SEATTLE — There was a party at T-Mobile Park for the Seattle Mariners’ home opener against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place at the front gate to celebrate the rebranding of the stadium from Safeco Field to T-Mobile Park. Seattle hip-hop artist Macklemore played a pregame gig in The ‘Pen, including a rousing rendition of “My Oh My,” his tribute to former Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus. Mike McCready from Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam performed the national anthem as a searing guitar solo while wearing an Ichiro Suzuki jersey. And Mariners legend Edgar Martinez, who’s being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to a raucous standing ovation.
Oh, and they played a baseball game, too.
Indeed, the baseball itself seemed to take a back seat to the pomp and circumstance Thursday. Maybe that’s not all that unusual for a home opener, which Seattle won 12-4. But on this occasion it seemed to carry greater significance.
The Mariners have acknowledged that they’re “stepping back” this season. Seattle is in full rebuild mode after spending the offseason unloading veterans like Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton and Jean Segura for prospects the team hopes will be able to contribute in the future.
So there was a sense that the festive nature of Thursday’s home opener was about getting the fans to turn their attention toward the team’s past, thus distracting them from its present.
The prognostications have not been pretty for the Mariners. The general consensus is Seattle will win somewhere in the range of 75 games this season — which would be a 14-game dropoff from last year — and finish fourth in the American League West. The Mariners filled the holes in their lineup with stop-gap options like Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce, players whose main value to the team will be what they’re worth to contenders come the trade deadline. There’s not much in the way of young talent to get excited about as outfielder Mallex Smith, who turns 26 on May 6, was the youngest player on Thursday’s roster.
So maybe the Mariners believe all the non-baseball trappings are necessary to keep the fans engaged.
The players, however, have other ideas.
“In that clubhouse we don’t really care about what people think or what people say,” Thursday’s starting pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “We’re going to come out and compete and do what we do. We have a locker room full of guys who have something to prove, and I think that’s dangerous when you get a good group together like that. You’re going to see some fun things happen.”
Indeed, even in rebuilding years there’s reasons to follow a team, and this year’s Mariners are no exception.
There’s tracking the progress of rookie pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi was a big star in his native Japan, and he wanted to play in Seattle. Will his success in Japan translate to Major League Baseball?
Then there’s Domingo Santana. The mammoth outfielder had a big year for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, when he belted 30 bombs and compiled a .875 OPS in his first full season in the majors before being squeezed by the acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Can Santana, who’s still only 26, return to form and give Seattle a lethal bat in the middle of the lineup?
While there may not be much young talent on the roster now, the offseason trades gave the Mariners prospects like pitchers Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, middle infielders J.P. Crawford and Shed Long, all of whom are just a short drive down I-5 in Tacoma. Might they be called up midseason and inject some youthful excitement into the team?
And who knows, maybe the Mariners will be better than people anticipate. After all, Seattle did win its first two games when it swept the Oakland Athletics during their two-game set in Japan last week.
Nothing from Thursday’s home opener dispels that thought. Seattle drew the toughest possible opponent for it’s home-opening series, four games against the World Series-champion Red Sox, with perennial AL Cy Young Award candidate Chris Sale on the mound for the opener. But the Mariners roughed up Sale for seven runs, chasing him to the showers after just three innings.
Shortstop Tim Beckham, the first-overall pick in the 2008 draft who’s kicked around the league after failing to live up to the hype, slugged two home runs, while Encarnacion, Santana and Ryon Healy also went deep in a five-homer barrage.
Sure it’s a small sample size, but perhaps Seattle will shock the baseball world.
“That’s the reason we play the games,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said prior to the game. “It’s funny, I had the conversation with (Oakland manager) Bob Melvin over in Tokyo and he says, ‘Yeah who would have thought a year ago we would have won 97 games?’ That’s why we play.
“I know I feel really good about our team,” Servais continued. “I like our offense a lot. We have some questions — like every team out there today, whether it’s rotation or bullpen or lineup or bench, whatever. We just have to let these guys play and figure it out. But I like our lineup, I like our team.”
And maybe, just maybe, the Mariners can give their fans reason to cheer the present in 2019, and not just the past.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.