BY Art Thiel 09:29AM 04/08/2013

Thiel: Mariners’ biggest April series ever — Astros

Mariners’ 3-4 start revealed little, but now comes the test: Houston Astros, newbies to AL West, must be throttled regularly for M’s to stay out of the basement.

Franklin Gutierrez has had a good first week of the season, but his health is just one of many mysteries among the 2013 Mariners. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The last time Major League Baseball did Seattle a solid was in 1994, when each league realigned into three divisions that put only three other teams in the American League West, none of them powers. Fans witnessed how the Mariners leaped upon that expressway: Four times in the subsequent 18 years, Seattle made the playoffs.

As you catch your breath, consider that the Mariners were three times the kings of baseball’s smallest division. That sounds almost healthy until it is realized that the Rangers, Angels and A’s have each won the AL West five times in the same period. Getting beat out by teams from two of the nation’s top five markets is two things; but getting beat by Oakland in an intolerable third thing, like being posted up and dunked on by Bart Simpson.

MLB apparently recognized that its leaky tire in the Northwest needed to be pumped up again. In 2011, it announced another solid for Seattle: The move of the Houston Astros from the 16-team National League to the 14-team American League, which had the added dividend of bringing peace to millions whose symmetry obsession previously allowed them little sleep because of baseball’s unbalanced form.

Even though the Astros were nestled in the short-sheeted West, baseball made up for it by assuring the old neighborhood, mainly the Mariners, that the Astros would be no trouble because they were very bad. With their $25 million payroll and back-to-back seasons of 106 and 107 losses, the Astros were the worst team since the Ben & Jerry early years of ash-flavored ice cream.

Now that we’ve had a week of regular season baseball, the Astros’ ineptness, at 1-6, seems to be true. After the meteor-to-Chelnyabinsk anomaly in the opener, an 8-2 win over the Rangers, Texas responded with 7-0 and 4-0 victories, followed by Oakland’s 8-3, 6-3 and 9-3 bashings in Houston over the weekend.

Now comes Monday, the first encounter between the Astros and Mariners as division rivals. It is the home opener for Seattle, where more fans have been lost over a 10-year period than fans of any team in any major American team sport. Having been last in the AL West for seven of the past nine seasons, the Mariners were spurned as well by the big-timers in the free-agent market.

As if the alienation wasn’t thick enough, the Mariners aggressively resisted the potential building of a new arena to host the return of the NBA next to their shop in SoDo.  They may have had their reasons, but in opposing the potential return of the Sonics, the Mariners volunteered to an already dismayed community to put on horns and tails to go with the pitchfork.

While a series of pleasant results in spring training raised some hopes, the typical remaining Mariners fan has arms tightly locked across the chest, and a foot is tapping. Yes, Safeco Field is newly tricked out, with closer fences, new bars and a video screen larger and more valuable than Monaco. But the remodel is paid for partly by ticket prices raised unannounced in the off-season for reasons not discernible in the standings. A talking-buffalo TV commercial rarely is sufficient to heal the blackened heart of a baseball fan asked for too much for too little in return.

Predictably, nothing definitive emerged in the first week of play. This group of Mariners may have more mystery attached to more players than any previous edition. The 3-4 mark against two above-average teams can be taken multiple ways. The Mariners have hit nine homers in seven games, a notable uptick, but the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 pitchers in the rotation — Monday’s starter Joe Saunders, rookie Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan — have given up collectively 15 earned runs in 15 innings.

So, given the tentative start and a fan base whose skepticism is weapons-grade, the argument is made here that the Astros series is just about the biggest April series in the franchise’s turgid tradition.

The Mariners have expended considerable promotional capital on the theme that fan “loyalty will be rewarded this year.” For these guys, that’s a stout commitment. So to lose two or three games out of the box to the limp Astros screams, “Do not take us seriously!”

Yes, we all know it’s early. But as Yogi Berra once said about something else, “It gets late early out here.” When a sports team has rounded that emotional bend with its fans where disbelief is the protective reaction, all it takes is one bad thing to unleash the dragons.

