John McGrath

John McGrath: Despite missing playoffs, Mariners fans still cheer

With a timing that seemed almost mischievous, the clouds over Safeco Field cleared the moment the Seattle Mariners were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday.

Just as the scoreboard showing “9” adjacent to the Oakland-Texas game changed to “F,” the overcast afternoon brightened to reveal a shimmering baseball diamond.

Safeco Field was all dressed up, and there was no place for the Mariners to go except home for the winter.

Upon learning the Athletics had avoided a Monday tiebreaker game in Seattle, the announced crowd of 40,823 collectively gasped. And then, as if on cue, the gasps turned into applause accompanying a standing ovation.

“It was pretty special,” third baseman Kyle Seager would say. “I was in the on-deck circle, and to look around and see everybody standing up was very cool.”

There would be plenty of time to dissect what went wrong for the Mariners in 2014, and to lament their inability to capitalize on Oakland’s epic collapse after the All-Star break. But not Sunday.

Sunday was for celebration of a turnaround season in which new manager Lloyd McClendon kept his team alive and kicking — well, alive, anyway — until the fifth inning of the season’s final game: a 4-1 victory unlike any of the 86 others the Mariners won.

Once it was evident the A’s had taken care of business at Texas, completing the weekend sweep of the first-place Angels meant little that can be quantified, and much that can’t.

“An emotional day,” McClendon called it, “for a lot of reasons.”

McClendon’s first priority was to arrange a ceremonial exit for ace Felix Hernandez, whose clinching of the league ERA title — he finished at 2.14, a tick better than the 2.17 of Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale — likely earned him his second Cy Young award.

After retiring the first batter in the top of the sixth, Hernandez exchanged hugs on the mound with the Mariners infielders and sauntered to the dugout, answering the ovation by taking off his cap.

The noise didn’t subside, though, and King Felix reappeared on the top dugout step for a curtain call.

A few minutes later, when McClendon replaced Robinson Cano with two outs, the second baseman got the same treatment.

By the end of the game, as Mariners players and coaches were tossing souvenirs to the fans gathered in the lower box seats, the sound system was blaring the 1970 Free hit, “All Right Now.”

But Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” would have been just as appropriate.

Given the choice between dwelling on the disappointment of the wild card berth that fizzled and the accomplishment of extending the season to the limit, fans decided that revelry was in order.

“Maybe this was a wake-up call for all of us,” McClendon said. “Sometimes we forget just how hard it is to compete at this level. It ain’t easy, trust me. Just ask the Oakland A’s. For a long time they were the best team in baseball, and they had to wait until the last day of the season to get in. Sometimes we lose that perspective.

“I told you guys, when I took the job, that I thought this was gonna be a golden era for the Seattle Mariners. They haven’t let me down.”

The tangible benefits of a golden era — trophy presentations, parades, visits to the White House — may or may not lurk down the road. But Sunday, when the realization set in that there would be no playoff games for the 2014 Mariners, should be remembered as the day the clouds cleared and the sun appeared and Safeco Field fans acknowledged checkmate by cheering.

“One of my proudest moments,” McClendon said. “I thought it said a lot about our fans.”

A lot? It said only everything.