by Paul West
We live in curious times.
We’re battling the resurgence of the uglier aspects of the human condition, and our own society–aspects many had deluded themselves to believe we’d collectively outgrown. Even in the sports world, which so often gives us glimpses of a better world, we continue to see the same old mistakes and institutional failures: cheating, bigotry, the devaluation of health protocols. But tonight, we saw an example of when sports, as aforementioned, shows us the best of itself–and ourselves. The Seattle Mariners, with one majestic, dramatic moonshot, ended a 21-year playoff drought; and in so doing, they opened the next chapter in an enthralling sports story of joy and resilience.
Mariners fans have seen an enormous range of highs and lows for a relatively new franchise. In the past two decades, they’ve had a stunning number of the best and most exciting players the game has ever seen: Ken Griffey Jr, Ichiro Suzuki, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Felix Hernandez, all among the best ever at their positions and all Mariners during their peak or breakout seasons; they’ve had one of the most singularly dominant seasons and teams, in baseball history, in 2001’s 116-win juggernaut that went 4-6 in the playoffs; 2001 was their last playoff appearance, and they’re the only active MLB franchise that’s never even been to a World Series.
In recent years, the Mariners had scuffled between mediocrity and bottom-dwelling, with occasional flashes of promise…until last year they broke through as a late-season Cinderella. Alas, they fell short on the final day of the season…but that tuned out to be merely prologue.
This year, the Mariners were a mix of youth and experience, helmed by an on-the-bubble manager and with a newly acquired ace who, despite being the defending Cy Young winner, people thought might be poised for regression. They were a hard-to-figure mix: promising but unproven youngsters like JP Crawford, Jarred Kelenic, and Julio Rodriguez; other teams’ discarded All-Stars, like Carlos Santana, Jesse Winker, Mitch Haniger, Luis Castillo, and Eugenio Suarez; baseball journeymen like Chris Flexen, who’d gone to pitch in the KBO in 2020 and come back resurgent; a smattering of roleplayers with various strengths. They were clearly a work in progress, and when they hit ten fames under .500 on June 19th, the winds of doubt blew hard…then they discovered their alchemy. They won 14 games in a row, and went 51-23 in their next 74 games. Julio Rodriguez became a breakout star, coming in second in the Home Run Derby while dropping jaws week after week. Ray pitched like an ace, and Flexen and Castillo produced solid outing after solid outing–interspersed with occasional dominance. The Mariners won close and late, with home runs and small ball alike. And on the final weekend of the regular season, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 1-1 game, they completed their playoff journey as follows: a pinch-hit, full-count walkoff homer by Cal Raleigh, a platoon catcher whose hitting struggles had sent him back to the minors just a few months ago. Per ESPN Stats & Info: Cal Raleigh is the 1st player in MLB history to hit a pinch-hit, walk-off home run to clinch a playoff spot for his team.
This team’s defining characteristics are resilience, balance, togetherness, and diversity. They have a 32-21 record in one-run games, and a new hero has emerged seemingly every night. They’re a mix of young and old, proven and unproven, and at one point in 2019 they had ten African-American players on their active roster–countering the overblown narrative that said demographic has lost interest in the game. They’re a warm, vibrant, remarkably together bunch, and Scott Servais is a calm, centered, humble manager who lets the players be themselves and flourish as they will.
This has been a great season for baseball in many ways, with storylines–the resurgent, resilient, perennial underdog Mets; Shohei Ohtani bringing us a modern Babe Ruth in the person of a likable Japanese-born star with the smile and athleticism of the aforementioned Griffey, Jr; Aaron Judge, also likable, pushing for Triple Crown and MVP as he clears 61 home runs. But there’s something about the totality of the 2022 Mariners that’s beyond the sum of its parts.
The 2022 Seattle Mariners have embodied the too-seldom actualized spirit of our still-experimental society, and the sport it once called its national pastime: an ethnically and demographically diverse team, characterized by its warmth, resilience, and togetherness, breaks a 21-year playoff drought in singularly dramatic fashion. It’s something you’d see in a movie made to inspire…and no matter how much longer the story runs, it’s exactly the sort of thing the baseball world needed this year.