I’m a lifelong baseball fan–Thanks Dad (God rest his soul). And once again, I find myself adjusting my schedule to watch baseball. I’m a longtime Mariners fan, since the Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner era. And once again, I sit in front of the big-screen (67” LCD) watching the hapless M’s of 2010 in full-splendor High-Defintion. Jason Vargas is trying to end a 5-game M’s losing streak against the Blue Jays in 1080P—yeah baby!.
The Mariners were picked to compete this year—so naturally, they are 8 ½ games back, with over a week left to go in May. But I watch anyway, with renewed enthusiasm, almost every day. The M’s of today are almost as stacked as the 90s playoff teams. They just haven’t found their stride yet. You can laugh now if you’d like. I watch with more than a casual interest. I watch like very few others that I know of. I’m certain there are plenty of others like me, I just don’t know (or know of) any of them. I watch details like nobody’s business– things like pitch selection, location, sequencing, etc., whether pitchers cover first base with haste, back up throws, etc. I watch for signs that players are still hungry, in the figurative sense (hungry to win, happy to being playing a kids game for a living). And therein lies my renewed enthusiasm.
The M’s of 2010 have plenty of potential, that’s for certain. Sure, you’ve got two first-ballot Hall of Famers on the squad. Ichiro and Junior are both standard, daily media-fare, whether there is a story or not. Junior’s recent sleeping in the clubhouse event is the perfect case in point there. There would be no story if the M’s had been 8 games over .500, but since they’re scuffling, and he’s not hitting much, this is the kind of fare that gets trotted out. Such is life in the sports media. Give us a camera in the face of a guy who is down right now—especially a guy “special” enough to selected to the All-Century team.
Ichiro still delivers “special” on a nightly basis. His recent seven consecutive, multi-hit games streak is a great case in point there. No one has more body/bat control than Ichiro. And he is a beacon for fitness, conditioning, and preparation—even when he misses on a throw to the plate, like he did last night. It’s rare for him to make a mistake defensively, and yet he too is human.
Hall of Famers notwithstanding, the most exciting Mariner of the last two seasons for me, is undoubtedly Franklin Gutierrez in Centerfield. If you haven’t seen him play, you have missed a treat. To say “he makes it look easy,” while absolutely accurate, doesn’t do him justice. And if you think it sounds like M’s Fan hyperbole, consider that the Fielding Bible metric, of Defensive Runs Saved, Gutierrez had more than twice as many runs saved as any other Centerfielder last year. We knew it intuitively, watching him run down fly balls. It’s nice to be able to support it empirically with data. Of course baseball is so much more than the metrics involved. Ken Griffey, Jr will always be a Seattle treasure, whether he hits his weight or never hits another home run again. Likewise, Mike Sweeney is a long way from being the face of the Royals franchise that he was in the mid-late 90s. That said, like Junior, Sweeney is worth much more than statistics can ever quantify for the Mariners. He’s a clubhouse leader, a true team-player, and a great influence on younger players. I saw him play as Royal in 1997 and 98 about a dozen times and he can carry a team on his back. There’s a quality that we’d like to see emerge from some of the younger players.
Milton Bradley is probably the most difficult of the current M’s for me to embrace. My background causes me to shy away from the “me first” brand of players. I’m all for a bargain free-agent with a ton of “upside.” But $12 million this year doesn’t seem like much of a bargain thus far. Especially when I remember him not running for a fly/drive that landed 20 feet to his left, ostensibly because he though Gutie’ had it (in the game before he sought professional help). At the time, I honestly thought that he must be “high.” I clearly don’t have any facts to support that, but at that moment, he was a team killer. And I’m not about sacrificing team chemistry to accommodate a “primadonna.” Milton hits the ball hard, when his head is right. Hopefully, counseling will help him keep it right and will hustle full-time.
The M’s pitching staff is good. They just haven’t been good enough to win with the anemic run support they’ve been given. Felix Hernandez is a “special” talent in his own right. He is capable of dominating every 5th day. Cliff Lee is a great example, a strike thrower, a battler. And the kids, Vargas and Fister have been a pleasant surprise. Maybe when Erik Bedard comes back, he’ll bring some work ethic to go with his above average skillset.
Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman haven’t burned up the basepaths since becoming M’s. I was, quite frankly, thrilled to see them become Mariners though. Figgins had killed the M’s for years with his play—every day doing something different, a stolen base here, and extra base taken there, a defensive gem, etc. And Kotchman is as smooth as anybody at 1st Base. He’s currently playing in his 220th consecutive game without an error. Although he did boot a ball about a week ago, it just didn’t count as an error, since he got the runner at first. It should have been a double-play. We’ll give you a break there Casey, especially because you seem to be finding your stroke.
Don’t want to admit it, but I may have spoken too soon. Casey hasn’t completely found his stroke; in fact, he’s found himself sitting more, playing situationally—like late innings for defensive purposes. OUCH. And I may have spoken too soon about the Mariners competing. They seem to be in full-scale decline. When they pitch, they don’t hit. When they hit and score, they give up even more. They just can’t seem to get it done. It goes back to the pundits picking them to win. They are, invariably, mistaken. On this, I know I am right. But I love watching the Mariners anyway. Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro are, after all, patrolling 2/3s of the outfield 6 days a week. That’s something special to see.