The Mariners and Seattle are this month a big deal in Major League Baseball.
I lead with that stand-alone sentence because, in the eyes of longtime fans, good Mariners news is a rarity that sparkles like, well, a diamond.
As you may have heard, team and town are hosting the 93rd MLB All-Star Game, a four-day seamhead festival climaxing at 5 p.m. July 11 at T-ball Park with the nationally televised game on Fox. Since the award of each season’s host city is done several years in advance, it is not merit-based. In terms of the spectrum of baseball achievement, All-Star Weekend is a tourism booster and closer to the end that says “participation ribbon,” as opposed to the other end where it says “champion.”
It is merely Seattle’s turn. So it was in 1979, the team’s third year of existence in the late Kingdome. The Mariners next hosted in 2001, the third year of then-Safeco Field. And the unstated driver of this year’s selection was . . .
Turns out Seattle is among the few MLB cities not currently in some degree of atmospheric suffocation, prostration, conflagration, or all three. Tradition has it that once past the Fourth of July, Western Washington typically is the most valuable meteorological player on Earth.
Then there’s local ball, which will linger long after the glitter of this weekend is washed into Puget Sound. In theory, the current season of the host city has no role in the annual orgy of spectacle that celebrates, and sells, baseball to the nation.
But tell that to any Mariners fan who was there for the 2001 All-Star Game. The timing coincidentally made for the perfect reward for a near-perfect regular season. In a resplendent, new-ish park, the Mariners were creating not only their best regular season, it was arguably the greatest in the history of the game.
Energized by a player from Japan as mysterious as he was skinny, (Ichiro, who went on win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards) the Mariners became the first team to win 20 games in April, the first team in more than 50 years to lead baseball in the three main categories of hitting, pitching and fielding, and finished the American League West regular season 14 games ahead of second-place Oakland, which won 102 games.
Seattle’s number of 116 wins gained instant baseball immortality.
Here’s what Kevin Kennedy, a former major league manager and in 2001 an analyst for ESPN, said at the time: “Baseball has the toughest schedule in pro sports, and to win 70 percent of the time, it’s almost never been done. Especially with Seattle’s travel schedule, which is baseball’s longest. In baseball, your nine best players aren’t out there every game, because of the five-man starting pitcher rotation. That’s not done in football or basketball, where you put out your best players for most of each game, except for injuries.The Mariners were having as close to a perfect season as you can expect.
“I’ve managed for 13 years in the majors and minors, and I know this: To maintain excellence and interest every day is amazing, because the competition didn’t provide it. The race was over by the All-Star break.”
The American League’s ’01 All-Star roster demonstrated Kennedy’s point about dominance. Besides Lou Piniella as manager and Ichiro, seven other Mariners were selected: Position players Bret Boone, Mike Cameron, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez, and pitchers Freddy Garcia, Jeff Nelson and Kazuhiro Sasaki.
For party week, the weather was then as it is now — MVP.
That figures to be among the few commonalities between 2001 and 2023.
After beating Tampa Bay 7-6 Sunday — the Rays have MLB’s best record at 57-30 — by scoring the winning run without benefit of a hit, the Mariners won the series 2-1, which fetched a fig leaf after a half-season of naked disappointment (40-42). During the game, MLB announced the rest of the All-Star Game rosters. A sole Mariner was selected (pending injury replacements) — starting pitcher Luis Castillo, who coincidentally gave up six runs in six innings Sunday. Because baseball mandates each team have a representative in the exhibition, the host team automatically is spared ignominy.
It’s probably unfair to compare the meager Seattle representation to the 2001 Mariners’ incandescent, and frankly inexplicable, season. Years later, Piniella said, “I still don’t know how we did that.”
The narrative arc of freakishness could be analogized to the generally accepted scientific theory that a giant asteroid struck Earth about 70 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. So much dust was sent into orbit that a killer darkness enveloped the planet — much in the way that Seattle was in postseason darkness for the 20 years following ’01.
Yes, a little sun glimmered through in October, when the Mariners made the playoffs and won a first-round series. But to believe that extinction of an entire species (marinerus erratii) is no longer a possibility requires evidence that the franchise still isn’t in some sort of cosmic payback loop for the randomness of ’01.
Heading into the past off-season, consistent contention was the aspiration of fans and club executives. But instead of plowing their $82 million in 2022 operating profits (per Forbes) into veteran player acquisition, ownership was more cautious, and seems to be paying for it so far. Apparent from spring training that the roster hadn’t improved, the Mariners at midseason are in fourth place in the American League West, trailing two teams that went more aggressively into free agency (Angels and Rangers), plus the defending world champion Astros. The teams are ranked sixth, ninth and 10th, respectively, in MLB player payroll. The Mariners are 18th ($140 million).
As longtime baseball fans know, payroll dollars often do not equate to field success. No better example comes from the All-Star Game rosters. As with the Mariners, the New York Mets have a lone representative, first baseman Pete Alonzo. But the Mets have the game’s highest payroll, $344 million. In a sport absent payroll floors or ceilings, financial chaos alway wins — and loses.
It occurs to me that being in charge of an MLB operation is a lot like running a big metropolis — each has constituencies that want everything fixed right away, top shelf and on budget, then provide new indulgences. Otherwise, you’re out.
Since I’m sure you agree, here’s the Seattle scorecard starting from the fabled year of 2001 (including interims):
Seattle mayors — Paul Schell, Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, Bruce Harrell (interim), Tim Burgess (interim), Jenny Durkan, Bruce Harrell.
Mariners managers — Lou Piniella, Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, John Riggleman (interim), Don Wakamatsu, Daren Brown (interim), Eric Wedge, Lloyd McClendon, Scott Servais.
If you’re scoring at home, the Mariners have a 10-8 lead in the race neither wants to win.
When it comes to hosting a prestige sports event like an All-Star Game, Harrell is in the batter’s box now. Fix the Third Avenue mess, wrap up Waterfront Park, hire more cops, replace plywood windows with glass, coax ferry workers to show up, and find a 100-pound Copper River salmon for the Market’s fish guys to hurl. Get all of this done by Friday afternoon.
And don’t screw up the weather.
Then you can stay another season. Or manage the Mariners.
Update: Mariners centerfielder Julio Rodriguez and starting pitcher George Kirby were added Tuesday to the American League roster as injury replacements. They join teammate starting pitcher Luis Castillo as reserves. Rodriguez will participate in the Home Run Derby Monday night following his debut a year ago when he finished second, hitting 81.