It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a season of high reaching emotion, it was a season of familiar apathy, it was a season of sellout crowds and trips to Cooperstown, it was a season of ultimate defeat at the doorstep of potential.
The state of baseball in the Northwest is strong in its own right, but because of a long playoff drought, fans must look beyond the win-loss column for their entertainment and enjoyment, be it an individual player’s success or a unique ballpark experience. That tide might just be turning in Seattle though, and soon enough M’s fans might also relearn the joy of a winning ballclub competing beyond the regular season.
Despite many seasons of the ultimate defeat that befalls all but one team – that is, not being the champion – the Seattle Mariners marketing department and front office must be commended for continuing to produce an overall product that entertains fans through the idyllic Seattle summers. Granted, ‘product,’ in this sense, must be extended to include not just the team, but the stadium, the atmosphere, the giveaways and theme nights, the unique and tasty food, and the plethora of craft brews on tap as well.
This season took all of that to a new level of near-greatness, and in some cases, flat out greatness. It’s time to look back on the season that was 2016 Seattle Mariners Baseball.
Baseball, perhaps more than most professional sports, is adorned with such a sense of history and tradition that – at times – experiencing it at the ballpark can usurp the need to watch a winning team. In recent years, even some of the most ardent supporters of baseball’s age-old traditions have entered the modern era as far as stadium atmosphere is concerned, with the sanctuary Wrigley Field adding a video board as the most recent example.
One advantage the Mariners have, as a relatively young team of 39 years, is that the expectation of this nod to tradition is merely placed alongside the expectation of a fantastically modern atmosphere. That the stadium itself feels relatively brand new after 16.5 years of operation is a huge bonus.
Of course, the stadium wasn’t simply built and left alone. In recent years, the M’s front office has seemed to prioritize additions or upgrades to the stadium over a winning team, sometimes to the chagrin of fans that just want the playoffs back in Seattle. Some examples of the atmosphere that the Mariners have built include:
- Multiple versions of the batter’s eye, including a stand of fir trees, has given way to a simple black wall and now a garden that helps supply stadium food.
- The walls have been brought in slightly, inexplicably turning one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball to the one that led the majors in home runs this year with 233.
- The ‘Pen and Edgar’s Cantina continue to expand on their secondary role as fantastic places to catch a game while not in one’s purchased seats, and their primary role of housing collegiates and fans more interested in the social aspects of going to a ballgame. Pre-game festivities include happy hour priced beers and incredible, unobstructed views of bullpen warmups from nearly field level.
- The Mariners installed what was the largest screen in baseball and were also the first team to incorporate LED stadium lights. These may be small things, but they do add to the fan experience. The LED lights certainly enhance the walkout routine of the closer du jour since they allow for strobing at a moment’s notice.
- The King’s Court is still very much in session. Felix Hernandez wasn’t the dominant ace that he has been in past years, but in its sixth year of existence, the specially priced section that includes T-shirts and ‘K cards’ doesn’t seem to be slowing down. For big games, the section even expands to the upper deck, which is aptly named the ‘High Court.’ Going to the ballpark on a day that Felix pitches is accompanied by ‘Happy Felix Day!’ cheers between fans and still feels like a day you could see history repeat itself with another perfect game.
Adding this special section was a stroke of genius to firm up the franchise status of one of the best to wear the Seattle blue.
In addition to those unique ballpark attributes listed above, Safeco Field houses one of the best and most diverse set of food and drinking options in the majors. Many stadia have specialties, but I personally can’t get enough of a cool Seattle day that comes along with Ivar’s clam chowder and a salmon dog. The Mariners have also boasted the best beer selection in baseball for some time, and with Seattle’s reputation for craft brews, it’s really no surprise.
2016 was Griffey’s Year
2016 will be remembered as a year of almosts for the team on the field, but for the fan base, there were also a few weeks that provided a teaser of ultimate success and a chance to be in the spotlight. Ken Griffey, Jr. is quite simply one of the best to ever play the game. In an era of steroids and big personalities, Griffey had none of the former and plenty of the latter. In July, Jr. was the first Mariner to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame wearing the Seattle cap. Even though his hat is depicted in the forward position on his plaque, not many baseball fans – and none in Seattle – will soon forget the iconic image of him smiling with his hat backwards on the podium that sweltering day in Cooperstown.
Griffey’s day in Cooperstown was accompanied by an impressive amount of media coverage and TV specials (read my account of Cooperstown and the trip from a Mariners’ fan perspective). Perhaps the biggest treat for Seattleites, though, was the Griffey Weekend that the M’s promotional department put together in mid-August. Jr. was joined on the field by other Mariner greats prior to a series with the Angels. There were giveaways galore (including a bobblehead, a replica Hall of Fame plaque, and even a Griffey jersey), video presentations from other baseball greats including Hank Aaron, the first number retirement in Mariners’ history, and of course, some of the ‘bluest skies you’ve ever seen.’
