Rooting for the Home Team

I don’t want to write about a losing team. At least for a while.

The Mets had a fabulous start. Unstoppable, practically, until we were stopped, and haven’t started again, and now we’re at least 10 games out of first place. We’ll see how this thing goes, or doesn’t.

But in the meantime, I’ve gone to six Mariners games. They’ve all been fun, and I’ve eaten everything in the park; local double-smoked sausage and caramelized onion sandwiches (hot dogs?), fresh fish and chips, the famous garlic fries, and even crispy fried chili-lime grasshoppers from the taco stand out in left field.

When I told my brother this, he immediately asked, “What fucking major league ballpark has grasshoppers for a stadium snack?”

Safeco Field does, and honestly, they’re delicious. That lime tartness, that chili zing, really complements the crunch. As does a nice cold pale ale.

I’ve only seen one win here; a walk-off home run in the Seattle rain. While they were trying to close the roof. I knew that the umpires weren’t going to stop something already in motion. Why would they stop now? Why delay when the retractable roof is rolling slowly back over the field?

Good thing they didn’t, because Mitch Haniger blasted a no-doubt shot into the left-field bleachers. In the pouring rain, while the roof was only halfway closed.

And I still wonder why Mariners fans leave early.

They left early the night that Paxton, the southpaw ace, struck out sixteen batters while I sat behind home plate in awe. The night that Ichiro had his last at-bat, his last “I-chi-ro!” chant at Safeco, his last strikeout. I chanted with the fans, even with my Mets hat on. I had to. Who knows when, ever again, I’d see Ichiro up at bat for Seattle in the bottom of the ninth with a man on base? Even some of these young Mariners fans are not old enough to have seen Ichiro when he was a rookie in Seattle. Maybe they missed out on the meaning of it.

Maybe they’ve simply resigned to losing since the M’s haven’t made it to the playoffs in 17 years.

That’s a sad story, and so is this: Ichiro retired the next day. That was his last at-bat. And I remember watching him walk back into the dugout for the last time.

That’s why you don’t leave early.

And yet. Seventeen fucking years! Seriously. That’s gotta hurt. Even the Mets make the playoffs periodically to assert the fact that yes, they can win, sometimes. And I’ve seen five losses in Safeco and one win, yet the Mariners are 44-25. (The Mets are almost inverse at 28-37.) I get why, after so many years of loss, that you’d want to bail early and not see the inexorable final out, the bright but sad flash of “Thank you for attending!” on the big screen instead of something more positive, like, “Mariners win!”

You’d want to hit the light rail station before the masses so you’re not packed into a train so full of beery, peanut-dusted bros wearing jerseys and caps of the team that just swept your team—say, Red Sox fans. You wouldn’t want to be in that train car. (I’ve been there, and it’s hot, sweaty, smells bad, and feels terrible.) You’d want to just go home because the traffic is going to suck and you have to work in the morning, and you had a few too many beers and spent too much money on junk food, and you have heartburn and a headache, and there’s just no point.

But, maybe, this year there is?

Who knows, too early to say, don’t jinx anything, that kind of sports superstition. That reluctance to emotionally attach yourself to the victories and losses of what, really, amounts to no more than a brand name. The Seattle Mariners, just like the New York Mets, are a regional brand. And it’s a brand that Seattlites, likely, trust in many fun, pained, and strained ways.

I bought a Mariners hat. I wore it to a game this week with my coworkers, a company outing. I had a blast rooting for the home team with a bunch of M’s fans. I loved talking with baseball-inclined coworkers about the game, or about the food, or, really, anything, since baseball lends itself to socializing with its natural breaks, its moments of calm.

But when Haniger won the game, my boss and I slapped double high fives and danced in the rain while the stadium speakers blasted a victory drumbeat and the fans—only a half-stadium’s worth, but decent—roared. And my coworkers who left early, who waited for their train, heard it, and were sad to have missed it. Some even assumed that, in the seventh inning, when the Mariners were down by one run, it was over. And they left!

It wasn’t over, and in baseball, that’s the chance the game allows its teams, its players, and its spectators to enjoy. It’s not over until the final out, and if you are patient, you might see something legendary happen, especially if the odds are clearly not in your team’s favor.

I even got to go to Safeco for a momentous occasion that had nothing to do with the Mariners, but with history—I got to see Albert Pujols, who I forgot still played the game, hit his 3,000th hit. It was on his third at-bat of the night. Everyone knew it could happen, and then, after a short bloop to right field, he did it, and his team ran on to the field to celebrate with him. The game stopped for ten minutes, and nobody cared, because we were watching the 32nd player ever to have made it to 3,000 in 130-odd years of statistics.

Last night, I watched the Mariners attempt a comeback against the Red Sox. I stood in the center field bleachers with a couple of Sox-fan friends of mine (but, clearly, the good kind of Red Sox fans) and while they were nervous when Kimbrel walked the first two batters, I was hopeful. And this isn’t even my team. The crowd started chanting “Let’s go Mariners!” without the assistance of the big screen or PA system. And it kept going, all the way until that final out, when the “Thank you for attending!” message came on the screen and fans shuffled themselves out toward the train station, a few Boston bros shouting shrilly and dumb, joyful but boasting in a solemn place with, perhaps, some of the most downtrodden fans in sports.

But I’m going back. I’m going to wear that Mariners hat. (And I give myself a pass since this is the AL.) Last night was the first night I’d heard those fans start up a chant on their own, and kept it going. They weren’t sad, but hopeful. This is not a bandwagon team. This is the home team, a team of unknowns (Haniger) and older brothers (Kyle Seager) and aging aces (Felix Hernandez) and upcoming flamethrowers (Paxton) and legends (Ichiro, who still takes batting practice with the team).

This is a team that deserves a shot at the playoffs, and I want to see them do it. And as I finish this one off tonight, the Mariners just beat the Red Sox, and hearing Safeco roar over the radio’s smooth static is a pretty sweet sound.

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