The Mariners Launch Onto Troubled Waters

“You gotta believe!”

This story was originally published on February 2, 1977, under the title “The Mariners Are Launched on Some Troubled Waters.” It is being resurfaced as part of the Weekly Classics series.

Right now, well into winter, it’s hard to remember all I felt when first learning that Seattle had an American League franchise for 1977. I’d rather anticipate spring training (one month away); the regular season (two months off); the surprises, disappointments, and pleasures this team of no-names will provide. But baseball fans are congenitally fit for waiting and reflecting—the next pitch, the next inning, next year, next year—and this, the longest rain-delay of our l2-month season, is the time for a little pot-stove ruminating.

Of course I was overjoyed. The only games I’d seen the past two seasons were a couple of meaningless September exercises in San Francisco and Oakland; Garagiola and the other dubious rewards of television were wearing thin. Although I had not lived through the painful disappearing act by the Pilots, I was relieved when litigation left the sports pages and was replaced by news of pitching coaches, swift shortstops, and a first baseman who hit 30 home runs at Toledo last year.

Baseball was back, and I couldn’t wait. For the manager’s cheering, eternal bromides about working on “the fundamentals” in spring training and the rookies’ vows to toil hard and make the team. For the trip north, earnest promises for 20 wins, a .300 season, those first perfect standings on opening day: 0-0, everyone’s even. And for the game itself: the wheeling, scowling fury of the pitcher; the bat-tapping, shirt-tugging, crotch-scratching patience of the hitter; the sudden surge of energy when the ball arches out across the symmetry of the field, setting outfielders in flight, infielders hurrying to their posts, and the runner off on his hellbent course. And then, seconds later, when ball, fielder, and runner converge at second base, the game is physics itself, pure and beautiful. And for the shameless pleasures of a four-hour 14-inning night game that goes to midnight, of losing big in the seventh inning and not losing hope, of the other guy’s error and your guy’s third double of the day, of your feet on the seat in front of you and another beer.

Meanwhile, I was not immune to the cynicism even the most forgiving fan has had to feel of late: avaricious owners and a toadying commissioner moving teams from city to city like chess pieces and dropping second-rate expansion teams into promising new markets in search of every last dollar; the players in turn shedding their last glimmer of supra-humanity in the foot-race for free-agent dough; the cloning of the new stadium, which has given us one after another identical, clinical (and now climate-controlled) nowheres to watch our favorites. The game itself, a commiserating friend agreed last week, has changed. “The last decade of the believable hero was the sixties.”

If it is possible to feel two mutually exclusive allegiances, that is what I (and many others no doubt) feel about these Mariners: a strong pull on the one for the earlier days, before the Hydra-like, mindless extension of both leagues; and on the other a tug for the home team, even under present realities. But time is beginning to blur the distinction. Expansion itself is already 16 years old and has a kind of tradition of its own. Its leading myth is the New York Mets and their fabled rise to World Series glory just seven years after entering the league as the most abysmal team in history. One always hopes.

Still, there are specific initial misgivings about the Mariners. Baseball has continued to change since the Pilots misadventure, and so has Seattle. Will they get along? My apprehension, like that one feels for a parent as he or she is about to enter a roomful of uninhibited friends, is considerable. The city itself is no longer the virgin wilderness of professional sports it was eight years ago. The Sonics, an untried infant then, are an institutional, transfixing neurosis now. The Seahawks were an instant draw, and the Sounders, with their legions of young playing supporters, have made an impressive start here. The competition for the sports dollar is stiff and the bids for it by the Mariners’ predecessors strong.

A second potential liability is the Kingdome, which many considered instrumental for meeting schedule demands in the soggy spring and autumn months of the season. In fact, as the weather warms and the Mariners sink in the standings (as they surely must), more than a few of us will think of heading for the hills rather than some seat high up under a cement roof. The irony of the Kingdome, of course, is that it is here because of professional football; without it Seattle would never have attracted an NFL team. And yet it is baseball, the taiI-end of the deal, that wags the dog by paying the rent over the long 81-game season.

