BY Art Thiel 05:45PM 05/08/2013

Thiel: One thing to lose to A’s, but outdrawn?

The latest Mariners’ shortcoming, starting pitching, is the another demonstration in the club’s abiility to stand still for long periods. Fans, however, appear more mobile.

Joe Saunders, this year’s Kevin Millwood — a $6.5 million patch. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

The Oakland A’s are the closest thing to a rival for the Mariners, the Mariners are as close to .500 (16-19) as they’ve been since early on, the weather is forecasted to be as close to summer as May gets around here. And the three weekend games against the A’s are the only ones at Safeco in the first 24 days of the month. Close enough to get you to attend?

Or, as Dr. Seuss might have put the question: Do you need to be given a bat, a cat, or a cat in a beard hat?

The question comes about because the Mariners recently hit the bottom of the major league baseball attendance standings — a 17-game average of 17,852 — a milestone believed to be a first in Safeco’s history.

And that included crowds of 30,000-plus on giveaway nights for Dustin Ackley bats as well as the beard hats, the quirky chapeaus that were as inexplicable as they were popular. Sort of the Munenori Kawasaki of fashion.

Can free kittens be far behind?

Kansas City and Cleveland since have sneaked under the Mariners average, partly due to inclement weather, but that is minimal salve. The Mariners are being outdrawn by the A’s in Oakland, a notoriously baseball-resistant town, and by the Rays in Tampa and the Marlins in Miami, both of which are in Florida, a state that always has believed the baseball season ends April 1; drug-running being the only year-round athletic event enjoyed by all.

The Mariners are even being outdrawn — not to mention outplayed — by the Astros in Houston, which was ordered out of the National League and granted refugee status by the American League West, thanks to pressure from the United Nations, whose only alternative was Uzbekistan.

Seattle’s franchise nadir was reached April 29, when 9,818 attended a series opener against Baltimore. Yes, it was a cold Monday school night, but 10 years ago the Mariners would get that number for a poetry reading by Ichiro. In Japanese. In a car.

When baseball teams promote throwback nights, crowds under 10,000 aren’t what they mean. But for you kid-lets and newcomer-lets, intimate gatherings were a long, distinct part of the Seattle baseball tradition.

For their first 13 years in the Kingdome, the Mariners didn’t have a single year that averaged more than 17,000 a game. Even in the fabled breakthrough year of 1995, the count was 22,655.

But that summer six weeks of good baseball was so intoxicating that less than four years later, a publicly subsidized, $538 million stadium was open for business, and the Mariners appeared set for approximately infinity, leading all of baseball in 2002 with 3.5 million customers.

Turns out they don’t make infinity like they used to.

While every remaining member of the secret society of Mariners fans — they do walk among us — knows the decade-long litany of decay, a new sore has developed: Starting pitching.

Behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the veteran hires of Joe Saunders (one year, $6.5 million) and Aaron Harang (two years, $12 million, but Mariners pay only $1 million, with option on second year) and the call-up of rookie Brandon Maurer, haven’t worked out so well. None are terrible, just inconsistent. But it is the desperate need for their stop-gap presences in 2013 that is the vexation.

They are starters because Brandon Morrow, Cliff Lee, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas are not. The five are starters of average or better major league talent who the Mariners have traded in the past five years primarily for offensive players who did not or have not to date worked out. (The Mariners also caught a bad break with the arm soreness of promising young starting pitcher  Erasmo Ramirez.)

Obviously there remains hope for Justin Smoak (Lee) and Jesus Montero (Pineda) to become major league average hitters, as is Kendrys Morales (Vargas). But there is little dispute that, to this point, that the sale of pitching assets to fix hitting deficits has allowed the Mariners only to tread water. It’s better than drowning, but another disturbing  example of the apparent inability to make other than incremental progress.

The invitations to spring training of veteran pitchers Jon Garland, 33, and Jeremy Bonderman, 30, to be this year’s Kevin Millwood, 38, were signals that the absences of the traded, prime-time vets were not going to be filled by the supposed wealth of talent in the farm system. Then the club cut Garland, who was picked up by the Rockies, for whom he is 3-2 with a 4.75 ERA in six starts over 36 innings. Bonderman is building arm strength in AAA Tacoma and remains a possibility.

