League — would be titanic.
The Mariners have yet to take the broom to anybody, which is crazy. Heck, the 1978 Mariners, a terrible team groping with an expansion roster full of everybody’s castaways, finished their season with five series sweeps. The 2012 Mariners, who lost 87 games, swept six teams.
Noting the success of a six-game trip that concluded two victories shy of a transcendent trip, Wedge considered the accomplishment of beating a pair of contenders in their houses.
“You don’t get greedy this time of year,” he said.
Uh, Skip, it’s July 8, and your team is 10 games under the break-even point. Be greedy.
Wedge also pointed out how the baseball season had advanced into July.
“It gets more real,” he told reporters, “when you get into July.”
More real? I’m not sure what Wedge meant, and yet I’m certain what he meant.
His young team has a few days to revel in the spotlight. Boston is here, Safeco Field will rock, and if the Mariners somehow pull off a sweep, their transformation from blase topic to lively conversation piece will turn very real.
A Monday-morning plea to the 2013 Mariners, three months into another baseball season peppered with tribulation: Think big. Be greedy. Show us what you’ve got.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com