A few months ago, most Seattle Mariners fans didn't know Bucky Jacobsen from Buckminster Fuller. Mired in the minors for nearly a third of his life, Jacobsen (some believe that his full name is George Herman "Babe" Jacobsen) might still be swatting them into (and over) the Tacoma bleachers were the M's, a club in transition, not suddenly the worst team in the American League. That dubious distinction became mathematically irrefutable the other day when the Kansas City Royals pulled a few percentage points ahead of Seattle. The good news is that the M's still can make the playoffs simply by winning their remaining 70 games. If that scenario is somewhat lacking in credibility, it is generally believed that, in Jacobsen, the franchise has a fan favorite who alone might stem what had seemed to be an inevitable decline in ticket sales next season.
Seahawk-sized Bucky is alternately called "Paul Bunyan," "Buck Ruth," and "The Messiah"—announcer Dave Niehaus', ahem, Handel for the strapping slugger, as Jacobsen came to the plate and later walked with the bases loaded Saturday, July 17. His arrival was part of a recent corporate wand waving: Abracadabra, green rookies appeared in the local dugout once home to golden oldies Rich Aurilia, Pat Borders, and John Olerud. (The Olerud curb-kicking, by the way, represented a public-relations lesson for the ages. Here was a local guy, college hero, major-league star, five-plus-year M's vet, and, off the field, a dream of a team ambassador. So how is his release announced by the ballclub? Here's the headline from the July 15 team-issued flack sheet: "Mariners activate catcher Miguel Olivo from 15-day disabled list, select pitcher George Sherrill and infielder Bucky Jacobsen [and]"—still reading?—"designate for assignment 1B John Olerud and C Pat Borders." Takes a certain skill to bury the news value that well, the equivalent being: "Yanks, Nick Johnson part ways; team signs infielder A. Rodriguez.")
Other offensive help for a team ranked just below the Hoboken Zephyrs in batting average and run production includes Justin "Time" Leone, who put up more than a quarter of Olerud's 2004 RBI total while appearing in just a week's worth of games. Leone has a few errors at third base, but he saved a run during the first inning Sunday, July 18, by scooping a dribbler and deftly side-arming the ball to first. But even with some additional pop in the everyday lineup (Leone and Jacobsen each had a pair of long balls through Sunday, and Raul Ibanez returned after a monthlong injury), the club continues to suffer more bad luck than a medley of country music. The shoulda-woulda-coulda 6-5 loss on Saturday saw the M's out-hit Cleveland 13 to nine but leave the bases loaded in the final at bat. Riding a Leone homer, the M's actually won their first outing of the second half on July 15 to start an 11-game home stand. Sunday's 7-5 win to end the Cleveland series left the club with just three wins for July, with nothing but Boston, Oakland, and Anaheim on the horizon.
Oh, yeah, and it left the M's with nothing much to lose, either. That's why it was actually enjoyable for a change to watch these goin'-nowheres pound a modest two-out rally in the first on Sunday. Bret Boone and Ibanez had fence-buster doubles, followed by a sharp single up the middle by a designated hitter named Bucky-something. The next inning, Leone got on with a too-hot-to-handle shot to third, Ichiro had an infield single, and the right-field-line ball girl seemed to channel the absent Olerud with one of the best fielding plays of the game. No runs were scored but, as entertainment value, it actually beat the grounds crew's dance routines for a change. Leone and Jacobsen plate appearances have become the team's first must-see at bats since Ichiro's initial season. Jacobsen's Ruthian third-inning shot over the team logo in left-center was even more impressive given that Cleveland had been pitching him inside in a futile attempt to move the lovable lug away from the plate.
Here's one way to look at this blown season: The failure to make the playoffs isn't, after all, a different outcome from 2002 or 2003. There's something to be said for turning out at Safeco for the pure observance of the game. It's also an odd relief to have forgone the anxiety of watching yet another pennant race collapse late in the season.
Team management may actually have an ironic surprise in the offing. Ticket sales might not suffer that much from the departures of the grizzled old guard (Olerud, Edgar Martinez, perhaps Boone) as well as other unproductive (Scott Spiezio) and expendable (Randy Winn) components. Given the right combination of timely long balls and free bobbleheads, partisans could stick around for the promise of a rebuilding phase.
The real risk to the fortunes of the franchise is the prospect of Jacobsen, Leone, and young pitchers ultimately failing at the big-league level—the last thought on anybody's mind, apparently, as the ball smacked by the Buck stopped "here" for a fan in the center-field seats Sunday.