I’ll admit, a Phillies fan by birth, I’m something of a worrier. But when the news started coming in—the real, baseball news—prospects brightened. In Darrell Johnson the Mariners have one of the most respected managerial minds in baseball. His juggling of the improbable 1975 AL. champion Red Sox nearly cost the World Series to Cincinnati, the most powerful team since the Yankees of the early sixties. Johnson, incidentally, wasn’t really fired by the Red Sox; he was forced out in a high-level squabble with former owner Tom Yawkey’s widow. Seattle is the lucky beneficiary of the family feud. Johnson’s coaches and scouts are just as strong. Wes Stock, the pitching coach, guided the Oakland A’s staff of Hunter, Holtzman et al. through their glory years. Jim Busby is the third-base coach, Vada Pinson the first-base coach. Mel Didier, director of farm clubs and scouting, was with the Dodgers and the Expos and is widely respected.

Lou Gorman, director of baseball operations, came to the Mariners from the Kansas City organization. He and his staff did their homework for the November expansion draft, and as you’ve read everywhere, came away with Youth and Speed. Scanning the Mariners’ roster for possible standouts is tough: there are some 19 pitchers on the staff (watch Gary Wheelock, maybe, who won 15 games with Salt Lake City last year, or Rick Jones, who was 5-3 at Boston); there’s some promise at first base (Dan Meyer hit .396 in the minors one season, and Joe Lis has some power) and third (Bill Stein hit .268 with the White Sox in ’76); but the midfield is a vacuum of inexperience (only shortstop Craig Reynolds, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, has played in the bigs; the others, Baez, Cruz, Sexton, and McMillan, run like hell). The outfield, with Lee Stanton and Ruppert Jones, could be strong. And so on. But these are the realities of expansion teams. The owners, hit hard by the free-agent drain, are less likely than ever to offer the new teams anything but expendable players. Nonetheless, most observers agree, the Mariners have made the best of it so far. “The baseball side of the operation is absolutely solid,” one Mariner watcher said.

All the more disturbing, then, are some of the managerial and promotional vagaries that have shadowed Seattle’s reentry into the American League. Right from the start, in the selection of a team name and colors, there was something guarded, hidden, close-to-the-chest, too cautious; such matters should be joyously, frivolously public. The selection of radio play-by-play announcers Dave Niehaus and Ken Wilson some months later was equally mystifying. Why, in this city of a strong regional identification, pull in one voice from L.A. and the other from Hawaii? The decision is no small one. Vince Scully probably had more to do with the success of the Dodger franchise than anything else; baseball, like no other sport, is created by the voice describing it through the summer. Seattle, traditionally resistant to this sort of thing, will hear it from recent imports. The ads in the dailies, featuring Mark Fidrych more prominently than any Mariner player, have been curious, vacuous, limp. “We can Birdwatch together” is hardly the galvanizing cry for a sport that must try hard to overcome its reputation for passive tedium. Even in the matter of ticket prices the Mariners have been curious and cool. Hal Childs, public relations director, says juniors (under 14) will get a break on the more expensive seats, but the ticket brochure doesn’t me it.

Baseball is a business and a religion, but it is also an entertainment. The Mariners, with Danny Kaye no less, the Pied Piper himself, at the top, haven’t shown a bit of show biz instinct yet. (Kaye is not expected back in town before opening day.) The product, of course, must sell itself, and perhaps the Mariners are even too acutely aware of consumer skepticism about that product these days. And the doubt will be there, all right: the painful talent inequities of the league will be apparent right on opening day, April 6, when the Mariners debut against California, a team that reaped Rudi, Baylor, and Grich in the free agent hunt over the winter.

But enough of that. We put up with more than enough realism and injustice in the average workday to last to the next. Now, more than ever, when we go to a game or pick up the sports page, we could stand a little less caution and credibility, a little more unashamed guff, a little more gamesmanship. One Mariner official confessed last week that, in moments of weakness, he allows himself to believe the team might win 70, maybe 80 games this year. Then he snapped out of it. Come on, I wanted to shout, “You gotta believe!”