PEORIA, Ariz. – When their then-president, now disgraced, admitted publicly what they already knew – a refusal to invest in their team, using the COVID-19-shortened season in 2020 and the current rebuild as an excuse to manipulate the free-agent market to save a few dollars, yielding nothing – the verification provided motivation to make it about them, and them only.
“That might have just been the icing on the top,” Mitch Haniger said looking back.
When those in charge of the team in the front office and on the field refused to discuss season goals beyond daily improvement, getting better and development, they weren’t afraid to say the team could and would win now.
“The only way to improve and develop is to win,” Marco Gonzales said before pitchers and catchers reported in 2021.
“You have to learn how to win, you have to set the standard, set expectations on winning. That’s how you get to where you want to go.”
When baseball “experts” analyzed their roster and lack of offseason additions to it, noticing the glaring questions marks all over the field, surmising mediocrity, and the statistical projection systems, using that same roster in their simulations, predicted just more than 70 wins, they shrugged off the opinions of people they didn’t know and equations they didn’t understand.
“It’s time to go,” J.P. Crawford said before that spring training had even started.
“We have the competitiveness to go out there and win every night and be a winning team. We just all believe that. We all play like that and show up each day like we can do that.”
And they won at a rate beyond predictions, exceeding expectations outside the clubhouse, defying traditional baseball logic and oft-used metrics to quantify success, resuscitating their unanticipated playoff hopes each time they seemed ready to crater into that familiar territory of irrelevance.
The Mariners entered the final weekend of the season with a chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2001.
They had turned the beleaguered hope of Mariners fans into cautious belief.
Could they really do it?
In the end, they fell short. Playing in front of frenzied, sold-out crowds at T-Mobile Park that brought an energy to the stadium and city absent since the last day of the 2014 season or perhaps the last week in 2016, they lost two of three to the Angels. Their season ended with a 90-72 record.
“We fell two games short,” Crawford said. “We fell short of our goal. I was (upset). And it shouldn’t be acceptable at all.”
But in the immediate aftermath of that failure – both in the series and not making the postseason – anticipation and expectations for the 2022 season were born.
Rebuilding for a brighter future lost acceptability. Building from that success, surprising or not, and focusing on winning became the priority.
Understanding that a shift in priorities for success-starved fans now matched that of the players in the clubhouse responsible for the change, promises were made by Mariners ownership through president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto.
“It’s incumbent on us to go out and add where we can add and improve where we can improve,” Dipoto said after the season ended. “That’s not lost on us. We’ll visit every avenue to do that, whether it’s the free-agent market or it’s the potential for trade, but we do have payroll flexibility, and we’re going to use it to go out and make the team better.”
Whether those promises were completely kept is a current source of vigorous debate. But this Mariners team as constructed has more talent and potential than last year’s team.
Not since Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano were all in Seattle, before the words “step-back” became part of the vernacular in the Mariners’ world, has there been a season when so much is expected, if not demanded, by all involved.
Yet, those players who believed they would win last season and return for this much-awaited season, scoff at the notion of increased expectations that didn’t exist this time last spring or any perceived pressure that comes with them.
“Any perception that this has changed is wrong,” Gonzales said. “People can say: ‘Oh, look out for the Mariners. They’re wanting to win. They’re gonna win. They’re going to show people.’ We’ve been trying to do that, and we’ve been here doing that, so nothing’s changed there.”
The Mitch Haniger doctrine
Early in his time with the Mariners, it was often joked that Haniger was a baseball cyborg – part player/part robot – because of his stoic demeanor and ultraserious approach. But after missing almost two seasons due to injuries and surgeries, he can be seen smiling and even laughing while still attacking each moment on the field with typical intensity.
As the longest-tenured Mariner, entering his sixth season, he has grown comfortable speaking his mind, evolving into a slightly more vocal leader instead of only by example.
Still, when The Players Tribune released an open letter from Haniger to Mariners fans Oct. 14, 2021, 10 days after the season ended in disappointment, it offered a surprising candid look into a player’s feelings.
“To me, as a player, and as an athlete, I like those articles the best because you’re hearing exactly what the player wants to say,” he said. “You get to write everything you want. So to me when they asked, I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
The words were honest and without pretension. They dripped with his on-field intensity.
“And I’m at the point in my career where I don’t really feel like being anything other than honest. I respect you guys too much not to speak my mind. And what’s on my mind right now is mostly just: We lost. And that sucks.”
And later …
“We lost when it mattered most. We fell short of our goal – period.
“And I need every Mariners fan to know that.
“But I also need them to know something else: This group is going to the playoffs. That’s not an if … it’s a when. And that when is soon.”
The letter resonated with fans and teammates.
Gonzales could feel his emotions building as he read Haniger’s words. He wanted the 2022 season to start immediately.
“I thought it was incredible,” Gonzales said. “I texted him right after I read it. Man, it’s everything that I’ve been feeling. It was worded in a way that was really clear and concise. It exactly echoed a lot of voices in our clubhouse.”
Haniger turns sheepish when told of the impact the letter had, admitting the editor “made me sound smarter, a lot smarter than I am.”
But it was the meaning of the words more than the usage or sentence structure that resonated.
“It was everything,” Crawford said. “He said everything we felt.”
Haniger didn’t grasp the impact on fans, admitting his social-media retention is minimal.
