Felix Hernandez: 'The city of Seattle deserves to be in the playoffs'
Scott Servais addressed the players and coaches within the clubhouse for their first meeting entering spring training. He just wanted to know why.
He wanted them to think about the countless hours they spend perfecting their craft, all the games, the travel, all of it. Is it for a pay check? Is it to say they play in the big leagues?
“So I asked – why are we here?” Servais said.
It was met with silence. Finally, a few players stepped up and the consensus was evident.
“We’re here to win the World Series,” Servais said, repeating their answer. “Anything short of that is coming up short. That’s been the focus of this camp. We talked about it a lot and I’ve had our players talk about it a lot. So we’ll see what happens.”
World Series is a phrase foreign to Seattle, the city that has never witnessed baseball’s most grand spectacle (only the Washington Nationals, formerly Montreal Expos, can say the same). Even the word playoffs has hardly been uttered around these parts recently unless as a jab.
It has been 17 years since the Mariners last played in the postseason, when Ichiro Suzuki was a speedy, hit-machine rookie for the Mariners. Now he’s a gray-haired 44-year-old.
Felix Hernandez is entering his 13th season as a mileaged King in Seattle, but when the Mariners last made the playoffs he was a curly haired 15-year-old – no bleach to be found.
And for all the individual accolades Hernandez has since earned, Servais asked him in another one of those clubhouse meetings in front of the entire team what would make him feel complete as a baseball player.
“It’s just getting to the playoffs with this team and those guys in the clubhouse,” said Hernandez, who’s never pitched in the playoffs. “I made a commitment to stay here for a long time and I think the city of Seattle deserves to be in the playoffs. And we deserve to be in the playoffs.”
The Mariners’ futility is now the longest postseason drought in American professional sports. Not even the Cleveland Browns have gone as long (last playoffs in 2002).
New center fielder Dee Gordon didn’t know that was thing around here.
“And 17 years ain’t my fault,” he laughed.
That echoed general manager Jerry Dipoto’s response – the current Mariners can’t be responsible for all those past failures.
But they are responsible for what comes next and jumpstarting the Mariners from mediocrity to an October contender.
“In some ways it feels unusual – that the Mariners have the longest streak,” said former Mariner Alvin Davis, AKA Mr. Mariner. “But in other ways it’s really not. I was just watching a documentary on Jackie Robinson last night – it took the Dodgers 52 years to win their first World Series. It’s just not easy. It really isn’t.
The Mariners have only existed for 41 years. Since the postseason was expanded in 1995 to include eight teams, the longest postseason drought was the 30 seasons the Expos/Nationals endured from 1981-2012.
“I don’t put much stake in the streak,” said former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, who was also on that 2001 playoff team. “It’s tough. It’s a tough division, it’s a tough road. I think these guys feel like this year they are up to the task and ready to roll and that’s all you can ask.
“Expectations are high. I think they’re ready to roll and they want to get this club back to the playoffs.”
Servais said he and Dipoto talk often about building a championship organization and championship culture, not just a championship team.
“I have a lot of football in me,” Servais said. “I like football and the organization and structure that it has with it. But when you talk about culture you can’t just say it. You have to live it every day. You can’t fake it.
“I think a lot of people throw the word out there and you start down a certain path – but then as soon as it gets a little rocky or rough they veer off. And I think that’s one thing you can say about where we’re at and where our group is at is we’re going to stay on the path.
“I think it’s clear the vision of what we want to look like on the field and how we want to play. We don’t always execute it perfectly and fans hopefully understand that. But I feel good about our culture.”
It’s a culture where players with long hair can have long hair. Be who you are, he says. Servais doesn’t care about how players wear their uniform. As long as they produce on the field.
And in their first season together, Dipoto and Servais guided that 2016 team to 86 wins – 10 more than the season before – and they were in the playoff hunt until the final game of the season. It came after an almost-sweeping roster turnover with “Trader Jerry” working in full force.
The Mariners were that close to ending the drought – after 14 seasons of bad signings, horrendous trades, four GMs, 10 managers and no playoffs.
So what has Dipoto and crew done since? Entering 2018, the Mariners had made almost 20 more trades than the team with the next most in all of baseball since he arrived in September of 2015.
But what happened last year? Where was the growth?
