Back in June, I declared this Mariners’ season officially dismal. A month ago when Cliff Lee went to Texas, the season was over; two days ago, with the trade of veteran Mike Sweeney to the Phillies (a contending team!), the team was done. Today, with the firing of the manager and two coaches, this season is officially demolished.
But is there a story to this season, other than how many games they can dive below .500? If there is, it’s a story that starts with a question. What makes a good team play so badly? At first, the losses seemed more like bad luck than anything else. Lee, your star off-season pitching acquisition, starts the season on the DL with a pulled abdominal muscle. Jose Lopez, who broke out last year at second, you have to move him to third to accommodate another big acquisition, Chone Figgins, who as an Angel chewed up Mariner pitching and used his speed to make havoc on the base paths. Lopez is bound to make a few errors as he gets used to the hot corner. Your shortstop, a defensive wizard, gets hurt, and so does your catcher, the one who best handles your pitching staff. Your closer, who was lights out last year, has a couple of blown saves early on. You knew going into the year that your offense was your weak spot, and you have two veterans at DH, Griffey and Sweeney, both of whom were a huge part of the clubhouse turnaround last year. You know what happened to Griffey, and Sweeney went on the DL for his back just as his bat was heating up.
Luck. Bad. All of it.
Still, you look at the bright spots. Ichiro keeps hitting, although once Junior leaves, he doesn’t look comfortable out there. Lopez is learning third. Gutierrez, your extremely talented center fielder continues to turn the other teams’ home runs into fly outs with a lot of hang time. Your replacement shortstop has some great hands, and starts to hit once he gets regular at-bats. Figgins remembers how to steal, if he can remember how to hit and get on base. Over one-third of your losses are by one run, games you were in right until the last at-bat. You remember one of those old baseball saws that gets repeated at the start of every season: Every team wins sixty games. Every team loses sixty games. It’s what you do with the other forty-two that matters.
The problem is, you don’t know which are the other forty-two ahead of time. Was one of them the game against San Diego, when your offense finally broke loose and scored fifteen runs? Or was one of them the miserable error-ridden loss against the Rangers, when the broadcasters gave their most-valuable-player award to “the security guard who predicted it would rain tonight,” but only after a heated debate about whether “the bus driver who took us to the ballpark” deserved it more?
What makes a good team play so badly? Is it the continued disappointment of losing after coming so close to winning? Does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while? Do you psych yourself out by expecting the bad turn of events, the blown save, the good pitch sent over the wall by a slightly better or luckier hitter, the bad umpire call that turns a rally into an inning-over, the grounder that dribbles through the legs, the miscommunication that allows an easy pop fly to drop in no-man’s land? If you keep missing your goal, do you eventually lose faith in each other? Do you hunt for someone, anyone, to blame? Do you devolve into a collection of players, rather than a team?
If you are the leader of this team, do you try to inspire them with ever bigger, brighter, shinier objects? Or do you tell them to hunker down and hang on until the crisis is over, their only goal to survive it?
We’ll see, as this miserable season wears on, and the new manager takes over. In the meantime, I guess if I were that leader, I’d be telling my guys one thing.
If we’re going down, we’re going down swinging.