It’s happening yet again, right on schedule. The kids are returning to school, the football teams are playing for keeps, and the Mariners are fading from public consciousness.
Of all the challenges facing this polarizing baseball team, here is what it can be condensed to: They need to find a way to remain relevant past Labor Day. Because as of the moment the Huskies kicked off Saturday night, the Mariners officially became an afterthought.
This town is certifiably football crazy. The University of Washington unveiled a sparkling stadium rebuild Saturday by destroying a nationally ranked Boise State team, and look to be more compelling than it has been in years. The Seahawks have elicited an unprecedented Super Bowl-or-bust frenzy, and they’ve come by it honestly.
Even the Sounders, in the seemingly niche sport of soccer, can summons a chanting, maniacal crowd of 67,000 for a meaningful regular-season game.
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The Mariners, meanwhile, limp toward the end of another lackluster season, barely registering in the sporting landscape. It will be their 12th consecutive season out of the playoffs. It will be their fourth straight losing season (and eighth out of the past 10).
Only the transfer of the woeful Astros into the AL West is keeping them from a run at their fourth consecutive last-place finish. But compiling 90-plus losses for the sixth time since 2004 is a possibility, as another offensive meltdown seems to be in process.
It has become an annual rite of late summer — the marginalization of the Mariners. But it is a trend for which they have no one but themselves to blame.
Once the Seahawks opened training camp, it was pretty much a fait accompli. Just try finding any sustained Mariner talk on sports radio once Russell Wilson heaved his first practice pass. Seahawks exhibition games — glorified scrimmages — crush regular-season Mariner games in the ratings. Water-cooler chatter is dominated by Seahawks roster machinations or opinions on whether this will be Keith Price’s year.
Oh, the Mariners were given their annual chance to show that this season would be different. Fans want to believe. They want to buy in, and stay in. Of that I’m convinced. There was that burst of home-run power in spring training that gave hope that this year would be different.
But it hasn’t been, and the summer has fallen into the old, familiar pattern of benign neglect. Each Felix Hernandez start still grabs attention, and the annual parade of youngsters from the minors warrants some hopeful yearning for a brighter future.
It even looked for a time in July that it was all coalescing. A run of eight consecutive victories prompted GM Jack Zduriencik to hold off on wholesale trade-offs at the deadline to see if these Mariners, at full strength, could make some semblance of a run.
But they lost their manager, Eric Wedge, to a scary health ordeal, and could not sustain their success into the stretch drive. And so here we sit, with interest in the team draining by the day, another season of less than 2 million attendance looming at Safeco Field.
It’s especially sad considering it wasn’t that long ago the Mariners owned this town. From 1995 through 2001, when they made the playoffs four times and fielded a consistently charismatic team, the Mariners worked their way to the forefront of fan loyalty and affection. It peaked with an MLB-best 3,540,482 spectators in 2002 — an astonishing 92.8 percent of capacity over 81 games.
That goodwill was squandered long ago, however. Those fans who haven’t yet drifted off into apathy are consumed by frustration.
The Mariners can only win back support in the time-honored fashion — by winning. That holds true whether decisions are being made by the current brain-trust, or if there’s an overhaul at the top. This year is another case study in how the initial intrigue over an infusion of youth can only take you so far. Even a debut as anticipated as Taijuan Walker’s will cease to hold attention once the novelty wears off, if it’s not accompanied by genuine belief in a brighter future on the horizon.
It’s possible to squint in a certain direction and conjure up some hope for next year. If the young talent all matures together. If the apparent breakthroughs by Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak are sustainable. If management opens up and lures free agents like Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Shin-Soo Choo to Seattle.
But that’s all wishful thinking and pipe dreams, good for a fleeting diversion while planning your viewing party for Sunday’s Seahawks opener.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.