The denial of another World Series appearance for the Houston Astros figured to have been the subject of many giggles and grins in the Mariners organization. The Seattle crew has come to loathe their Texas rivals, whose dominance, first by cheating, then by being legitimately smart at baseball, has for years aggravated members of the Stantonite aristocracy.
In 2022, after returning to the playoffs for the first time since glaciers were gouging out Puget Sound, the Mariners were swept out by the Astros. The only feeble Seattle retort was to quote the Forbes report this spring that revealed the Mariners led MLB in profits in 2022, estimated at $82 million. So there. For whatever that’s worth.
But the Astros’ downfall Monday in the American League Championship series likely was cause for no celebration in the executive offices at T-ball Park. That’s because the perpetrators of the deed were the Texas Rangers, another member of the American League West. Disheveled, floundering and hapless, the Rangers for a decade had been a little brother who couldn’t even do dumb very well.
Starting in 2017, the Rangers seasonal win totals were 78, 67, 78, 22-38 in the covid truncation, 60 and 68. But after off-season infusions of big money into player payroll, as well a new manager and general manager, Texas improved to 90 wins. In so doing, they also slipped the shiv to the Mariners’ own postseason hopes on the season’s penultimate day, in person and on the sacred Sodo soil, no less.
The Rangers and Astros each won 90 games, the Mariners 88. But the two-game gap seemed wider, and grew deeper following the excavation done by club president Jerry Dipoto, whose post-season remarks Oct. 3 have become the notorious nadir of franchise fatuousness.
In the post-season, the Rangers swept the Tampa Bay Rays in two and the Baltimore Orioles in three. Then they took the first two games in the American League Championship Series, for seven wins in a row. From a Seattle perspective, Texas’s most recent defeat, 1-0 in the Oct. 1 regular-season finale, took on trappings of a conquest of Everest.
The Rangers finally slowed a bit, dropping three in a row to the Astros before delivering a pair of wallopings, 9-2 in game 6 and 11-4 in game seven, to win the AL title and advance the World Series starting Friday. Their opponent will be another unexpected entrant, the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose 84 regular-season wins offered minimal evidence of championship contention. But once the Snakes fixed their primary weakness by trading Aug. 1 for the Mariners’ premier closer, Paul Sewald, they had it going on.
Arizona arrived at the Series on a track similar to that of the Rangers. Two years ago, they lost 110 games. Last season, 88. In the same seasons, the Rangers lost 102 and 94.
To get good, the Rangers spent big. They had the game’s fourth-highest payroll at $251 million. The D-backs were more old-fashioned, building with farm-system kids such as rookie outfielder Corbin Carroll, 23, of Seattle’s Lakeside High School. They spent $119 million and were 21st in payroll, three spots behind the Mariners’ $134 million.
The comparisons state what has been obvious throughout MLB in the free-agent era: There’s no one way build a winner. Nor is there any assured way to sustain success.
The latter point is important because it’s what Dipoto has preached for most of his eight years in Seattle: Long-term sustainability. But while the aspiration sounds worthy, there is an example of a team that has sustained success, but no Mariners fan would seek to swap franchises.
With far less fan support and resources, the forlorn Tampa Bay Rays have made five consecutive playoff appearances. That’s sustainability. But they made only one World Series berth in that time, and lost, in the covid year, despite a 40-20 record that was MLB’s best.
In his now-infamous post-season presser, Dipoto tried to rationalize the Mariners squandering of a quality opportunity — in the expanded playoffs, the Mariners spent all of September in a compelling, four-team race (including the Toronto Blue Jays) for two wild-card berths, plus the AL West title. The lengthy drama drew big crowds and was exactly what MLB envisioned after rules changes that speeded up the game’s pace and encouraged offense.
But after a great August, the Mariners produced their worst month of the season in September (12-17) and were left by the side of the playoff road. Dipoto urged the fan base to look beyond the ditch to the horizon.
“If you go back and you look in a decade, those teams that win 54 percent of the time always wind up in the postseason,” Dipoto said. “And they, more often than not, wind up in the World Series. So there’s your bigger-picture issue.
“Nobody wants to hear the goal this year is, ‘We’re going to win 54 percent of the time.’”
Exactly, Jerry. That was business-school spreadsheet talk, not a plan for an entertainment enterprise. You knew better than to say it. You did anyway. Unsatisfied with that bit of tone-deafness, he dropped the mic again:
“We’re actually doing the fan base a favor by asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.”
Thank goodness Dipoto is a baseball guy and not a roof repairman. Imagine telling a homeowner in October the leak can wait until spring, when it’s drier.
For the sport’s only franchise that has never been to the World Series, asking for more patience after 47 years — and in light of being leapfrogged by the formerly woebegone Rangers — is the most misguided Mariners statement since former owner Jeff Smulyan said in 1992, “(Bankers) have concluded this isn’t a viable business.”
Chairman John Stanton and his ownership group, from whom Dipoto gets his annual budget, seem stricken with fear over providing long-term contracts to mid-career veterans. They can cite three dubious outcomes on their collective watch — pitchers Felix Hernandez and Robbie Ray, and infielder Robinson Cano. To which there is but one reasonable response.
The fear might be legit if the Mariners played a major professional sport with a salary cap. That is not the case with MLB. Baseball has a long and glorious history of owners spending recklessly, for the same reason many of them have 150-foot yachts — because they can. Every team fully committed to winning has an unproductive contract or two. Acquiring them is not the same as inviting aboard the bubonic plague. Besides, as each annual aversion to splurging comes to pass, the contract clock continues to tick on core younger players who are worthy of extensions. Time is being wasted.
The Mariners almost certainly will make a play for pending free agent Shohei Ohtani. But the game’s best player will have multiple choices among more hitter-friendly ballparks (an injury will keep him from pitching in 2024). His signing is at best a long shot, but rest assured Dipoto will describe how hard he tried.
After an unsuccessful season, it is always an easy bash in any MLB fan base to lament that ownership was stingy. So it is in Seattle, as it has always been.
The only difference this time is that the Stanton aristocracy is watching another AL West team that may become champion, following the Astros in 2021. Perhaps that indignity will be the thing that convinces the 54 percenters that there are no 10-year plans in baseball, only 10 one-year plans.