By John Boyle Herald Columnist
Less than a week before opening day, the Seattle Mariners parted with potential No. 5 starter Randy Wolf in rather unusual fashion.
In the end, saving that million dollars might very well be the smart move, but the Mariners were nonetheless slammed both locally and nationally for their awkward breakup with Wolf, who refused to re-work his deal in a way that would allow the team to dump him 45 days into the season with no financial ramifications.
People were so highly critical of the Mariners for the move not so much because Wolf was going to make a big difference in 2014, but rather, because they are the Mariners, a franchise no longer afforded the luxury of benefit of the doubt. No, after a decade of declining attendance and losing seasons, the Mariners are the team whose moves are almost always viewed as failures until proven successful. Spend $240 million on a super star like Robinson Cano, and many will say it’s a desperate overspend rather than note that the it’s nice to see ownership make such a big commitment in an attempt to turn things around. Don’t go out and spend big money to add more bats, and the Mariners are too cheap to be serious contenders.
With the 2014 season opening tonight, the Mariners are to the point now that with almost every move they make, Wolf’s release included, they’re in a lose-lose situation when it comes to the court of public opinion.
There is, of course, only one way to change the perception that the Mariners are a team that can do no right; to change the opinions of a rightly cynical fanbase: win. And we’re not talking about winning a few more games than last year. When a team dedicates nearly $50 million a year to its two best players, Felix Hernandez and Cano, both of whom are in their primes, the time for being playoff contenders isn’t three or four years down the road; it’s right now. That’s not to say this season will be a failure if the Mariners miss the playoffs, but if they don’t take a significant step forward from last year’s 71-91 record, if they can’t maintain relevance past the start of August, then every doubter, every snarky comedian on Twitter (guilty), every person who thinks the Mariners will never succeed until there’s change at the very top, will have an even more evidence for their negativity.
Forget “True to the Blue,” “Believe Big,” “Sodo Mojo” or any other slogan the Mariners have come up with over the years; for the 2014 Mariners, it’s win or else.
“This franchise has been knocked down, we’ve been on the mat for quite some time and it’s time for us to get up,” said new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. “One of the messages that I will send to my players is that if you want to cross the ocean, you’ve got to take your eye off the shore, and you can’t be afraid to look forward.”
On more than one occasion, McClendon has said this Mariners squad reminds him a lot of the 2006 Detroit Tigers. In his first season on Jim Leyland’s coaching staff in Detroit, McClendon watched a team that was a mixture of youth and established veterans finally hit its stride, winning 95 games and going to the World Series to end a stretch of 12 straight losing seasons.
And while the Mariners have some obvious concerns, there is still reason to be excited for this season, from the addition to Cano to the young talented arms to the presence of shortstop Brad Miller, who might just be a superstar in the making. Yet in the back of their minds, fans can’t help but remain guarded, and for good reason. They’ve been hurt before, they’ve see too many promising players never develop, too many free-agent signings flop; they’re conditioned for heartbreak.
While the Seahawks’ success has bought general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll all sorts credibility — “In Pete and John we trust” has become the refrain of many fans after a move or a draft pick that defies conventional wisdom — the Mariners are in the opposite position. Where even the seemingly smart or bold moves are trashed long before we see the results.
General manager Jack Zduriencik believes his plan can still work. He believes the not-quite-so-young-anymore nucleus of talent he assembled can finally succeed. And McClendon sees promise in the team he inherited. For their sake, and for the sake of Mariners fans who deserve an enjoyable summer after so many frustrating ones, let’s hope they’re right, even if so many previous failures condition us to assume otherwise.
“How many wins will we have? I don’t know,” McClendon said. “Where will we go? I don’t know. But if you’re asking me do I believe we can win? I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t believe we could win.”