Basement ball

It's a marvelous moment: Danny Meyer, at bat in Cleveland, strikes out swinging. The catcher drops the ball, giving Meyer a free chance to make first base. He beats the throw. Three of his Mariner teammates then follow him to the plate and each strikes out. It goes into the books as another unforgettable M's record: four strikeouts in one inning.

That was July 21, 1978, 20 years ago next week. Ah, the good old days, when Lenny Randle got on his knees to blow a slow roller foul. When Rick Honeycutt hid a tack in his glove to scuff up the ball. When Phil Bradley and Gorman Thomas both got tagged out at home plate, one right after the other, by a catcher with a broken leg. When Dave Niehaus described players as "highly underrated."

Gloriously, those marvelous days may be back. The Mariners are losing again, floundering in last place, with a record to match the wonderfully inept M's of the 1970s and '80s. Inexplicably, some fans and sportswriters see this as a bad thing; chalk it up to short memories and misguided values. Winning, after all, raises expectations and creates tension—win once and it's all uphill from there. But losing—that's always obtainable. A bobbled grounder, a muffed catch, a clean strike, a backward-somersaulting outfielder.... The only goal is consistency: A team that loses some and finishes third is mediocre, but a team that loses constantly and finishes last is acclaimed. Fans are drawn in, like oglers at a car wreck. Basement fever sets in, drama heightens: Can they blow it again? How will they do it this time? People can't stop watching, or laughing. Revive the M's of yore, when hitting coach Frank Howard used to protest, "Ah, they give you a round ball and a round bat, then tell you to hit it square!"

Real M's fans were worried by early-season talk of a World Series run; we're more comfortable starting on a low note and staying there. Now, with the M's stumbling again, we're pessimistic—but cautiously so. After all, they have yet to achieve the status former manager Chuck Cottier gave to his team—"this unknown group of overachievers"—and they have yet to memorably threaten, as Craig Reynolds did in 1977 after the M's lost their very first game, that "we'll be back." No one this season has accidentally locked himself in a room and been unable to get out, as Diego Segui once did—though his son David, in a nice nod to tradition, is on this year's team.

Alas, Segui fils is a terrific player and may help put the Mariners on a winning track. But even so, we're real M's fans. There's always next year!

 
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