The opposite is visible with the Seahawks. At the moment, Pete Carroll could invite local news anchor Jean Enerson to a tryout for the backup QB job, and most fans would provide the benefit of the doubt. “She hasn’t played in a while, but she’s been around this offense a long time,” would be the thinking.

The Mariners need to know that while expectations haven’t been raised, MLB’s introduction of the Astros into the AL West has lowered the floor. To start going up, a team first has to stop going down.


  • Jamo57

    Thanks for the multiple belly laughs for a Monday morning Art. Either you were really on your game today or maybe the Mariners provide that much material. My hope is the former but my suspicions are the latter.

    • art thiel

      It is a treasure house. But I would prefer winning,

  • Please define your sentences using solid.

    • Trygvesture

      huh? Dbl Huh?

    • Tian Biao

      it means a solid favor, but the word favor is dropped. but yeah – the Astros. Bring em on! But then again, a few years ago, I thought we would regularly thump the Padres too.

  • Matt712

    I wouldn’t say that just this first home-stand will determine how often my iPod is playing vs an AM radio while I BBQ this summer, but it is fascinating how much this season has set up to be such a ‘make-or-break’ year.

    The M’s organization is desperately hedging their bet with what amounts to a modest home remodel – a new fence in the yard, a new kitchen, and a brand new flat-screen TV. In the mean time, half the line-up is this ‘core young talent’ (I use the term skeptically) that we’ve been waiting to see break out. This is the season where they must define themselves as MLB stars, journeymen, or busts.

    If that high-res Safeco screen was meant to be a dazzling distraction for the Mariners’ curious tech-savvy fan base, the irony shouldn’t be lost on its ability to magnify the sweat on Dustin Ackley’s brow when he’s looking at an 0-2 count with runners in scoring position

    • art thiel

      Matt, obviously no series is make-or-break until the last week in September, but my point was about cred for the franchise to deliver on the promise that loyalty will be rewarded this year. A lot of fans who still hold interest are much more easily tipped away by small things. Sort of like a tree with shallow roots.

  • Effzee

    I am trying to remain hopeful (sound of Pinocchio nose extending)… But man, there’s no precedent to think decisions by Choward Lincstrong carry anything but the anti-Midas touch. They absolutely refused to address the power-bat situation for more than a decade. They traded away better than average starting pitching when they had a pitching friendly park, for guys who either aren’t even on the roster a year or two later and a guy coming off of injury with a career .281 average who has hit more than 11 home runs twice in 6 major league seasons. The Angels are extremely well-run and have had much recent success. How badly do with think they want to help the M’s? Then they sacrificed the only advantage the team had by bringing in the fences instead of seriously pursuing relevant, current major league hitters, while also piece-mealing a pitching staff together that is supposed to hang on until the kid pitchers in the farm system are ready. How many Big Three’s have we waited for in the past? How many have ever panned out? And how many of those that panned out did so before the M’s lost patience and traded them? The upper management (above JZ) never have, and never will, care about the actual results of the games. They have absolutely no idea how to build a winning franchise, so instead they are trying to make attending Safeco field entertaining again, in order to not lose even more fans. I hope I am wrong, but after bearing witness to this franchise’s utter, dramatic failure for 30+ years, there is nothing that makes me think we aren’t going to be losing 90 games again, but this time by exciting scores like 9-7 and 13-10. What will be really sad is if their decisions end up sabotaging their current (and only) prized possession in King Felix.

    • art thiel

      You summarized well the longtime fans’ lament. I just can’t keep writing the a same thing, so let’s make the Astros series a big deal.

      • Effzee

        Haha, yeah. I hear that. Go M’s! Come on Astros, suck as advertised! That’s right, right? Lol…

  • Trygvesture

    I admire your capability to go to the well and ‘splain it all over again- for the umpteenth time. Thanks. You bring a fine reading experience to the followers of the clownship of baseball.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Tryg. Clownship of baseball. I like that.

  • Rob in Stanwood

    Art, you’ve done it again. In the same sentence, you diagnosed me with “weapons-grade skepicism” and the M’s with a “turgid tradition.” Awesome! Thanks again for great writing and more of your keen incites. I couldn’t stop laughing.

    • art thiel

      Always good to know fans of language are still out there fighting the battle with me.