Nobody who knows baseball was expecting the Mariners pitching to be the 2009 Phillies. The rotation still could work itself out. But because the offense — eight hits in the past two games in Pittsburgh — still can’t carry its weight, the Mariners remain lopsided, with too few carrying too many.

Lopsided is no way to roll.

Nor is it a way to attract customers. The fading constituency has seen so much of the same for so long that they have pushed back, locked elbows and turned for the door.

Thanks for the beard hat, they say. Keep the kitties. See you someday.


  • What? You mean “flexible ticket pricing” wasn’t a great idea after all?

    • art thiel

      Only with flexible fans. As opposed to those bent out of shape.

      • just passing thru

        flexible fans with flexible wallets who don’t mind a flexibly talented team.

  • Leon Russell

    Not to worry.

    This Saturday is “Tom Wilhelmsen Train Engine Night.”

    Then Sunday comes “Aquafina Little League Day Kids Cap and EQC Mother’s Day Bracelet.”

    With marvelous gifts like those, there will surely be 30,000-plus at each game.
    The M’s have sold a lot of tickets to each of those games already.

    • art thiel

      Bracelet. Ballcap. Beard hat. Somewhere here lurks a pending L’il Abner cartoon.

      • Trygvesture

        featuring Joe Mxfplbjkds (sp?) as … president? CEO? Or, what’s the fall over the cliff with no bottom?

  • Leon Russell

    To be fair, it’s not just the M’s who are having problems selling tickets. There have been several recent stories like this one about teams using Groupon to sell discounted tickets, and the price of secondary market tickets being way below face value.

    “Experts say sports fans are likely to see many such offers: Groupon, which featured Yankees tickets Tuesday for as much as 54% off, announced a partnership with Major League Baseball in November. Other sites have pulled in the occasional sports deal too: LivingSocial currently has Los Angeles Dodgers tickets for 29% off, and Travelzoo offered a presale of Mets tickets in March before they were available to the general public. There’s also sports-focused, which works with ticket-resale sites to offer deals including 43% off San Francisco Giants tickets and 41% off Chicago Cubs seats.”

    “… For example, the Yankees Groupon prices Terrace Level seats at $22 for upcoming Monday and Tuesday games against the Cleveland Indians. Seats in the same section for recent weeknight Yankees games sold for as little as $3…” [on the secondary market.]

    $3 to see a game at new Yankee Stadium. The m’s problem is very simple — their ticket prices are WAY too high. They need to get serious with that “dynamic ticket pricing” and start discounting tickets down to that $3 level the day of the game. That’s how you get attendance up for mid-week games. You can’t give away cheap trinkets every game.

  • Leon Russell
  • Trygvesture

    The point, however, isn’t that other franchises are discounting tickets, or that they are selling fewer seats. Point is, the M’s are the worst. In the cellar. Bottom feeders. Furthermore, their drop has been precipitous, unlike any other in pro sports history. All the way to the very, very bottom of the well. They have simply been so poorly presided over as a MLB franchise that` they have had same-old/same-old on the field for longer than fans can bear. And, it is nobody’s fault but theirs: ownership and the top two clowns trying to function in misplaced careers. Guys in nothing but the wrong job. Bumper car drivers stuck in the corner. Every time they take the wheel.

    It is just as obvious as rain in Seattle. They are incompetent in their jobs– bad product, bad relations with the fans, bad relations with the community, obstreperous in presenting and sustaining their gaffs. Worse, they whined and cried and ended up with beautiful Safeco under their purview, given to them as a gift from the public, a trust from us. WE landed them on third base — and think they hit a triple. And so they stay on, successful only in sustaining their failure to build a successful franchise, a communty gem.

    Can someone reprint the “hot seat” promises from the clownship pilots, Chuck and Howie? It should hang from the rafters where the pennants ought to be.

    Step up, you two: resign for the good of the community. It’s tax-money thievery not to hand it off to somebody who is up to the task.

    • I especially like the bumper car analogy :-). Reminds me of an old joke: “Did you hear that the Mariners are sponsoring a hydroplane this year? It’s called Miss Management.”

    • art thiel

      Bumper cars in the corner. Well said.

      I’ll see if I can find the hot seat column.

  • Colin Powell

    “…When 9,818 attended a series opener against Baltimore.” Er, I think you misspoke. If I’m not mistaken, the 9,818 is not the actual attendance. It includes pre-sold tickets to no-shows, as does the 17-game average of 17,852. N’est-ce pas?

