Major League Awkwardness: Mariners Drop Their Opening Game


He came in late and low, but Shohei Ohtani officially won the Most Awkward Moment Award for the MLB off-season. He robbed the Seattle Mariners of the title. But only because his best friend allegedly robbed him.

The best baseball player Monday told his new team, popularly forecast to be the best ever assembled, along with the world that his pal, interpreter, personal manager and fellow Los Angeles Dodgers employee robbed him of $4.5 million. The claim countered Ippei Mizuhara’s initial story that Ohtani agreed to pay the money to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debts to an Orange County bookie under investigation by the FBI.

After Ohtani called the stunning episode a betrayal and claimed never to have bet on baseball or any sport, which would have been a violation of MLB rules and California state law because of the bookie’s involvement, he took no media queries. The Dodgers, and MLB, which started its own investigation, also fell silent. The inadequate response left so many questions that reporters now will dig for information, probably for months, from federal investigators, as well as from the mysterious digital world of sharpies and touts who claim to know stuff about athletes and gambling.

How’s THAT for an Opening Day storyline?

Until Goliath trembled, the MLB off-season leader in awkwardness was the Mariners’ abrupt unwinding at the end of the 2023 regular season that cost them a playoff berth. Much criticism ensued, spiced by players’ on-the-record laments about ownership’s dubious commitment to winning.

President Jerry Dipoto countered in his seasonal post-mortem with a cringe-worthy, tone-deaf response to the flop that enriched the local and national meme factories under the hashtag #palmtoforehead. The meter that measures the traditional Seattle fan trope that “ownership doesn’t care” had another big spike.

Yet five months later, the Mariners’ futile finish has faded from the national baseball consciousness, thanks in part to Ohtani, and in part by a modest roster rally from Dipoto. Despite the unwritten but obvious budget constraints forced upon him by ownership, he did not diminish the Seattle fortress of quality pitching and appeared to add respectable offense with the return of local hero RF Mitch Haniger, while acquiring newbies 2B Jorge Polanco, 3B Josh Rojas and OF Luke Raley, each packing a noteworthy injury history.

Little of the modest optimism manifested on Opening Night Thursday. Except for a two-run, welcome-back homer by Haniger, plus a two-run dinger from pinch-hitter Dylan Moore, the Mariners disappointed a sellout crowd of 45,337 with a 6-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox. Carrying over from last season’s desultory finish, starter Luis Castillo gave up four runs on four hits and two walks in five innings.

“His stuff was pretty good, but it was uncharacteristic of him not to dominate the zone,” said manager Scott Servais. “He usually dominates the zone, but they controlled the strike zone better than we did.”

Obviously, no meaning can be drawn from a single game, especially amid the manufactured hyperbole of the opener. Before the game, however, it was plain that the scorch marks from the 2023 conclusion were still the storyline in 2024.

“There’s a different vibe around this team, just based on how we ended the season last year,” Servais said pregame. “It’s a very hungry team. We’ve got a really good group of leaders.”

The hunger comes from franchise-wide embarrassment in September and October. To review:

After a mostly tepid first three months, the Mariners went 17-9 in July, then 21-6 in August. They were 19 games over .500 and in first place in the AL West Sept. 4, looking like the hottest team in baseball. The final month was set up to be what MLB sought by expanding the playoffs: Games with stakes in many places. Seattle was appreciative: The season’s 2.7 million attendance was the most in 15 years, fourth in the American League and 10th overall.

Then the sizzle devolved to a fizzle. An 11-17 September fade included the final 10 against division rivals Houston and Texas. The Mariners lost six, lost the division lead (to Houston) and then, in the next-to-last game, coughed up a wild-card playoff berth (to Texas). Castillo had in the final stretch perhaps his two worst games of the season, and All-Star CF Julio Rodriguez had three hits in his final 31 at-bats.

Worse, the Rangers, who lost two of the final three in Seattle, but had loaded up in the off-season with big contracts to pricey free agents, took off. They swept playoff series against Tampa Bay and Baltimore, beat the Astros in seven games in the ALCS and the Arizona Diamondbacks in five to win the first World Series in the franchise’s 64 seasons.

Asked what went through his mind watching the Rangers leapfrog his team, Servais grew a bit animated.

“I was pissed off,” he said. “We all are. We know our season ended, and I give Texas a ton of credit. Talking to Mitch Garver (the free agent DH the Mariners signed away from the Rangers), they got on the flight from here all the way to Tampa to start the playoff run. They figured some things out on the flight, because they flipped the switch. They got hot at the right time.

“We did have a very talented roster, but there’s a lot of talented rosters. Obviously, the first thing is you got to get in (to the playoffs). We weren’t able to do that. So I was a little frustrated, knowing we are right there. But it’s over, behind us. We gotta learn from it. Our team is hungry. So am I, so is the coaching staff.”

Whatever happened on that magical Rangers plane flight has yet to be revealed. Certainly such a potential solution did not come up in the Mariners’ infamous Oct. 3 press conference, when Dipoto desperately tried to defend his bosses, none of whom were present, against the endless civic charge of serial payroll neglect (last year the Mariners spent around $140 million, about $20 million below the league average).

“The reality is,” he said, “if what you’re doing is focusing year to year on what do we have to do to win the World Series this year, you might be one of the teams that’s laying in the mud, and can’t get up for another decade. So we’re actually doing the fan base a favor in asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.

“We’re always all in. We’re just trying to be all in in a thoughtful way that is going to allow this to be sustained over decades, not over a 162-game season.”

Then Dipoto went all Excel spreadsheet by suggesting MLB data shows that teams that win 54 percent of time over a decade have a high probability of winning a World Series. The good news is that over the past three seasons, the Mariners win rate is 55.1 percent. The bad news is that no fan who has spent much time in the 47-year championship desert wants to be handed that bucket of sand and be told he or she is getting a favor.

The feckless 54 percent data point likely will find a lasting place in the arcana of perverse contributions from Seattle to major league baseball. You know, things like the Mendoza Line, the marine layer and the one-and-only Pilots manager Joe Schultz, according to the Ball Four best-seller, opining post-game that it was “time to drop some mud and pound some Bud.”

The Mariners have graduated from carnival status, and have had spectacular players and moments. But the civic craving for a championship continues to be stymied by an ownership that operates as if baseball has a salary cap like the NFL, NBA and NHL. Who is going to tell them?

At the end of last season, catcher Cal Raleigh tried.

“We’ve been right at this 90-game (win) mark for a few years now,” he said. “We’ve just got to become better. Something’s got to change.”

Evidence of change awaits Raleigh. The absence of the FBI poking about the clubhouse is not a satisfying outcome.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. In my opinion, enduring a gale force hangover would be more enjoyable than watching the Mariners….at least for the last twenty plus years.

  2. After all that was reported in the off season, the Mariner fans were rather kind when members of the front office took the field in the pregame ceremony.
    Perhaps, it was because it was to sign popular ex-M Nelson Cruz to a “one day” contract, allowing him to retire as a Mariner.


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