New Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon says it often: If you want to cross the ocean, you have to take your eyes off the shore.
The likely response of a Mariners fan: Yeah, but can you guarantee the freakin’ boat won’t sink?
As the Mariners’ playoff drought has swelled to 13 years, it has been much safer to doubt than to hope. To believe is to be deceived. That’s what this current Mariners team, more immediately likeable than recent versions, is fighting — an almost oppressive cynicism caused by years of woe.
The 2014 ballclub is off to a solid start. The roster appears better than it has been in years. There’s a new superstar in town, Robinson Cano, and the entire team is drafting behind him. This team actually has swagger, with young talent that has yet to really disappoint you joining veteran talent that can provide moxie and stability.
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It’s a team that has the potential to make you love baseball again.
Except for all that baggage in the way.
This season could turn into an interesting case study about winning back a fan base. While I still believe the Mariners have too many holes to be a true contender, they have enough juice to post their first winning record in five years. They could lay a bridge to contention starting next season, and they could provide plenty of excitement in doing so. But enthusiasm won’t be easily attainable.
McClendon knows. He has been on the job for five months, but he already understands the enormous task of restoring public trust.
“I knew that coming in,” McClendon said. “We have a good fan base. I understand that we’ve been knocked around for quite a while. People in the streets can be very pessimistic, as well as you (media) guys, and probably rightfully so. We just haven’t gotten it done, and this is a results-oriented business. It’s nice to get off to a good start. I knew where we are as a team. I know the improvements we need to continue to make. And I know the attitude on this team.
“I think I have a pretty good pulse on the club. I like where we are. I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but I do know we are going to show up every day and play good, hard, sound, fundamental baseball and do our best to try and win.”
There’s a large portion of the fan base that won’t come back until five minutes after everyone is certain the Mariners are good again. But the funny thing is, for all the skeptics, there’s still a significant faction that remains surprisingly resilient and upbeat.
You’ve seen it over the past week. The Mariners won five of their first seven games, and all of a sudden, there was a buzz. There was hopeful chatter, even though these optimists know this is too small a sample size to compete with the franchise’s lackluster history.
So, like most fan bases, this one is bipolar: angry yet intrigued, impatient yet patient, ready to give up yet unapologetically awaiting sunshine.
We have discussed the Seahawks Effect quite a bit lately. The conversation tends to focus on the pressure facing the Mariners now that the Seahawks have won a championship. If the same ol’ losing product emerges, the tolerance level will be at an all-time low. But there’s another dimension to the Seahawks Effect.
I’ll never forget walking into a bar at Times Square the night before the Super Bowl and talking to a group of Seahawks fans. One was particularly emotional. That night, he was bracing for the tears he knew would come if he saw his team, his city, win its first Super Bowl. And he said it would change sports in the city forever.
“We won’t be a losing city anymore,” the fan said. “We won’t go into every season expecting that something will go wrong, or holding back because we fear we’ll get our hearts broken. We won’t be about playing it safe and putting restrictions on ourselves. The possibilities will be presented to us again.”
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson whittled those thoughts down to a three-word mantra: Why not us?
The Mariners are merely 10 games into a 162-game season, but they’ve adopted Wilson’s mantra, and so have some Mariners fans. It’s not as easy as saying, “If the Seahawks can do it, so can we.” But for all the Mariners pessimism that has developed over more than a decade, the average Seattle sports fan carries the swagger of the Seahawks’ breakthrough with them daily.
Over the past year in local sports, not only did the Seahawks win it all, but the Mariners went all-in by spending $240 million on Cano, the Sounders made Clint Dempsey the highest-paid player in Major League Soccer, and the Huskies lured Chris Petersen, who once seemed unlikely to ever leave Boise State, to Washington.
Why not us?
Why, it is us.
Seattle sports has found its mojo. And the Mariners had better get as much of it as they can.
Some signs of life are there. The ballclub is more entertaining. And the first week at Safeco Field featured a sellout crowd for the opener and another crowd of 38,968 adorned in gold to celebrate Felix Hernandez’s first home start Friday night.
“I think the “Why not us?’ idea is a good idea for them,” Wilson said of the Mariners last week. “It worked for us a little bit. The biggest thing is just having the belief that you can win a lot of games. Baseball is a long season. They’ve done a great job so far. They’ve got the players to do it. Getting Cano really helps, too. I’m excited to see how far they go.”
The Mariners’ struggles can be measured both in how easily some people get excited about them and in how grumpy others get at the premature enthusiasm. In reality, the road to recovery will be long, and it should take a few seasons. You’re talking about a franchise that has fallen from 3.5 million fans at Safeco Field in 2002 to less than half of that, 1.7 million, last season.
It has been a steady, frustrating decline full of drama.
But the boat is in the ocean once again. And it’s not sinking yet.
“You want to compete,” Cano said. “You don’t want to play 162 games and go home. We want to compete and play, and who knows what can happen between now and Oct. 1?”
It’s understandable if you keep looking at the shore. Maybe, though, this is the season to close your eyes and not fear disaster until warned otherwise.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer