I love this game. I'm conscious enough to know that this sensation is fueled largely by an irrational reaction to environment, upbringing, culture, exposure, and the most romantic nostalgia I can conjure up in my mind...but I can't help it: I'm an irrational human being and the thought of baseball stirs up something in my gut.
For Peter Doumit, it’s something like this:
Baseball is such a game of hope. Anything can happen — and often does — usually in the most tension-filled times. Maybe your team is up by a run or two with only three outs to get. Why does it seem that those three outs are always the toughest three to get? Or maybe you are on the other side of the ledger with your team being down a run or two with three outs to go. Doesn’t hope spring eternal if you get a base runner or two on?
It’s all this, and it’s much more.
All is Right Again
I can count on Opening Day. Each year, in early Spring, it’s going to be Opening Day. This day is one that I look forward to in ways that most would anticipate a holiday, and for me, it exceeds that type of expectation, because Opening Day also promises a long, long summer of this beautiful game being played in some of the most iconic establishments across the United States — ballparks. I’m going to go ahead and say that part of the reason everyone loves Summer is because it’s dipped in the honey of baseball. If you disagree, I think you’re missing something big here.
The baseball fan this morning awoke from a long Winter’s sleep, stretched his arms, yawned and frightened the neighborhood trying out the rusty pipes of his vocal chords.
— New York Times, 1911.
I know I’m not alone with these sentiments. In a recent article touching on this same theme, a baseball believer goes so far as to describe the meaning of Opening Day with a religious lens, “It can’t be an accident that baseball always starts around the time of both Easter and Passover and thus ‘elicits a sense of renewal.’ For the faithful, it means that ‘the long dark nights of winter are over’ and ‘the slate is clean.’ All teams, the exalted and lowly alike, ‘are tied at zero wins and zero losses.’” It’s how Opening Day has always been, and always will be.
The ‘Greats’ are Greater
Baseball heroes are able to be a different type of hero. Like any man-made institution, baseball has had plenty of flaws — and there are far too many examples of individuals who have degraded the game. But those who we can still point to as heroic seem to embody an added class. There’s a new expectation from this fan-to-player relationship that marks certain figures in baseball as timeless and classic. Trades in baseball seem to cut a little deeper for this reason; we expect a certain loyalty from our heroes, and a trade can feel like a slap in the face — a mark of betrayal towards the team, the city, the fans, the game. From Ty Cobb to Shoeless Joe Jackson to Jackie Robinson to Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. — we all have our favorites, and they aren’t always the most polished characters — but it would be strange if they were. We don’t anticipate perfect manners or gracefulness in demeanor, but when it comes to the field, a new type of class and grace emerges, and iconic figures are quickly born within the constraints and nobility of the rules.
Love the One You’re With
I love baseball in general, but I grew up and live in Seattle, so I also must love the Mariners — no matter what. Some might scoff at their overall “success,” but I know, because I was here, that there are a few things that can cultivate a lifelong Mariners fan.
I was six years old when I was swept up in a love for baseball. Anyone in Seattle in 1995 could probably say the same — and if it didn’t introduce a love for the game, it renewed a dormant one. The drama of ‘95 captivated fans, and I don’t know if Seattle has ever been more supportive of a sports team.
In May of ‘95, Griffey went after a ball that threatened to soar over the centerfield fence — he caught the ball, but shattered his wrist. This incident went down as one of the most memorable Griffey moments in Seattle, but it also kept him on the bench for 73 games.
But it was the legendary 1995 Wild Card selection and post-season that stands out most for fans. This felt like the last shot for the team, and pressure was building; it was increasingly clear that management was on the cusp of taking the team apart and looking to ‘96 for better luck. Lou Piniella, now a manager of the M’s for three years, is remembered for his strategic vision in this critical window of opportunity. Piniella rallied the team and brought on three new players to finish out the regular season — Coleman, Charlton, and Benes.
Griffey’s wrist healed just enough to get back in the game in mid-August, and the Mariners’ luck began to turn around. After an epic series win against the Yankees that month, the Mariners went on a winning streak to close out the season that made the phrase “Refuse to Lose” famous among Seattleites. The Mariners climbed the ranks until they were tied in regular season wins with the Angels (a team they were behind by 11 1/2 games not long ago). The pieces continued to stack up. The tie meant that the two teams would battle in a one-game playoff that would crown the division leader. This game proved to be a true pitcher’s duel, and Langston and Johnson held on to near perfection for most of the game; Langston allowed one run and Johnson pitched a perfect game until the 6th inning. In the 7th inning, the Mariners were able to load the bases for Luis Sojo, who hit a ground ball that got away. The Kingdome erupted; every single base runner scored. The Mariners took the division title with a 9-1 win.
