The Pilots played their one and only season in Seattle in 1969. (David Eskenazi Collection)

The Pilots played their one and only season in Seattle in 1969. (David Eskenazi Collection)

Art Thiel: Mariners honoring Pilots by playing like them

At least this time, the club likely won’t go bankrupt and move to Milwaukee.

The Mariners on Saturday will be acknowledging, or commemorating — “celebrating” doesn’t seem quite the right word — the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the awkward runt of Major League Baseball that lasted a single season in the Northwest. Enough time has passed that the criminal ineptitude of the operation now seems more like a childhood prank on the order of stuffing Aunt Thusnelda’s wig down the toilet.

To salute whatever that was, the Mariners are staging another Turn Back the Clock event ahead of the 1:10 p.m. Saturday start of the game against Baltimore. The players will wear Pilots uniforms and the first 20,000 fans will receive a replica cap, complete with the “scrambled eggs” trim on the bill.

Sadly, there is no scheduled appearance for buccaneer Bud Selig, the Milwaukee car salesman who in 1970 bought the Pilots out of bankruptcy for $10 million and made them the Brewers. If the ceremony included placing the early-day Clay Bennett in a dunk tank at home plate, a sellout would be guaranteed.

Alas, the best participant witness they can summon is Gary Bell, who pitched a complete-game, 7-0 win over the Chicago White Sox on April 11, 1969, the Pilots’ first home game at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium in Rainier Valley. It was the harbinger of nothing.

Now 82, Bell, who had his 12th and final MLB season in Seattle, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. That will generate hundreds of lame jokes about his joining the Mariners’ current rotation. Then everyone can sit back and enjoy bags of popcorn at the 1969 price of 50 cents, the club’s magnanimous financial/nutritional instant ritual to reconnect with the ancients.

It is too bad the promotion doesn’t include distribution of copies of “Ball Four,” the seminal book by Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton that ripped the skin off the game and became one of the turning points in 20th century American sports journalism/literature. Much of the book was Bouton’s bemused reflections on the hapless Pilots and the tawdry customs and characters who populated America’s then-most popular sport.

The larger narrative Saturday is that the Mariners are offering up something beyond Bell, hats, popcorn, video and music of yesteryear (yes, there will be an organist playing live).

They are offering the 2019 season as a replica of the 1969 season. It may be a reverence for history unparalleled in the annals of sport.

The Pilots finished 64-98, 33 games back of the division lead, thanks in part to the terms of expansion regarding player acquisition that left them largely with castoffs and unproven youngsters. The under-capitalized team drew 677,944 fans, 20th among 24 MLB teams, thanks in part to a hastily renovated minor-league ballpark that opened with just 19,500 seats, some of which were still damp with fresh paint, and tickets priced among the highest in baseball.

The 2019 Mariners are operating under no similar constraints.

The franchise, originated from a settlement of a lawsuit over the Pilots departure that was destined to prove the American League team owners to be a gang of scofflaws, scalawags and brigands, is owned by prosperous members of the community. They operate a vast regional monopoly with its own TV network in a spectacular, rain-proof stadium funded by taxpayers, who once gathered in sufficient numbers (3.5 million in 2002) to lead all of MLB in attendance.

All of these advantages that have accrued over a half-century put the lie to the claim from many critics in MLB, from the 1960s through mid-1990s, that Seattle was a bad baseball town. It was, instead, a town of bad baseball.

Then. And now.

Entering Wednesday’s games, the Mariners were 31-46, a winning percentage of .403. Maintaining that pace for the balance of the 162 games would give the Mariners a 65-win season.

Again, the Pilots won 64. As did the Mariners in 1977. Both were first-year expansion teams.

If the Mariners fall off their current languid pace just a tick — the pending trades of starter Mike Leake and other older veterans with a lick of value makes the proposition seem likely — they can match the win totals of predecessors from long ago.

The case can be made, then, that the 2019 outfit is tantamount to Seattle’s third expansion baseball team. Given the number of World Series appearances in the half-century (zero), the 3/0 ratio is one of the more astounding counting stats in baseball history.

The regression makes clear they are the Benjamin Buttons of Baseball.

The difference between then and now is, of course, intent. The 1969 Pilots and 1977 Mariners didn’t want to be bad, but were crippled by outside circumstances. The 2019 Mariners, despite benefiting from the accrued advantages mentioned above, want to be bad.

The modern-day purpose of deliberate badness, we have been told, is to acquire younger, better, cheaper, contract-controllable talent in order to have, down the road at a time unknowable, sustained competitive success at a high level.

The psychological problem is that nothing in MLB’s largely misbegotten half-century in Seattle offers hope of that possibility. Nor does the volume of MLB teams currently tanking along with the Mariners suggest that strategy will do anything but become more difficult. The competition is more intense for the same talent. The small middle class in today’s game means there’s too many teams in the same shallow end of the pool.

Not counting two strike-shortened years, the Mariners have had 11 seasons in which they had fewer than 70 wins, including six seasons of 61 or fewer. The full-season franchise low was 56 in 1978. In 43 years including this one, they have had four seasons of playoffs.

Since the Mariners have failed as a have-not team and a have team, with a bad stadium and a great stadium, with local ownership and non-local ownership, with no local TV revenues and lots of local TV revenues, the aspiration should be to set the franchise record of 55 or fewer victories. Everything else has been tried.

At least this time, the club won’t go bankrupt and move to Milwaukee.

As of Wednesday, 17 of the 25 active players were not on the roster at the end of last season. That’s expansion-level churn. For the rest of the season, I’d stick with the Pilots uniforms and 50-cent popcorn as physical reminders of the attempt to go where no Seattle team has gone before. And never wants to go again.

Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.

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