“I was just hoping to kind of get how I felt across to fans and let them know that, yeah, it was a good year, but that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” he said. “And that we needed to go out and make some more moves and position ourselves to where this season we have a very realistic chance of winning the World Series. And I want to win a World Series here.”
Expectations and standards
While they aren’t afraid to say that they want to make the playoffs and win a World Series, Mariners players know that those goals are based on achievement. To reach achievement goals, they must focus on performance goals – starting at the simplest levels.
Prepare to win.
Compete to win.
Do it again the next day and every day.
It’s how they exceeded expectations last season.
“You better have that as your goal if you are in this clubhouse,” Haniger said of the World Series. “But you need to have attainable things you can do daily. You have this big goal, but I always ask myself, ‘What can I do daily?’ It’s come to work every day, preparing to win, preparing to put myself in the best position to succeed with hard work, helping my teammates out, going about my business, being a professional and doing every one of those things right. In the end, if I do it right, day in and day out, I’m going to have my best chance of winning. And if everyone can be on that same page, we’re going to have our best chance of winning.”
That mindset isn’t an expectation for the players, it’s the standard set by Seager, Haniger, Gonzales, Crawford and others from last season.
“Mitch and J.P. are out there every game playing like it’s a playoff series, every single game,” Gonzales said. “It inspires everyone. You don’t get to this point in your career and play in the big leagues by not showing up and wanting to win. … I show up to win. That’s how I’m wired. That’s how we all need to be wired.”
Those returnees won’t allow anyone in their clubhouse settling for less.
“It’s all about having really high standards for how we go about our business,” Haniger said. “It’s how we put in our work every day, how we hold each other accountable and individually hold ourselves accountable, and I think the expectations will take care of themselves.”
A drought inherited, accepted and eventually ended
That Haniger, Crawford and Gonzales openly speak about the World Series is an atypical message compared with those from past years and teams. It’s even different from many in the organization.
Publicly stating a results-based goal, such as winning the World Series, the American League West or ending a playoff drought that’s now old enough to drink, also sets a line of demarcation defining failure or success.
But if you hedge it by setting nebulous goals such as improvement, development or getting better, there isn’t a specific scale to measure success or failure. Even common baseball statistics can be eschewed under those terms.
It might seem unrealistic to most people outside that clubhouse considering the Mariners have never made it to the World Series, haven’t even been within a game of clinching a World Series spot and have spent the past two decades watching the playoffs on television. To the players, it has to be a standard and the ultimate priority for success.
“Our goal is to win the World Series,” Haniger said. “That should always be the highest goal. That’s what you play for. There are other goals along the way to achieve. Obviously, we have to make the playoffs in order to do that.”
Ah yes, making the playoffs. What is an annual expectation for many teams has been a nonstarter for Seattle since the magical 2001 season.
The ignominious streak of postseason-less years is the longest in major North American men’s professional sports.
Under Dipoto’s regime, which started in at the end of 2015, they had just two seasons – 2016 and 2021 – when they entered the final week of the season with a chance to make the postseason.
In another sign where Mariners players have become increasingly unafraid to go against the beliefs of their superiors, including the coaching staff and front office, who point to their minimal current role in the futility or simply refuse to acknowledge it, Haniger’s letter provided a shining example when he wrote:
“We’re going to end this … drought.”
Asked about the comment, Haniger seemed perplexed: “Why are you going to shy away from it? We haven’t made the playoffs in 20-some years. We are hoping to change it this year. We wanted to change it last year. It didn’t happen, and that has to be unacceptable.”
Gonzales has never been shy about voicing his opinion on anything. He’s talked about the postseason drought, the cloud it casts over the organization and the need for it to end. Coming from the Cardinals, where the postseason was an annual rite, it seems illogical to ignore something that is defining the viability of the organization and the team.
“You put this uniform on, it’s yours,” Gonzales said. “It’s ours to carry. We know it, and we’re not afraid of it because what drives us, what motivates us, is to be the group that overcomes that. If we weren’t taking ownership of it, then it wouldn’t be our drought to end and it wouldn’t feel as good when we do end it. So why not take ownership and talk about it?
“We’ve openly talked about how amazing the city’s going to be when this thing goes off and when we get in the playoffs and do some damage. We’ve talked about what that’s going to feel like. Verbalizing that goal is how you achieve it.”
As a rookie in 2014 with the Cardinals, Gonzales got a taste of the postseason, admitting he was trying to hold on to his veteran teammates’ jerseys, “and just go along for the ride.”
“It was fortunate, because I didn’t know at the time how rare that it was to get postseason experience as a rookie,” he said. “It was pretty incredible.”
But a return to the postseason with his current team will have greater meaning.
“I’ll definitely be a lot more grateful,” he said. “Because it’s here; it’s because of what we built. It’s going to feel 1,000 times better to do it here, where I’ve seen us at the ground floor and seen us in good times and bad times, the ups and downs. It’s going to be really, really satisfying.”
Crawford has turned those conversations about snapping postseason streaks into visualizations to further fuel his motivation each day and supplement his already overloading emotion. He can see T-Mobile Park overflowing with crazed fans, roaring louder than those last three games of 2021, but with a different outcome.
“All the time,” he said. “That thought of celebrating on the field with your teammates and then popping bottles in the clubhouse. You end that drought and you do it in Seattle, we’ll be legends in Seattle. I’m ready for it.”