THERE WAS A CRITICAL turn of the Seattle Mariners season last week, during which David Spade inexplicably visited the M's broadcast booth while the team was trying to keep a tenuous pennant-race lead over the Oakland Athletics. The comedian (if, indeed, the star of Joe Dirt and Senseless can be said to be funny) was not all that welcome in the booth (at least where old-school broadcaster Ron Fairly was concerned). And his presence coincided with what became the year's grimmest road trip.
That day in Toronto, Aug. 20, a blown double play gave the Blue Jays the lead and the game. The several hundred Jays partisans who bother to populate SkyDome anymore seemed to feel Rey Sanchez's so-called errant throw (it really wasn't all that bad) was hilarious, maybe even funnier than the flick Spade was trying to pitch to the unamused M's TV audience. Spade left the broadcast booth during this sobering fifth-inning development. And ever after the Sanchez gaffe, Mariners fans haven't been smiling. Within hours, the Oakland Athletics would stage yet another late-inning comeback to trump the then-struggling Boston Red Sox. The once-tenuous Seattle lead over Oakland in the American League West suddenly was a mere three games.
As you know, it only got worse. By Sunday in Boston, the M's had found more ways to lose than the Democratic Party. Dropped balls, late throws, called third strikes, gift pitching: Name it, and the M's had done it. Little wonder, then, that they commenced the Sunday-night game at Fenway just a game and a half up on Oakland and looking, after a season-high four straight losses, like guys who couldn't wait to get home by early October and start planning what to be for Halloween this year.
They came to bat in the fifth, down 6-zip, left the bases loaded without scoring, and did a collective head scratch that lasted until the 6-1 ending. The A's on Sunday put up two touchdowns and a field goal against Toronto; the M's put Derek Lowe in the winner's circle, then went to the hotel to eat Boston beans and think about looking at Pedro Martinez 14 hours latertwo well- documented causes of indigestion. Sure enough, the bellyache materialized Monday, with the Red Sox completing the four-game sweep and the Mariners dropping their sixth straight. The M's record in Toronto and Boston: 1-6. They came home to face Tampa Bay and Baltimore this week, tied for first place in the West with Oakland, while the A's returned home to play the same two lame teams in reverse order. Against East Division teams, the Mariners were 12-17. Oakland was 20-9.
WHAT'S GOING ON? During the first two months, weren't these M's the fiercest road warriors since Mad Max's dog? The fact is, what's going wrong ain't exactly new. The Seattle nine have been playing uninspired ball for going on three months. Oakland ought to be up six games by now, and might well be that far ahead when the two division contenders go to the eyeballs next month. Right now, I'd bet the A's if I could get anybody to take Seattle.
Give up on these guys? Maybe most of the fans won't, but it looks as if many of the players have. Not hitting in a key situation doesn't mean much when it only happens occasionally. If it happens a lot, you start to ask very legitimately whether the club has talent. If the answer is yes, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that the players aren't, in the words of ESPN announcer Jon Miller Sunday, of a mind to respond to the command: "Cowboy up." To whip the rodeo metaphor to the finish line, the M's horse has been champing since early June, but the team hasn't climbed on for the wild ride. Arbiters are trotting out the usual excuses, my fave being injuries/ health concernsas though Seattle is the only place where players get hurt. Nobody notes that when the A's heard they'd lost for the season Mark Mulder (talk about your horses), who probably would have approached a 20-win year, they clenched their teeth and kicked the Blue Jays' butts, 17-2. The M's, meanwhile, get back to full strength and drop five games. "Full strength" for the M's means bringing guys back from phantom injuries. (Was Jeff Cirillo recuperating in Arizona or was he being hidden there?) And what's the deal with Carlos Guillen? During his career here, he's taken more sick days than the staffs of entire government bureaucracies. C'mon, Guillen. You're a jock. Get into the damn game once in a while. Cowboy up.
SO THE M'S DUMPED their sixth straight Monday. Maybe it really had a simpler explanation, because they were doing reasonably well (1-0) on the road trip until Spade showed up. Could it be that this poor man's Gilligan jinxed the Mariners? Makes kind of a funny thought at a time when the laughing about local baseballthe good kind of laughinghas ended as abruptly as that sitcom Spade helped get canceled.