For years — decades now, in fact — the Mariners have clung to the mystique of 1995, and it’s hard to blame them. It was almost cinematic in the way it unfolded, a true rags-to-riches baseball story with the anxiety of the stadium battle as a backdrop. The creative tension was irresistible: Win, or leave town.
In the ensuing years, however, 1995 fatigue has developed. When the pinnacle of Mariners baseball is more than a quarter century old, fans are understandably impatient for a new drama to supplant it. Instead, they’ve gotten an endless playoff drought that just serves to highlight the gaping hole in Seattle baseball lore.
Which brings us to the present day, in which the new ‘95 might finally be happening in front of our disbelieving eyes. Yes, this potential Mariners playoff run remains a longshot, even after another rousing win on Tuesday; but the improbability is what gives it its heft. If the M’s can pull this off — and it’s a gigantic, Dae-Ho Lee-sized “if” — it would be the most riveting, captivating, fantastical baseball saga in Seattle since the M’s ran down the Angels in ’95.
Just think what it would take to get to that point. The year began with the unsettling Kevin Mather outburst in spring training that set a depressing mood from the outset. Injuries have beset them throughout the season, and COVID absences have struck them as well. Innumerable times, they’ve seemed on the verge of tumbling out of relevance, most recently when they went 2-4 on the last homestand to fall four games behind three teams in the wild-card race, with just 16 to play.
At that point, it was apparent that only a miracle would keep them alive. I tweeted that it would take a 14-2 finish for the Mariners to have any hope at all. It had been a great ride that extended longer than it had a right to, but it sure looked like the fun was over.
Turned out, it was only just beginning. The Mariners went 8-2 on their road trip, with some stirring comeback wins, then came home and routed the A’s on Monday. Then on Tuesday, in another unbearably tense game, they held off the A’s, 4-2, on a gritty start on two day’s rest by Tyler Anderson in place of struggling Yusei Kikuchi.
They are, amazingly, just four wins away from that 14-2 finish, with four to play (unless a 163rd game is required). To reprise the slogan of 1995, they simply refuse to lose. And so they still have a fighting chance, with maybe the wiggle room of one more loss.
Or maybe not. They could win out and still fall short, because they are still grappling with three teams. The permutations and combinations will give you a migraine headache — but it’s the good kind of headache, if that’s possible. Just trying to figure out whom the Mariners should root for in the current Blue Jays-Yankees series requires the input of a Harvard probabilities professor.
If the Mariners end their 19-year playoff drought by running down three teams with a 2 ½ week surge in which every game is a virtual must-win, it will be the stuff of folklore. If they increase the degree of difficulty by needing a one-game playoff (shades of 1995, again) to get to the one-game wild-card playoff, so much the better.
Even if the Mariners fall short, they have provided a great gift this September — the gift of contention, of games that matter in September. I can’t honestly say that the city is electrified like it was in ’95, at least not yet; the crowds on this homestand have been disappointingly sparse. But this being 2021, there are so many factors dictating attendance that I won’t jump to any conclusions. Suffice it to say, it’s hard to shatter the disillusionment of 20 years with one hot streak — but this is the way to do it.
Yes, the Mariners have teased before over the past two decades with periodic forays into the fringe of contention. And this may again be perceived as a tease if they finish out of the playoffs. The difference this year is that they aren’t tiptoeing or meandering down the stretch, but finishing with a torrid surge. To me, it has a different feel — one that makes you think they might be on the verge of making it a perennial occurrence instead of a one-off. Particularly with the No. 1-ranked farm system ready to pump in new talent.
Scott Servais, who should be putting a stranglehold on AL Manager of the Year, said before Tuesday’s game that the Mariners players are neither overly excited, nervous or psyched by being in the thick of contention on Sept. 28. Not visibly, anyway, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
“I’m very proud to say I really don’t notice anything a whole lot different,’’ he said. “Probably before I got into this job, I would think like maybe the normal person would — ‘Oh, they’re coming in the ballpark today and they’re locked in. They’re intense. They’re doing everything they can to win this game.’
“Kind of a consistent message that I have with the guys when we have a hitters’ meeting or different things like that is keep doing what you’re doing. Keep screwing around. Keep having fun. Keep getting on each other.
“This is a fun game and we need to enjoy it. Our guys have enjoyed it and that has not changed. They’ll be in there, they’ll be watching some game on TV. Half will be in the lunch room eating, getting on each other about fantasy football and everything else that goes on in the world. That’s what we’ve done all year long. Why would we change now?”
What the Mariners do want to change is the perception of their franchise, by adding another chapter — at long last — to their admittedly meager history of success. And this chapter reads like pulp fiction, but it’s very, very real.
No need to denigrate, downgrade or forget what the Mariners accomplished in 1995; it was truly magnificent. It just needs some company.