When in doubt, play to your strength – and this weekend, the Seattle Mariners will do exactly that.
No, not dribble out feebly to the pitcher. Well, they’ve been doing a lot of that, too.
But we’re talking about the inevitable ace in the M’s hole – celebrating the past!
Never mind that the Mariners don’t really have a past commensurate with the amount of heart-tugging that seems to get done at Safeco Field.
They’ve never won a World Series or an American League pennant. It took 15 years for them to have a winning season, 19 to play in a playoff game. Their one Hall of Famer is a late, beloved broadcaster – and it’s really just a wing of the Hall. That will change when Ken Griffey Jr. becomes eligible, of course, but even that ground ball got bobbled when he was brought back for an ill-advised encore in 2010, postponing the inevitable.
So everyday achievements get turned into franchise touchstones.
This is not to say that the weekend’s tribute to the 116-win team of 2001 is an unworthy endeavor in the slightest, and as it’s a round-number anniversary management cannot be accused of contriving another distraction from the latest swoon. Although another bobblehead was handed out Friday night when the Mariners ran their scoreless streak to 26 innings in a 4-0 shutout by the Texas Rangers – and Mark McLemore donned his old No. 4 to throw out the first pitch.
You’ll remember him as the 2001 team’s Swiss Army knife. On the 2011 M’s, he’d be Babe Bloody Ruth.
He’s still as direct as the current roster is unresponsive – as when he was asked if there was a point in feting a team that didn’t even reach the World Series.
“There are two teams that have won 116 games,” he said. “Ever.”
And it’s hard to imagine the 1906 Chicago Cubs had as much fun as those Mariners.
Which is why the RSVPs came back at such a brisk clip. Manager Lou Piniella and general manager Pat Gillick are coming back. Norm Charlton has been lured off his charter fishing boat, John Halama from the independent bush leagues, Al Martin from the USC football reunion – heh, heh, heh.
“We had a great time,” McLemore said. “We accomplished a lot. We didn’t reach our ultimate goal, but we had a tremendous amount of fun – and a tremendous amount of respect for each other and love for each other.
“We didn’t have cliques. Everybody got along with everybody.”
Yeah, but what are you going to fight about when you’re winning three of every four games? Somebody using too much hot water in the postgame shower? It’s the inevitable question: Does good chemistry make for good results, or vice versa?
“A little of both,” McLemore offered. “More than anything else, you have to have talent. If you don’t have talent, it doesn’t matter how great you get along. I’m sure there are teams around the league that get along very well, but are in last place.”
It was probably just a coincidence he said that while standing in the home team dugout.
A few theories have been advanced as to why the 2001 Mariners won so much but also won so little, but it was pretty much a collective outage. They hit a 2011-esque .211 in the ALCS against the Yankees, the bullpen 1-2 of Arthur Rhodes and Kazu Sasaki broke down in the crucial Game 4 and starter Aaron Sele was a postseason punching bag.
And yet while it seems a bit of a cop-out to say, there’s something about the 116 wins that reveals the sour nature of a championship-obsessed athletic culture. Yankee fans displayed banners saying, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got a ring.” But shouldn’t a sustained, season-long dominance carry as much cachet as a postseason spurt with hot pitching?
“I’m still missing a ring,” McLemore acknowledged. “It doesn’t hurt as bad as it used to, but it’s part of the game. You have 29 teams that have that feeling every year. I don’t think it’s something you ever get over.”
Actually, it’s something the entire franchise has never set forgotten. Epic failure in a season of epic success has sort of colored the landscape for a decade now. Indeed, two 93-win seasons followed in which the M’s missed the postseason entirely, and two 101-loss death marches in the last three years show just how badly ownership whiffed on building a lasting foundation.
Which may be the only shame in celebrating the past – that the present, and even the future from the current vantage point, are so uncompelling.