    • art thiel

      C’est vrai. That is the tickets sold. However, no team in MLB gives in-house counts. So in order to do comparisons, we have only the tickets-sold count across the game.

      • Colin Powell

        Your mission, O Great One, is to uncover just how many no-shows there really are. (Or are not, as the case may be.) Even if it’s just ten percent, that means only 8836.2 diehards/comps actually showed up. If we’re going to compare current, pathetic, beard-hatless attendance figures to those halcyon daze of perennial Kingdome vacancy, we should at least be comparing Brendan Ryans and Robert Andinos to Mancho Bernhardts and Jose Baezs.

  • maqman

    Damn Art you’re getting to be one of my favorite forms of entertainment. Of course I’m 76 and live in England where it rains twice as often as Seattle, so I don’t get out much any more. For the downers, reflect on the fact that the M’s are tied with the Angels for the 14th most home runs in MLB and ahead of Oakland (even if The Commish gives them back the one the umps stole).

    • art thiel

      Keeping up while in the UK? Good for you. You win today’s long-distance prize: Two Mariners tickets. Second place: Four (ba-dum-bum).

      • Actually I’ll be in Seattle on the 22nd but only between flights on the way back to the UK from visiting my spawn in Spokane. If I knew you were so generous I’d have booked a layover.

  • Jack Mama

    They could fill the stadium by one simple solution which falls back on the owners. Invest money in the damn team! It seems like they rarely try to really improve the team by bringing in free agents. This club has needed some offense for years. I went to 2 games last month in San Francisco and the atmosphere of the crowd was electric (even on a Wednesday afternoon game it was packed). The complete opposite of going to a Mariners game essentially.

    • art thiel

      Jack, as I said above, they don’t want to come here. Hamilton, Hunter, Upton . . . they know about the park, the geographic distance and the ownership.

  • jafabian

    M’s have been losing too long for fans to jump on a good two week run. And April was an ugly month for them. The probelms they had against the Astros should not have been. Hopefully they’re on the right path finally. But then, fans were waying that in 2009 when they won 85 games.

  • Effzee

    You mean their theory that bells and whistles and giveaways and the wholesome, completely sterile Safeco atmosphere is enough to draw fans proves to be FALSE? Who woulda thunk it?!? Hopefully, they are realizing the connection between a quality product and attendance figures. I believe JZ is actually smart. He is just hindered by Chuckenhowie’s relentless meddling. If they can keep their damned hands off for just a little while and let JZ do his job without telling him, for example, that Guit needs to keep going out there every time he is even marginally healthy, we may actually make some progress.

    • art thiel

      I think they get the connection. But it took them a long time to recognize that veteran FA hitters don’t want to come here, unless they are seriously overpaid above the market.

      The 2001 season may have done more harm than good

  • notaboomer

    it’s just not the same without jeff cirillo at third.

  • notaboomer

    throwback beer price night is in order. $5 pints and free metro service to/from game. fill the joint.

    • Tian Biao

      yes! and they could combine the cheap beer with a disco demolition night. the fans would love it! I have a couple old records to throw on the pile.

      but seriously – the best suggestion is to reduce ticket prices. a lot. It’s the demand curve from econ 101: price goes down, demand goes up. More people means more energy in the park, and – more important for the Ms bosses – more concessions sold. It’s a no-brainer, but it probably won’t happen. These guys never lower the prices of anything.

    • artthiel

      Throw in a beard hat, and I’m sitting with you.

  • Scoop70

    I’ve been a Mariners fan since 1982, when I was 11, which means — like many — I stuck through many, many lean years and rejoiced when the Mariners started winning in the 1990s. I love Safeco Field and thought that by the dawn of this century, they could just keep going up. A decade-plus later, my kids still haven’t seen the M’s come close to the post-season and I’m convinced nothing will change without a change in ownership. Which is why I’m kind of happy to see attendance is finally way down. It’s the only thing that will capture the front office’s attention about the need to put a good product on the field.

  • one174

    Why do Chuck and Howie stay on? Why? They know that the fans absolutely despise them, and they are presiding over one of the saddest franchises in sports, and yet still they stay. You can picture them as the captain of the Titanic. “THERE’S an iceberg, boys! RAAAAMMING SPEED!!!” They are far worse than rats deserting a sinking ship, they just plain won’t desert.