This time it was injuries – a ridiculous, historic number of injuries. And at the end, a 78-84 record and another year without a playoff game.
The Mariners used 40 pitchers in 2017. No team in baseball history has used more.
Of their five projected starting pitchers to open last year, all five spent time on the disabled list – with Drew Smyly never pitching a game, and Hisashi Iwakuma wasn’t much better. Hernandez and James Paxton both had multiple DL trips.
“This is harder than I maybe originally thought it would be,” Servais said. “Just being honest. And I know last year was such an absurd year just with all the injuries and I don’t wish that upon any manager, or front office or organization. Think about that – it’s (tied with the 2014 Rangers for) an all-time major league record for how many pitchers we used and we’ve been playing baseball for a long time. For a team to use 40 pitchers – I don’t wish that upon anybody.
“But along the way I learned a ton having gone through that. Hopefully that benefits us in the future.”
Through it all, the Mariners stood 74-73 on Sept. 14 with an outside chance at the second wild card. But a six-game losing streak followed, ending the hopes for another season.
Servais and Dipoto think the team is closer and better positioned for 2018. They’ve added Gordon, who is showing he’s more than capable of making the switch from Gold Glove second base to center field. They’ve added power-hitting first baseman Ryon Healy, who strengthens and lengthens a potentially loaded lineup.
Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are getting older but Mike Zunino, Jean Segura and Kyle Seager have shown signs of being able to take steps forward.
And the popular but aging Hernandez appears to be in a better spot than the last three years. He doesn’t need to be in Cy Young form to keep the Mariners competitive considering the team’s deep bullpen and capable starters such as James Paxton and Mike Leake.
“No doubt – we had a really good team last year and we’re better this year,” Cruz said. “Definitely. But in the end it’s about how long we can stay on the field this season.”
Cruz helped organize a get-together in Miami before spring training with some of the players, including Gordon and Healy, for workouts. In a time usually spent soaking in the final days of offseason vacations, they spent it trying to get a head start on the season.
“Especially in the offseason you want that core together,” Cruz said. “That’s why we did it. And for guys to take time away from their offseason to go and train, that’s what makes it even better is to see that. It was a great experience.”
And Cruz has seen this before. He was with the Rangers when they were trying to get over their playoff drought before they reached the World Series in 2010 and again in 2011. The Rangers went 49 years since their inception of not reaching the World Series, and it had been 11 years since they previously made the playoffs.
Cruz was also in Baltimore when the Orioles went to the ALCS in 2014 – their first trip there in 14 seasons.
He was asked if he learned a recipe from those experiences – something the Mariners could glean.
“No,’ he said.
That’s because there is no magic recipe.
“You just got to go out there and play your best every day,” Cruz said. “You go day by day. That was the case when I was with the Rangers and when I went to Baltimore. It was the same case. I have been there before and I know what it’s like.”
Servais was a catcher with the Chicago Cubs from 1995-98. So talk about futility – that’s all he ever heard there. The Cubs waited 108 years from their first World Series win in 1908 until they won in 2016.
“It’s like, as soon as you lose three games in a row, or four in a row it gets very common to say, ‘Oh, it’s the same old Mariners. The same old team,’” Servais said. “I heard that plenty as a player when I was in Chicago.
“But there’s only one way to change that – you have to win. It’s as simple as that. I’m not going to shy away from it. It is what it is. You embrace the challenge and I certainly embrace the challenge here.”
The fact that Dipoto went a whole month without a trade seemed a little alarming this offseason. This was the quietest offseason since Dipoto and Servais arrived. Now they’re banking on health to go with the most continuity, comfortability and understanding of expectations their clubhouse has possessed.
“I’ve a big believer that players at any level, whether it’s high school or college or professional, they want to know where the boundaries are,” Servais said. “Where are the lines in the sand? And I think it’s pretty clear right now what our expectations are about how we go about our day.”
They all acknowledge the Astros are king of this American League West. But they also don’t see themselves as, what Dipoto said, one of the teams chasing a No. 1 draft pick over a World Series.
“It’s going to be fun, man,” Gordon said. “I can’t wait for when everything goes well for us and we’re there and dancing in October.”
“I’m telling you – it’s going to be fun,” Hernandez said.