It took me only four months to forget how quickly things can unravel on a baseball field.
The Seattle Mariners opened their exhibition season Wednesday on what appeared to be a perfect afternoon in Arizona. At least it looked that way during the few minutes I watched the television broadcast: The sun was shining, the fans were relaxed, and though the contest was close — the Mariners were leading the San Diego Padres, 3-2, with two outs in the top of ninth — spring-training games, featuring prospects with high numbers on their jerseys and low expectations of wearing those jerseys in the majors any time soon, do not exactly emit tension.
After four months of games stopped by whistles and timeouts and replay-review challenges, baseball was back, and all was right in this mixed-up world.
And then shortstop Tyler Smith fielded a room-service grounder that figured to end the game. It didn’t. Smith sailed a throw well over the head of first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who nevertheless attempted a leaping catch. When Choi landed, he didn’t move. His right fibula was broken and his season was over, nine innings into the first exhibition game.
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Choi’s injury, suffered on the most routine of plays, underscored the perils that await every time a ball is thrown or hit. Teams can go days and even weeks without putting somebody on the disabled list, but a season that begins with leisurely games in March — and concludes with high-stakes games in October — is too long for any team to avoid adversity.
Which brings us to the Mariners. Seen as legitimate contenders for the first time since Bob Melvin inherited an aging club and managed it through one last hurrah in 2003, they must adjust to expectations that were absent a year ago.
This is a solid and potentially sensational team, but the road to the playoffs will be fraught with twists. The issue isn’t whether something will go wrong, but when.
Any faint hopes the 1995 Mariners had of hanging in the AL West race were thought to be shot when Ken Griffey Jr. broke his left wrist while making an acrobatic catch on May 26. Griffey ended up missing almost half the season, but his late-August return presaged the Mariners’ epic September comeback.
While it’s conceivable the Mariners could have won the division title had Griffey not sat out 73 games, the ability to persevere without their superstar surely toughened them for the stretch run.
On the other hand, the 2001 Mariners enjoyed a cruise-control ride toward 116 victories. Aside from what amounted to the season-ending foot injury Jay Buhner sustained in his first Cactus League at-bat, and a midsummer quad sprain that shelved Edgar Martinez for two weeks, Lou Piniella’s team was as lucky as it was good. And it was historically good.
The Mariners didn’t lose more than two games in a row until they went into a four-game slump on Sept. 20, when they were 106-40. Eight Seattle players qualified for the All-Star Game at Safeco Field, where Freddy Garcia earned the win (well, sort of, All-Star Game scorebook rules were in effect) and teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki picked up the save.
Through the first six months of the 2001 season, it appeared as though the baseball gods had anointed the Mariners as destiny’s children.
And then the baseball gods, perhaps out of boredom, conspired to challenge the Mariners. Shortstop Carlos Guillen was diagnosed with tuberculosis on Sept. 26, a contagious ailment that required his teammates to be tested.
Everybody was healthy, it turned out, but the scare contributed to a weird vibe in the clubhouse.
More tangibly, Guillen had to be replaced at shortstop by utility man Mark McLemore, which meant starting utility outfielder Stan Javier in left during the playoffs. The well-oiled machine overseen by Piniella suddenly was out of whack, and it didn’t help that a groin pull found Martinez hobbling in the league-championship series against the Yankees.
Through six months, nothing much had gone wrong for the 2001 Mariners. But once Guillen got sick, nothing much went right.
There will be times this season when nothing much will go right for the Mariners. An injury will create domino-effect problems for manager Lloyd McClendon — count on it — right before another injury exaggerates the domino effect. Count on that, too.
Throughout the tribulations, the 2014 San Francisco Giants can serve as an inspiration. The Giants appeared to be best team in baseball after the first week of June, when they were 42-21. But the starting rotation behind Madison Bumgarner was a mess, and injuries took their toll on a lineup not acclaimed for its big-bang hitters, and the best team in baseball went into a 5-18 tailspin that allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers to take control of the division.
The Giants were forced to settle for a wild-card berth. A month later, they paraded around the streets of San Francisco.
The task facing the Mariners isn’t to avoid calamity. That’s impossible. Even on routine plays in spring training, calamity is just a step away.
The task is to endure it.