Going into Griffey weekend, the Mariners were 54-53 and had endured some familiar ups and downs throughout the year. Following Griffey’s plea directly to the team and fans to ‘Keep Fighting,’ which became an overnight mantra and trending hashtag in the Pacific Northwest, the team finished the season 32-23 and just barely on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
The Team on the Field
86 wins and 76 losses. There are so many ways to evaluate an MLB season, but ultimately two numbers determine a team’s fate – wins and losses. While 10 games over .500 and playing meaningful baseball into the penultimate day of the season is indicative of a decent season, it’s also hard to ignore the astronomically more important baseball that was still being played into November in the midwest. Those World Series patches glistening, those stadiums packed, and those cities buzzing are a reminder to the other 28 teams that only one team will see ultimate glory and not end the season with a feeling of wanting more.
That said, for the Mariners in particular, it’s important to understand the context. After a blistering end to the 90s and an unmatched start to the 00s, the team has declined and declined hard. There were a few years of near misses followed by too much tinkering, and then finally the decade of disappointment. With that in mind, even the most weathered fans must see positivity where it exists and admit that this year truly was an uptick. In just one year, new GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have solidified the Mariners as legitimate contenders. That’s not to say that pieces of the puzzle have yet to be put in place, or even found, but the upward trend shouldn’t be ignored either.
This season, there were fewer inexplicable losing streaks and fewer games that left fans scratching their heads. Notably, there was less consternation over the blockbuster-signing of Robinson Cano. In 2015, Cano was held back by multiple on and off-field factors that brought about a troubling .287 batting average and a .779 OPS, along with a couple of disappointing mental errors on the basepaths; this was all forgotten in 2016 as his average shot up to just under .300, his OPS was up to .882, and he was a notably sharper and more positive force in the clubhouse. The end of 2016 even saw Robinson Cano refer to the Mariners team as a family, something that will surely do its part to thaw the Seattle Freeze thrown his way, even amidst the dubious rumors of his angst since leaving the Big Apple.
Importantly, the M’s resurgence in 2016 was more than just Robinson Cano pulling his weight. Nelson Cruz, Robbie, Kyle Seager, and Adam Lind all smacked 20+ homers, totalling 132 between them, and the team had an impressive nine players in double digits for HRs. All this offense continued an impressive rise in runs scored by the team year-over-year since 2010 when they bottomed out at 513 runs. The total rose from 656 runs in 2015 to 768 runs in 2016, which helped the Mariners win 10 more games and finish two places closer to first in the AL West.
Similarly, the pitching core improved as a whole, allowing fewer runs (707) than 2015 (726), although well off their incredibly low tally of 2014 (554), which is now looking to be somewhat of a fluke. The staff’s ERA and WHIP also improved slightly since 2015, but it remains obvious that going into the next season, pitching will be the focus of the management and coaching staff.
Looking at 2017
The lookahead to the 2017 season will of course produce a far clearer image once the team reports back to spring training, with an off-season of moves and punditry complete. But the number one question is one of great consternation for Mariners’ Nation: Can Felix Hernandez be once again the dominant pitcher he was from 2009-2014? Over 6 seasons, Felix posted a 2.74 ERA, and a 3.96 K/BB ratio while winning his first Cy Young Award and hurling the Mariners’ first perfect game. Whether he can bounce back from a disappointing and injury-riddled 11-8 season with a sub-standard 3.82 ERA and a measly 1.88 K/BB ratio will be critical to the M’s starting rotation and overall success in 2017.
That said, it also remains to be seen if the 2016 offensive explosion was similarly fluky to the dominance of the pitching staff in 2014. Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto will have to continue to prove themselves as competent leaders of a Major League ship for more than a flash in the pan season to win over we long-suffering fans. And perhaps most importantly, all of these aspects have to coincide, and the team has to play as a cohesive unit to avoid the familiar blunders that send bandwagon fans to the lifeboats faster than a Billy Goat sighting outside Wrigley. (But perhaps not anymore!)
The signs of future success are there, but the Mariners and Seattle fan base have been bitten by the hype machine in the past. Without a hot start to the 2017 season, it could be hard to convince the fan base that the 2016 successes aren’t anomalies, and there could be a repeat of the lulls in attendance seen early last season. If nothing else, the craft beer will be flowing, the chowder will be hot, the grass green, and maybe even the skies blue come April 10th when the M’s return to the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way after a 7-game road trip to start 2017.
Lou Piniella is on the 2017 ‘Today’s Game Era Ballot’ for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Edgar Martinez – namesake of MLB’s Outstanding Designated Hitter Award – has been making recent gains on the normal ballot, with many Hall of Famers making the case for his inclusion part of their own acceptance speeches in recent years. Perhaps another sunny day in Baseball Heaven, followed by the pomp and circumstance of induction ceremonies will provide the fan base, and the team, the bump needed for another 10-win jump and a place in the postseason.