erik lundegaard

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When It’s Better to Lose

I never thought I’d say this to Mariners management but: Don’t try to win next year.

I never thought I’d say this to Mariner fans but: The Mariners are fun to watch now.

Yes, I’m in an odd spot: Urging fiscal restraint from bottom-line owners and buoying up Pollyannaish fans. It’s Bizarro world.

I began the season — way back in February — complaining that the off-season moves were too penurious and piecemeal, and telling my baseball friends that the Mariners were an unwatchable team. I predicted total disaster. “This is a .500 ballclub at best,” I said. Everyone told me I was pessimistic. Those were optimistic times.

Now Mariners management is hinting at big off-season moves and I say “Wait!” Now my baseball friends are complaining that the Mariners are unwatchable and I say “Wrong.”

No, for me, the Mariners were unwatchable for most of 2003, even as they won 90+ games. They were the quintessential half-inning call: No runs, no hits, no errors. Efficient to a fault in the field. Always able to draw that exciting sac fly or bases-loaded walk when a game was on the line. M’s players were nice guys, family guys, mayonnaise on white bread. They made winning boring.

But the only thing worse than a boring winning team is a boring losing team, which is what we got this year. Down by two the game seemed hopelessly out of reach. Who could possibly save us? Rich Aurilia? Dan Wilson? Willie Bloomquist? Even Ichiro hit .250 in April.

Yet in mid-June I’d still run into fans who thought the season was salvageable. The M’s owners thought so, too, and wouldn’t trade any of our tradable commodities: Villone, Guadardo, Winn, Garcia. Didn’t we beat the Expos? Didn’t we sweep the Pirates? Watch out world! Then the horrible road trips began and finally the other shoe fell and so did Freddy Garcia. M’s fans slumped their shoulders. The dream was over.

But this is exactly when I became intrigued. Suddenly kids rather than old men were playing again. Look at this huge guy named Bucky blasting the ball out of the park. Look at this young catcher popping to his feet, a la Pudge, and trying to nail unsuspecting runners at first. Look at this twenty year-old shortstop hitting his first major league homer against the Yankees. Look at this handsome third-baseman hitting the ball even farther than Bucky. Look at this pitcher with the tattoos, causing controversy in Kansas City.

Hell, I even liked the errors. It was something new. They still didn’t win but nobody really expected them to. We just wanted to see if any of them had an upside. The air was redolent with possibilities.

But this off-season, if the Mariners play the Pat Gillick game, and the game Bill Bavasi played last off-season, they’ll blow it. They’ll give up good young talent for dull dependable veterans.

In Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There, Chance the Gardiner gave us all some good advice. “In a garden things grow,” he said, “but first, they must wither… But if you love your garden you don’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.”

Chance was an idiot, of course, but that only means he speaks the same language as Mariner management, and anyway even idiots can be savants. The point is the same. Next season is not the proper season for the Mariners to flourish. It’s too soon. Old plants must die off (Scott Spezio); new plants must be allowed to grow strong roots (Jeremy Reed; Felix Hernandez). We must be patient.

The Mariners built Safeco Field in the wake of Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, and the Orioles and Indians offer stark differences in what to do once the original retro-ballpark dynasty goes sour.

When the Orioles got old — thanks in part to Pat Gillick — management didn’t allow a fallow period. They panicked and kept trying to replant high-priced veterans in soil that didn’t accommodate them. This season, despite signing Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, they’re way below .500. They haven’t contended since ’97.

The Indians, meanwhile, last contended in 2001, when the 116-win M’s barely beat them in a five-game playoff. But management didn’t panic; they developed young talent in their own system (Victor Martinez) while trading for other young talent (Travis Hafner). This season they’re above .500 again, and have scored the second-most runs in the majors.

M’s: The I’s have it. Next year is too soon. Allow a fallow period. The crops you plant should be young, not mature. If you love your garden you won’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.

—originally published in The Grand Salami