It seemed that the ‘95 season would hit a pinnacle moment only to build up even more excitement and tension for the next challenge. In the postseason, everything came down to a final incredible playoff series against a despised rival of the Mariners — The Yankees. The story seemed to unfold like a well-crafted novel, robust with colorful heroes in the form of Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Randy Johnson. The rest fell into place: The final chance, the enemy, the strategy, the prize in sight.
The series went into game five, closing on what has to be one of the most incredible moments I’ve been alive to experience on some level. In the 11th inning, Joey Cora made it onto first base as the game-tying run. Griffey, up next, made it onto first and Cora found his way to third — two men on base, Griffey the potential game-winning run. Here’s where anyone can predict, or hope for, a legendary baseball moment — the game is anyone’s: Edgar is up to bat, everything is at stake. Martinez connected with the third pitch. Cora came in to tie the game, and Griffey raced the incoming throw to home plate in their last shot for the win. The throw was late — Griffey found his way home, and the scene is something I’ll never forget. Griffey’s hero’s welcome at home plate went down in history as one of the best moments in Seattle baseball. For nearly 20 years, a newspaper clipping of this moment was displayed proudly in my home (before it organically deteriorated, essentially). When I think about baseball, this image surfaces quickly — Griffey’s famous grin, lit up beneath a pile of his teammates. It is this image that, for me and many others, marks so much of what it is to love the Mariners — the underdog team that rallied and rewarded everyone with a piece of history.
The 1995 Mariners were the first Mariners to make the playoffs, beating a team they should have lost to in order to get there.
With 116 wins and an incredible lineup of talent, the 2001 team, and season, was one that rejuvenated baseball in Seattle. For the six-year-old who barely understood the magic of 1995, 2001 gave me a conscious, deep love of the game itself. I recall being asked by my teacher to stand up to my 6th grade class and explain exactly what was “at stake” and what strategies the M’s were likely going to deploy in order to close out a particularly nerve-racking inning during the season — a game that played off of a classroom computer, the expected lecture halted for the period. Standing up to discuss the “6-4-3″ play for my classmates was genuinely important to me… As a pre-teen who still fell into a “tomboy” category, the Mariners were a point of pride, and this was our season — and I was prepared to convert anyone I encountered who saw otherwise.
2001 marked the debut of Ichiro, who quickly became another Seattle hero. Ichiro appealed to a wide fan base, and it seemed that children were discovering baseball in a new way — and adults were awakened to rally behind a team and a sport that had existed dormantly in their minds and hearts for some time. Ichiro’s debut was exciting to watch, but the entire team that season came together in a rare, cohesive way; I don’t know when we will see another team quite like this. Brett Boone, Carlos Guillen, Mike Cameron, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson … Edgar Martinez — the list goes on.
For years now, it seems there’s always a lot of talk and skepticism about our poor odds for a solid season. I’d argue that there’s plenty we still and always will have, always plenty to look forward to — and I know that negativity won’t be the fuel that gets us anywhere.
Here’s what we have that can’t be taken away.
- We can forget trades for a moment and look to the ‘Greats’ of the past and present: Johnson, Martinez, Griffey, and many more. Keeping them alive, giving a nod to the past is part of what fuels the love for the game itself, and regardless of where a beloved Mariner hero is now, it will always be true that they once wore the jersey, and so they always are a Mariner.
- We can and should celebrate our unique heroes — both on and off the field. Seattle was lucky to have an off-field hero in Dave Niehaus until 2010. His voice and spirit embodied the Mariners as a team and stayed with fans through every season, every game. His famous lines, “My oh my” or “Bring out the rye bread” are embedded into my memories of baseball, as they are for many. You can hear some of his best moments here.
- We can appreciate the small, but powerful, elements of baseball that are easily overlooked. The next time you find yourself at a game, think about the perfection of the field, the history of the sport, its place in American culture, the simple but rewarding time spent watching a graceful sport unfold with a beer in your hand. That’s a great day, and that’s there for us regardless of scorecard.
- The fans who keep showing up. Seattle is a younger city, and a very young team — but we aren’t a dead fan base; we are more dormant, curious than anything, and we can do better — but it doesn’t mean we aren’t here. As young as the Mariners are, everyone should know our best legends and eagerly look to the next ‘95 or 2001.
- We can let go of pride or skepticism and dwell in possibility instead — and the felt fact that baseball is a sport that deals in hope.
I can’t predict what this season or next season or any season after will look like for the Mariners or any other team — no one can — and that is one of the best things about baseball. It’s unpredictable, it allows for rallies, it let’s mental focus and strategy into a physical game. Perhaps best of all, there’s always room for an underdog to disappoint the bets -- whether you’re up one run in the 9th and holding your breath for your relief pitcher or you’re behind two runs with two men on base and a promising rookie up to bat -- it’s about hope.