BY Art Thiel 03:04PM 07/07/2010

Soft fans? No, it’s mostly about soft teams

Success, deep history make for sports passion; Seattle is light on both

Since the 2001 season, that inexplicable wrinkle in the space-time continuum that permitted them to win 116 games, the Mariners have had four winning seasons and four losing seasons, no playoff appearances and an average season record of 79-83. This season is destined to be another loser.

The franchise has become the acme of mediocrity. TorporTown. The place where fly balls go daily and fresh hopes go annually to die.

But is part of the problem “soft” fans?

Geoff Baker, the Seattle Times writer on the Mariners beat, raised the point in a blog entry this week, predictably creating a stir at a time when whitecaps usually have the summer off.

Sparked by the tepid reception slugger Russell Branyan received Monday upon his first home game after his re-acquisition, Baker wrote, “That general lack of awareness about stuff is what separates some of the fans in this city from those in more established baseball towns.

“Yeah, it hurts to hear it, but it is what it is. Until it changes, the perception of the fans here will remain the same. That this is a ‘soft’ market.”

Maybe so, although I’m not sure what a “soft” market for fans is. If it means we lack a stable of wits who deliberately vomit on children, pee in the concourses and run out of the stands to pummel first-base coaches, yeah, we’re a little shy there. Although if you ask any cop who draws crowd duty at Qwest Field on Seahawks and Sounders game days, I think he or she might suggest the Seattle-area fan base, as regards boorish behavior, has on its rally cap.

But if it means that a higher relative percentage of fans in this market don’t seem to be as wrapped around the axle of the Mariners franchise as their counterparts elsewhere, that may be true too.

A part of the “softness” may be found as well in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, larger markets that, like Seattle, have traditions of doing things outdoors that reach back well before the arrival of big-time spectator sports.

If, for instance, you decided Wednesday morning that the pitching matchup between Doug Fister and the Royals’ Kyle Davies was less than compelling, there are three national parks within a three-hour drive of downtown Seattle, as well as a sound and an ocean.

Choice of amusements aside, generalities about attitudes are always dubious because they are unknowable, despite their increase in popularity.

The primary purveyors of instant, sweeping conclusions, cable TV news and talk radio, love to ask the same sort of impossible questions of reporters in the field:

“What is the mood there?”

“What do the (name of city) fans think?”

“How will fans deal with this?”

As if there is a reporter so omniscient, or a software widget so reliable, and a population so monolithic that a socio-rectal temperature can be taken, read and understood for a given group on any subject based on four or five anecdotes.

Just as significant regarding the attitudes of sports fans, there is no such thing as a baseball town. Or a football town. Or a basketball town.

Television and mass media have homogenized most of America, more or less, into the same place of cultural conditioning — we embrace winners and shun losers.

Certainly, there are franchises whose traditions and roots are more substantial — the Packers in Green Bay, the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Yankees in New York, the Cubs in Chicago, the Lakers in Los Angeles, etc., plus all the college towns that get their civic identities from 20-year-old PE majors.

But the intensity of sports engagement is mostly based on a combination of longevity across generations as well as some degree of success. Seattle is light on both, and the Mariners are almost feathery.

All of the major Seattle-area teams have had periods where sellouts and or top-five attendance were the norm, and the MLS-infant Sounders have joined that designation. And I would submit that the Mariners’ ability in 2009 to draw 2.2 million fans despite the ghastliness of 2008 is further testament to public resilience, not disengagement.

Regarding the team, however . . .

Ignoring the franchise’s futile early years and focusing on the last decade, the combination of a popular, publicly funded outdoor stadium, MLB revenue sharing and a four-team division has leveled the competitive landscape like never before. Yet the Mariners have whiffed.

Between the dreadnought Yankees’ titles of 2000 and 2009, seven franchises won the World Series and another five made it to the championship round. That means nearly half of MLB made it to the party.

The Mariners remain one of only three teams never to arrive, and for whatever it’s worth, the other two, Texas and Washington, are doing better these days than the M’s.

Certainly there are franchises with longer droughts, such as Wednesday night’s opponent, Kansas City. But the object of major professional spectator sports is not to run with the Chihuahuas. It is to run with the big dogs.

It has been a long time, in dog or human years, since that happened.

Mariners fans aren’t soft.

They’re numb.


  • Nightslider

    No were still stuck with Chuck Armstrong, Howard Lincoln,and a nascent owner who hasn’t gotten curious to see what he purchased. Or does he just rely on Iciros descriptions that all is well with the team and that he is in charge? IS anyone?