You could make a strong case that the current face of the Mariners’ franchise, generically speaking, is frozen in a rictus of frustration.
Or that it has a vacant look of apathy, like an angst-ridden teenager who is rebelling against their parents.
Perhaps one day soon a savior will emerge and lead the Mariners to unachieved heights. They certainly have a deeper inventory of candidates than at any time in recent memory. That includes three right out of central casting — Kyle Lewis, Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic.
For the right person — the future face of the Seattle franchise — a lifetime of adoration and adulation awaits. Because there is nothing that matches the allure of a long-dormant team that finally gets a taste of dominance. The leader of that still-hypothetical revival in Seattle will have restaurant tabs accounted for in perpetuity. The baseball-loving populace in these parts possesses a hunger for relevance that has sat unsatiated for two decades, and so it has reached a stage that is a magnitude beyond ravenous.
Don’t let anyone tell you Seattle isn’t a baseball town. The eight-year stretch from 1996 to 2004 in which they averaged 3 million fans a season says otherwise. The fervor is just waiting to be reawakened.
We certainly got a taste of that euphoria mixed with hysteria in 1995. It may be hard for younger folk to fathom just what a big deal the Mariners were around here after the miracle run to the division title and the most exciting playoff series I’ve ever seen.
But for current Mariner fans, the memory is either nonexistent (specifically, those who can’t legally buy a beer), fading or a mocking reminder that the best run in franchise history has yet to be replicated, two decades later. Those who were teenagers holding “Refuse To Lose” placards at the Kingdome are now settling into middle age, many with kids of their own longing for a little playoff fever.
Yet, the shiniest Faces of the Franchise in Mariners history emerged from that era, which we’ll call “golden” only by comparison to what came before and after. It was an embarrassment of riches when it came to charismatic, uber-talented members of the ballclub.
The leader, of course, was Ken Griffey Jr., who not only was the face of the Mariners, but the face of baseball, and for a time, the face of pro sports. But Junior, with his electric smile, youthful charm and backward cap, had company.
There was Randy Johnson, glowering malevolently over the top of his glove, the unruly mop of hair flying hither and yon with the force of his delivery. There was Edgar Martinez, all stately elegance. There was, for a time, Alex Rodriguez, his polished brilliance yet to be transformed into smarmy illegitimacy.
I haven’t even gotten to Lou Piniella, whose face — contorted into rage over an umpire’s call or a crinkly grin when schmoozing in the dugout with “Uncle Lee” Elia, was as iconic as anyone’s. With the possible exception of Jay Buhner’s bald dome, of course. Try to find the Sports Illustrated cover of Buhner and his son gnawing on a pine-tar-slathered Louisville Slugger to see what I’m talking about.
What gave all these franchise faces heft was the accompanying success of the team — four playoff berths from 1995 until 2001, the only four in the 45-year history of the Mariners. Yet none resulted in titles, or even American League pennants. The seemingly unstoppable momentum of 1995 ran out against Cleveland in the American League Championship Series. The ’97 squad, with four Hall of Fame-caliber players in their prime, couldn’t get out of the first round. And the 2000 and 2001 squads, the latter after cruising to an American League-record 116 wins, both got stymied by the Yankee dynasty.
Ever since, it has been barren in Seattle, though the franchise had plenty of star power to represent it. There was Ichiro, playing a game with which we were not familiar, to paraphrase Bobby Jones’ famous summation of Jack Nicklaus. During Ichiro’s decade at the height of his skills with the Mariners, there was no one in the entire sport who excited the senses like he did, slapping out hits and patrolling the outfield with grace and an arm that was something out of “Star Wars.”
Which reminds me — no discussion of the faces of the Mariners would be complete without a nod to the voice of the franchise. The dulcet tones of Dave Niehaus, frenetic in victory and demonstrably peeved when warranted (which was often), were, and still are, synonymous with the Mariners from the very first pitch back in 1977. None of their stars would have shined nearly as brightly without Dave’s ability to make their highlights come alive.
Ichiro’s run from 2001 to 2010 segued into the magnificence of Felix Hernandez, though unrequited by much team success. Hernandez needed a playoff run to truly spread the gospel of his dominance, but the King remained largely our little secret to all but avid fans.
And now, there is a vacancy to be the next face of the Mariners. Truth be told, a franchise needs more than a face. It should be imbued with a heart, a soul, a conscience and maybe even a resolve.
That’s what the Mariners are in search of. If and when they can find it in the right person (or people), and find it to be the sort of countenance and bearing that filters throughout the ballclub, that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, that commands respect and invites affection — then all their faces can break into a wide grin.