In the small picture, the Mariners were no-hit by a stiff. In the big picture, big data and technology have screwed up MLB. And the NFL starts Thursday.
My seminal cringe-worthy Mariners game was the 1992 season opener. It was the first game following the stunning news a few months earlier that, from out of nowhere, international man of mystery Hiroshi Yamauchi bought the franchise from Jeff Smulyan to keep him from moving it to Tampa Bay.
Newbies to the Seattle sports scene may not understand that almost since the 1977 inception, the Mariners as a business seemed perpetually upon the hangman’s platform with a noose around the neck, waiting for someone to open the trap door. But this Japanese billionaire, with minority partners from Seattle’s new and old elites, seemed to have the resources and intent to get the charges reduced merely to bad baseball, thus unworthy of the death sentence of relocation.
A big deal.
So the Kingdome sellout crowd of 55,918 was in a magnum celebratory mood on Opening Day against the Texas Rangers. Randy Johnson vs. Nolan Ryan. Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzales and Ivan Rodriguez against Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner.
Ryan didn’t last five innings and the Mariners were rolling, up 10-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Happy baseball days were here again.
Then the Rangers scored nine runs in the inning and won, 12-10.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Plummer, the ashen Mariners manager, “nine runs with two outs in the eighth.”
The far frontier of baseball misadventure is a desolate place. But the Mariners’ pop stand is there, lights blinking, open 24/7.
Proof again was available Saturday in Houston, where the Mariners were no-hit.
Not by Astros aces Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole or new addition Zach Greinke.
They were smothered by Aaron Sanchez, a one-time star come to grief who had just arrived via trade from Toronto, where he had the most losses in the American League (14, including 13 in a row) and highest ERA among the league’s qualifying starters.
He went six innings, and three relievers finished off the 9-0 win. For the second time in 23 days the Mariners were held hitless. In the first one in Anaheim, the Angels were honoring the memory of late teammate Tyler Skaggs, and seemed to be at peak efficiency. The Astros were just mowing the lawn.
The Astros threw a stiff at the Mariners, and he stiffed them. Yes, it’s a step-back season. But we’re talking about getting a single hit against was the worst pitcher statistically in the AL. Fercripesakes.
For cringe-worthiness, I may stick with the ’92 opener. But I reserve the right to place a bullet next to Saturday’s game and reconsider at season’s end.
The abject futility of the ordeal fits in with a larger odious baseball narrative about tanking, as well as the fact that the industry’s game tactics have been reduced to a working-waterfront brawl among tired drunks — swing-and-a-miss, or home run. For the 12th consecutive season, MLB is on pace to set a strikeout record, as well as topple the 2017 mark for most homers in a season.
The point is worth mentioning this week because it’s the start of the NFL season. Yes, they’re fake games, but they will out-draw the best MLB can offer. Times about four.
The hapless Mariners, and much of baseball, are upon entry into the sports version of a hypersleep chamber, like the one Sigourney Weaver used in Alien, a tube that induces the cryosleep necessary to preserve human functionality during long voyages into deep space.
With the return of the Seahawks, the Mariners’ voyage begins to seem longer, because not only are competitive rewards, always theoretical, years away, the franchise is in an industry producing an increasingly boring product — reduced capacity for rallies, diminished running game, over-reliance on pitching velocity and analytics-induced efficiency that bleeds the life out of the game and dis-incentivizes winning on an annual basis.
On top of all that, MLB, apparently without intent or even awareness, somehow compromised the very instrument of the game — the baseball.
A consensus grows throughout the industry that the ball, thanks apparently to improvements in manufacturing technology, has altered seams, a smoother surface and is closer to perfectly round. Which adds up to more aerodynamic flight. All unplanned, according to the increasingly strident insistence of the baseball commissioner.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction, for an alteration in the baseball,” Rob Manfred said at the All-Star Game.
A committee created by Manfred nevertheless concluded that the ball has less drag. Another study done by sports data scientist Dr. Meredith Wills and published by The Athletic, came to somewhat similar conclusions. But no one is clear yet as to how the balls became different.
The upshot is an echo of the criticism that has followed the heavy use of quality data to improve efficiencies throughout the game: New technology will always produce unintended consequences.
For example: Who imagined at the 2007 introduction of the iPhone that its popular adoption would produce sharp spikes in auto accidents and deaths?
These are big-picture ruminations beyond the capacity of the Mariners to influence. Their task to get an end-of-the-bat squib past an over-shifted defense for a hit.
Plus they have to get their lounge act off the Seattle stage. The gridiron Beatles start Thursday.