Here's the No. 1 challenge for Jack Zduriencik this offseason: Make the Mariners relevant again.
For a few glorious days in August, the Mariners recaptured the city’s buzz. All anyone wanted to talk about was Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, as riveting an event as this team has provided in years.
But the rush was short-lived, culminating with the well-executed “Supreme Court” tribute to Hernandez in his follow-up start. Fans swooned over King Felix, and it was, again, an electric atmosphere at Safeco Field.
Shortly thereafter, however, the perfecto began to fade from the forefront of consciousness, the Mariners went back to being the same frustrating, and frankly, boring team they have been for far too long, which is where we find them as they return home Monday for the final three games of the season.
Here’s the No. 1 challenge for Jack Zduriencik this offseason: Make the Mariners relevant again. They need to send out a team that compels people to care — not just the hard-core zealots who would care if they lost 120, but the casual fans who checked out a long time ago.
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The hard truth is that the Mariners have once again lost this town to the Seahawks.
Since the NFL season opened, the M’s have barely registered on sports radio, or, more tellingly, in water cooler talk. Even the Sounders have made inroads in the “buzz” arena — and speaking of arenas, two more pro teams could be on the way. The Mariners are in danger of dropping further in the hierarchy.
That’s a shame, because for a good, long time — from the miracle of 1995 through the 116 wins of 2001 — this had, against all odds, become a Mariner-centric region.
The attrition has been slow, steady and inexorable: From their attendance peak of 3.54 million in 2002, the Mariners will be under 2 million this season for the second year in a row. They are at 1,677,990 (26th among 30 MLB teams) with three home dates to go. In 2002, they attracted 43,709 fans per game, tops in all of baseball; so far this year, 21,512 — almost precisely half as many each night.
To execute a 50 percent attendance drop in a decade — and heading ever downward — takes some really special alienation. The Mariners have obliged with seven last-place finishes in nine years, and 11 years and counting without a postseason appearance in baseball’s only four-team division (until next year, when the Houston Astros arrive).
But it’s more than just the losses. It’s losing with a team that for the past several years has been the most offensively challenged in baseball. The Mariners will score the fewest runs in the American League for the fourth year in a row, and only the pitiful Astros are keeping them from finishing dead last in the majors for the third straight season (the two years before that they were 28th and 26th). To compensate, the Mariners will once again take the Triple Crown: Last among all 30 teams in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Yes, they’re heading in the right direction. The 610 or so runs they’ll score this year represent a gain of about 50 runs from last year, and 100 from the historic ineptitude of 2010. The Mariners have some promising young players. But far too often, their brand of baseball is just agonizing in the long stretches of uneven or barren offense. For the cognoscenti, it’s been exciting to watch the young players go through their peaks and valleys, but not every fan wants to make an investment in development. At least not a permanent one. Eventually, they want results.
There are three factors that lead fan bases to embrace a team. The first, and most obvious, is winning. The Mariners may well be inching toward respectability. I think they’ve made some advancement this year, though not as much as I would have liked to have seen. This will be the most important winter of Zduriencik’s tenure (and I’m assuming he will still be in charge this winter; for the Mariners to institute yet another regime change would be asinine).
There’s no reason the Mariners can’t, with the right moves, make the same leap forward as the A’s (who were 74-88 last year) or the Orioles (who were 69-93), both of whom seem headed for the postseason. Nothing like a little contention to make fans take notice.
The second factor is an exciting team. This is where the Mariners are lacking right now, and one of many reasons I expect they will adjust the fences at Safeco Field before next season to help generate some more offense. If and when various young players break through to stardom, the excitement meter will ramp up accordingly. But that’s no guarantee — just ask the Pirates or Royals.
The third factor is a charismatic team, one filled with personalities that people relate to and like. In their glory years, the Mariners had this covered beautifully with characters like Jay Buhner, Joey Cora, Bret Boone and Mike Cameron, not to mention Ken Griffey Jr.
This is something you can’t force, by the way. It happens organically, and sometimes sneaks up on you, as was the case with the 2010 World Series champion Giants, a wild and crazy crew that totally won over the fan base, a love affair that is unabated.
The Mariners were there once (without the World Series part). Until they get back, they’re going to continue to struggle to be heard in a noisy marketplace.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org