Sports fans around the region finally put the Seahawks aside and made some room for Mariners baseball Friday.
For an entire day and part of an evening, run prevention had more to do with a pitcher and the fielders around him than linebackers and safeties. Homers were not a synonym for the 12th man. Zone coverage was overseen by an umpire behind the plate rather than a coordinator in a booth.
The refreshing respite from football as a ’round-the-clock discussion topic was merely temporary, of course. There is the NFL draft coming up for the Seahawks in late April — perhaps you’ve heard? — to be followed by organized team activities and voluntary workouts and the summer training camp preceding the “Games That Count” phase of a season without end.
Given pro football’s choke-hold grip on the local news cycle, baseball was little more than a diversion during spring training, a palate cleanser between the discussion on what the Seahawks need to do to shore up the position of left offensive tackle and what the Seahawks need to do to shore up the position of right offensive tackle.
No matter that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto spent the winter retooling the roster, replacing batting-practice sluggers with actual athletes. No matter that Dipoto identified Scott Servais, who’d never held a managerial job at any level, as the unconventional choice to succeed Lloyd McClendon.
The moves produced shrugs. Let us know when you’re capable of contending, fans seemed to say. Until that distant day, we’ll stay tethered to the critical issue of how the Seahawks might achieve an upgrade at left guard and right guard.
But a funny thing happened between the conclusion of spring training and the Friday night home opener: The Mariners not only took two of three games against defending AL West champion Texas, they took them with a competitive edginess that bordered on combative.
As tempers approached a boiling point Tuesday night, Servais was front and center. The words he shouted at his counterpart in the Rangers dugout, Jeff Banister, did not require an expert lip reader to decipher.
Such recent Mariners skippers as McClendon and Eric Wedge could be similarly fiery, and each was fired. There’s nothing to suggest volatility is an essential managerial component.
But the fact Servais almost started a brawl, in his second game as manager, served as a kind of primer about his leadership style. That the Mariners put together consecutive late-inning rallies revealed something about Servais’ team, as well.
“We need the pieces around our core to grind out at-bats and make it difficult on the pitcher,” he said Friday afternoon, “It’ll take awhile for everybody to get settled, but when these guys are on base and the middle gets to the plate, we’re gonna score a lot of runs. When all the pieces are ready to go, we’ll be a fun and exciting team to watch.”
If nothing else, the Mariners’ marketing department figures to repeat as the league leaders in putting on a show. Thanks in part to balmy weather perfect for a home opener, Safeco Field was electric Friday night.
When Ken Griffey, Jr. took the mound (sort of) to throw the ceremonial first pitch, it was difficult to watch the 2016 Hall-of-Fame inductee without thinking of the Mariners’ mid-1990s glory days, when the franchise was rich in star power and it was the Seahawks who were groveling for attention.
So thorough was baseball’s domination of football as Seattle’s most popular pro sport, the Hawks girded for a California relocation in 1996. Cooler heads prevailed — as did the deeper pockets of new owner Paul Allen — and the folly of allowing a franchise to depart was put on hold for 12 years.
The popularity of sports teams tends to go in cycles, and right now the cycle belongs to the Seahawks. But this market is large enough for two teams to create interest.
A few hours before Taijuan Walker escaped a first-inning jam with a double-play that drew a roar Friday night, Servais was asked if his team had the ability to capture the imagination of fans — and if such an ability even mattered to him.
“It certainly matters,” he said. “If you win, you capture the fans’ imagination.”
Here’s hoping the Mariners get off to a fast start and sustain their winning ways well into the summer. Because if they don’t, it will be all football, all of the time.