Anticipation and astonishment are two expectations that are marbled into the fundamental appeal of big-time spectator sports. Most fans don’t think of their sports passions in those terms, but the characteristics seem more topical now, if only for their absence in local baseball.
Ahead of Major League Baseball’s July 31 trade deadline, it can be said the Seattle Mariners have neither going for them.
The Mariners have, of course, been around a similar juncture many times. In their 42-year history, they have had 12 winning seasons, only four of which produced playoffs.
Hard to recall sometimes, but there have been times when proximity at midseason to contention made them buyers instead of the usual sellers at deadline time.
Probably the most notable episode came in 1995, when a public vote for tax dollars to subsidize a baseball-specific stadium was needed to stave off franchise relocation. The owners, desperate to demonstrate a public commitment to winning, permitted general manager Woody Woodward to take on salary for short-term veteran help.
Some years later, Woodward reflected on the moment, saying his fellow execs Roger Jongewaard and Lee Pelekoudas barely believed it.
“When I told them we could add payroll at the deadline, it was like it was Christmas,” Woodward said. “They asked me what happened? Why? I said ownership wanted to be in the race. I gave them the same pitch I always used, but this time it fell on concerned ears.
“The wild card kept us in it. If there had not been a wild card, the way California was playing, we might not have gone out and made the moves.”
In 1995, MLB went from two divisions to three, and created a wild-card playoff berth. Additionally, the Mariners were slotted into the American League West, the game’s only four-team division (others had five teams). In golf terms, the Mariners were were given three strokes on a par five with the ball 10 feet from hole before they had to swing a stick.
They birdied, making the playoffs for the first time in the club’s 18 years.
At the 1995 deadline, the Mariners acquired Andy Benes, a 27-year-old, right-handed starting pitcher from the San Diego Padres for two former first-round draft picks, outfielder Marc Newfeld and reliever Ron Villone. Two weeks later, ahead of the waiver trade deadline, the Mariners acquired from Kansas City outfielder Vince Coleman, 33, a base-stealer who filled a hole at the top of a lineup of heavy hitters.
The newcomers played key roles in the regular-season run that created in late September the sweetest asset for a team in contention: daily anticipation. Players as well as fans couldn’t wait to get to the park.
The group of players — Junior Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner — were in their athletic primes. They delivered astonishment, coming back from 13 games behind in mid-August to force a playoff.
I realize that a re-visit of 1995 prompts eye-rolls in that portion of Mariners fans weary of fawning upon the slag heap’s rare rose. But hey, not only is Martinez’s Hall of Fame induction Sunday, the 24-year contrast to the next two weeks is vivid, if painful.
The Mariners’ much-discussed tear-down is nearing completion for year one. This week began with 17 teams within three games of a playoff spot. That’s more than many expected in the MLB-tanking era.
It appears that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has five veterans who have some market value to a contender — second baseman Dee Gordon, shortstop Tim Beckham and pitchers Mike Leake, Tommy Milone and Roenis Elias. If first baseman Ryon Healy were healthy, he would be a sixth (also available are the longest-tenured Mariners, third baseman Kyle Seager and right-hander Felix Hernandez, but both are being paid so much to do so little that their values to other teams are less than zero).
Leake can provide a Benes-like contribution to a contender, and Gordon can be a next-generation Coleman. They each might fetch a middling prospect, but returns for others likely will be minimal. There is also speculation that two younger vets, catcher Omar Narvaez, 27, and right fielder Domingo Santana, 27 next month, might be available, since they can barely field their positions.
The prospective deals will likely conclude the roster chaos that has seen the Mariners go through more players than any team in baseball. In the offseason, MLB eliminated the waiver trade deadline mechanism that went through August, when contenders occasionally might grab a premier player who cleared waivers, as the Astros did two years ago to get Justin Verlander.
So, since the next two weeks should dissipate the remaining fumes of the extended spring training season — unless you fancy the race to see whether Daniel Vogelbach can surpass the single summers of thunder by Mark Whiten, Bucky Jacobsen and Dae-Ho Lee — there won’t be much reason to pay attention. Well, there’s six home games in a row in late August against the Yankees and Blue Jays, if you’re the kind to enjoy being heckled out of your own park by opposing fans.
You return Sept. 1.
That’s when rosters expand to 40 and the curtain might pull back on the future. It’s hard to know who will be called up, but a reasonable guess might include some among prized prospects such as pitchers Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert, and position players Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Cal Raleigh and Jarred Kelenic.
The push may be irresistible for Dipoto. Monday, in merely moving Gilbert and Raleigh from High-A Modesto to Double-A Arkansas, he was all giggly.
“We’re pumped,” he told the Seattle Times. “The excitement that everybody got when that email went out, where we informed the group that these guys were moving up, it was great.”
That minor-league cheerleading sounds as if the Mariners are feeling some pressure from the current wretchedness. Wednesday’s 10-2 defeat in Oakland, the sixth loss in a row, including the first five of the second half by a combined margin of 47-9, dropped them to 39-60, thanks in part to leading the majors in errors and strikeouts. Grim.
Dipoto would very much like to create an illusion that the far horizon of contention is closer than it seems. Which would be, of course, counter to the goal of tanking.
As bad as 2019 has been, it needs to get worse with the pending trades. And 2020 needs to be just as gnarly. After so many costly trades and poor drafts, the bankruptcy of the farm system was so profound that the teardown/rebuild is going to take more time and more acquisition of prospects than Dipoto’s optimistic estimation for some daylight in late 2020.
It is a process in MLB that is nearly impossible to rush successfully.
After catching a glimpse last month against the Mariners of an impressive Minnesota team, it’s worth knowing that the Twins had losing records in six of the previous eight years before creating the best outfit in Lake Woebegon since the Kirby Puckett-led teams that won World Series in 1987 and 1991.
The Twins are only one of several examples around baseball of the endurance required for the modern process. Little room is made for seasonal anticipation and astonishment.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.