Emerging from the horrors of the era of bad Mariner baseball, of Carlos Silva and Bill Bavasi and Chone Figgins, we trooped hopefully into T-Mobile Park Saturday, delivered from the notion that this playoff thing is for everybody but us.
I’d watched the Mariners as a writer as far back as three decades ago. Who could forget 12-3 losses at the Kingdome on a Tuesday night in front of 7,000 people, when the only salvation was Bad Dancing before the bottom of the eighth?
Then the M’s got very good, before they returned to being very bad. For some reason, as we walked to the park Saturday, I recalled covering a game back in the blighted Bavasi days, when they announced a trade-deadline deal. I want to say it was with the Rockies. They dealt for somebody who would be the seventh catcher they went through that year, and there was still a couple of months left in the season.
That kind of thing happened then, but these are different Mariners now, young and vibrant and promising, and in the playoffs for the first time since 2001. We had to be there.
It wasn’t cheap, as in hundreds for a seat in section 339, about twice what I’d ever paid for a ticket to a sporting event. I went with my son Brett, who was seven and agog down the rightfield line in ’95 when Dave Niehaus made “They’re gonna wave ‘im in!” an electric phrase, and his wife Rachel.
We passed on the $90 parking three blocks from the stadium, and landed on a spot just north of Burien. It was free, at least.
The pregame introductions – Luis Castillo, the new wunderkind pitcher, got the loudest ovation – assured us that indeed, our gauzy, smoke-stained autumn wouldn’t necessitate a change in venue. (Somebody tweeted Friday that waiting 21 years and then having a playoff game moved because of the persistent mountain wildfires would have been the most Mariner thing ever.)
We settled in, blissfully unaware of what we were about to witness. The sun was warm, high overhead, creating that light/dark contrast between pitcher and batter. In the early innings, we assumed that accounted for the feeble swings and mounting zeroes.
The people down below rose on two-strike Astro counts, or amid Mariner stirrings, such as they were. Naturally, everybody dominoed behind them. We rose. We sat. We rose. We sat. We rose. We sat. Today, there have to be M’s fans scheduling knee replacements.
Recently, somebody observed so aptly that playoff baseball is like watching a loved one defuse a bomb. This was that. Forty-seven thousand souls looked on, stomachs in knots, waiting to erupt and drown a generation’s worth of futility in exultation.
But no. On the game trudged, and an evitability began taking hold. Not only would the Mariners never score, Houston wouldn’t, either. This was The Game That Would Not End.
What was striking was, there weren’t drives snagged at the wall or runners thrown out at home. Aside from a couple of Houston threats, nobody was even coming close to a run.
Sometime around the seventh inning, as late afternoon approached, I visited the men’s room. A couple of urinals down, a guy asked nobody in particular, “Who’s gonna be the hero tonight?”
“If it doesn’t happen pretty soon,” I replied, “it will be tonight.”
Little did I know. Zeroes piled upon zeroes on the scoreboard. Fans celebrated each successive shutdown of the Astros, comforted that only the Mariners could win now. But then they couldn’t, and we explored a new inning.
The debate of great pitching or lousy hitting is real, and who can say? All I know is, the Astros trotted out Dominican guys, Venezuelan guys, guys from Detroit and St. Louis, trim guys, stocky guys, and it didn’t matter. Everybody got the Mariners out. Remarkably, Seattle never had two hits in the same inning.
They were all righthanders, every Houston pitcher, and yet Mariner lefthanded hitters went 3 for 34. You had the feeling Houston could have called on ‘80s star Mike Scott, 67 now, and he’d have gotten a 1-2-3 inning in his retro sunburst uniform.
Not that the Mariner staff was overmatched. People like George Kirby and Matt Brash were brilliant, and surely a bright counter to the looming melancholy.
The crowd stayed with it, but it seemed different now. The sameness of it all left many of us in sort of a stupor. As always, they cut off alcohol sales after the seventh inning, so that left about three hours for patrons to come down, some no doubt after powering through the early innings.
Darkness encroached, and the evening chill took hold. The game went so long, the seasons changed.
By the time Jeremy Pena drove a pitch to left-center in the 18th, I was rummy enough to think the ball would be caught. Of course it would, because every drive was going to be caught and we were going to keep playing. But this one wasn’t coming back, unless you count the fact it stayed in the seats maybe five seconds and somebody fired it back onto the field. Somehow, that seemed entirely appropriate.
Back in 2000, Brett, 12 then, went the distance with his brother (and an indulgent mom) in a famous 19-inning game won with a Mike Cameron homer. That was a mere five hours, 34 minutes. A 2012 game here won by Baltimore went 18 innings, and it went five hours, 44 minutes.
Saturday was a beast that went six hours, 22 minutes, fully 48 minutes longer than that Cameron-won marathon 22 years ago. For perspective, across town, the Washington-Arizona football game started about 90 minutes later, 88 points were scored, and when it was over, about another hour and a half elapsed before the M’s were finished.
Finished indeed, finally. The fans exited, limp with fatigue. The day had been almost incomprehensible, capping an exhilarating season rife with surprise, one whose promise demands more of these playoffs.
And maybe a run, even.