LIKE EVERYONE ELSE in town, I've got the M's on TV in the other room, and I'm feeling strangely tempted to put down what I'm doing and run in to check on the game. Every day this spring and summer, the Seattle Mariners haven't so much held our attention as kept us intensely curious. Curious about their mysterious knack for dismantling other teams. Curious about how they lost three of the game's most potent players in the past three years and yet ascended to become the sport's elite club and World Series hopefuls. Curious about how kicked-around veterans like Bret Boone, Paul Abbott, and Mark McLemore suddenly developed the energy and power to produce win after win after win after win.
Oh yeah, and curious about Ichiro.
The Mariners' imported hitting sensation entered the second half amid murmurs that he'd slapped enough timely base hits in the first half to emerge as an MVP candidate. He continues to dazzle with his defense, his speed, his savvy. And he's every bit the reluctant rock star, the likes of which Seattle hasn't seen since Cobain and Vedder in the early '90s.
Those who aren't resorting to cheerleading will point out that the Mariners may have gone into the All-Star Break leading the next team in their division by more games than any other team since the start of division play in 1969, but they are not terribly intimidating—not the way you expect a dominant team to be. They don't go for the slam-dunk, the dramatic home run to squeak by at the 11th hour. Their winning ways have a surgical quality to them, where the usually dismal double play drives in the insurance run that allows the team's second Japanese All-Star, Kaz Sasaki, to extinguish the opponent in the ninth. Or where the hangdog shortstop Carlos Guillen, unceremoniously thrust into the spot vacated by Alex "$252 Million Man" Rodriguez, sprays a two-out RBI to put the team ahead.
Is this as fun to experience as a barrage of Junior's home runs or a steady rain of Randy Johnson strikeouts? No, but then it's different. The Mariners, unintentionally of course, have come to reflect Pacific Northwest culture: stubborn, distinctive, workmanlike, proud. Salmon swimming upstream. Software moguls stymieing the competition. Sleek and bitter-tasting, like coffee. Nobody in baseball expected the Mariners to win 63 of their first 87 games, and few in the sport's media gave them credit until earlier this month, when they were the swaggering hosts of the Midsummer Classic—a game won by Freddy Garcia, saved by Sasaki. But the result halfway through the season is this: The Mariners own baseball's best record.
(STILL THE) BEST MARINERS TELEVISION COMMERCIAL
Freddy Garcia's Mary Tyler Moore Show spoof. Created by local ad shop Copacino, the Mariners spots never fail to entertain, whether it's the pitching staff telling ghost stories about teammate Edgar Martinez, or John Olerud advising Edgar on the best detergent to remove grass stains, or the entire team emulating Ichiro and changing their uniforms to reveal only their first names. But when budding superstar pitcher Freddy Garcia reluctantly agreed to participate in a spot that emulates the opening sequence to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, complete with adjusted lyrics—"It's you, Freddy, and you know it, you're gonna make it after all"—and Freddy-in-Seattle montage, the M's infiltration of Seattle culture was complete.
Gippy! Sure he's batting far below the Mendoza Line (.200), but utility outfielder Charles Gipson has been with the Mariners all year, dutifully filling in when needed in the field or as a pinch base runner. A friend once told me he believes that manager Lou Piniella keeps Gippy around because the guy's so quick that Lou could dispatch him to the store for a pack of smokes and a six-pack, and he'd be back in time to pinch-run in the eighth. In truth, Gippy's a decent all-around player, with speed, a reliable glove, and the ability to lay down a bunt or swat a base hit. But his main role with the M's is to flash his punk-ass attitude to give the team the sort of edge that Piniella requires.
BEST REACTION TO A-ROD'S RETURN
Alex Rodriguez acts like he doesn't care that the team he left behind to chase the big money has made him look the fool. He shrugged off the rousing chorus of boos he faced upon the loser Texas Rangers' first visit to Safeco Field back on April 16. But there was nothing to shield A-Rod from embarrassment when he first stepped out of the dugout and into the visitors' on-deck circle for his Seattle debut as a Ranger. A fan in the front row coolly stood up, produced a fishing rod, and dangled a dollar bill from a hook over the greedy shortstop's head.
BEST RESPONSE TO GETTING SHIPPED TO THE MINOR LEAGUES
Two of the Mariners' supposedly reliable pitchers, Brett Tomko and John Halama, spent the first few months of the season struggling to keep opposing batters off base. Late in the first half, Piniella lost his patience and shipped Tomko down to Triple-A Tacoma ("Brett, not only are you being sent down, you're being sent to Tacoma!" "Nooooooooo!!!"). Halama was the next to go. They soon made statements about their desire to return: Tomko pitched a no-hitter for the Rainiers, and Halama bettered him with a perfect game.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH A GAME IN SAFECO FIELD
Oh sure, the luxury boxes are nice. And you can't beat seats behind home plate. But for those who prefer to watch the ball game from a barstool, there's only one option at Safeco Field. Hidden away behind the left field wall is the Bullpen Pub, where you can pull up a stool and watch the game from the left fielder's perspective—if the left fielder had a (plastic) bottle of Bud and protective netting in front of him. The sports bar, which is nearly dark enough to merit the coveted "dive" designation, also features peepholes into the visitors' bullpen. Bonus: You can toss peanut shells onto the field (though you may get tossed by the umps if they catch you).