THE NATIONAL MEDIA isn't expecting much from the Mariners. ESPN.com's analysts granted the M's a first-round win against the Indians but predicted a loss to the A's for the American League Championship. Baseball observers in New York blandly predict another Yankees crown, doubting whether the M's are even the best team in the West. This is what's been going on all season. Which raises an interesting question: What the hell are these people thinking?
The 2001 Mariners were predicted to win approximately nothing—maybe they'd eke out a respectable season after the disappointing loss of yet another Hall of Fame-bound player. Opening night attracted a record number of media personnel, but 60 percent spoke Japanese and focused only on their imported icon, Ichiro. The remaining media conjured the cartoonishly nicknamed ghosts of Seattle's past: A-Rod, Junior, and the Big Unit. Then the new right fielder from Japan sparked a late-inning rally—against the A's, the team preordained as the best in the West. From there, the Mariners began dissecting opponents as if they were bugs spread before a knife-wielding eighth-grader in biology class. The M's embarrassed former shortstop Alex Rodriguez by destroying his new team, the Texas Rangers, knocking the hapless squad out of the race by midseason and pulling ahead of everyone in their division, including the vaunted young A's.
Even as international media descended on Safeco in July for the All-Star Game, which seemed fortuitously designed to take place in the home of the league's best team, the hype never matched the M's remarkable accomplishments. Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez, and John Olerud had emerged as the most potent, clutch-hitting "meat of the order" anywhere; all three earned starting spots on the midseason classic's roster, and yet only Boone got singled out, haltingly, as an MVP candidate. By season's end, despite the second baseman's 130-plus RBIs and 200-plus hits, neither he nor Ichiro—who led the league in batting and hits, not to mention spectacular plays and throws—was the leading MVP candidate. Conventional wisdom, as determined by the national media, was that the Athletics' Jason Giambi merited a repeat title. Ludicrous.
To anyone who witnessed the unleavened rise of the team with the best record in the 100-year history of the American League, no further proof of the Mariners' dominance is needed. Evidently, a steady run through the playoffs and the World Series will be required for the rest of the universe to believe. As if to hedge their bets, baseball analysts have spent more time in the past few weeks reporting on the unfortunate case of Carlos Guillen's tuberculosis and David Bell's rib injury; "We're not going to predict that the mighty Mariners will lose," the pundits seem to be saying, "but the absence of the regular left side of the team's infield will surely prevent them from winning."
This behavior really is baffling. Leaving aside a stray cover story in Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News—and respectfully noting the Sept. 11 tragedy—the Mariners' record season played like an Iranian art film to Barry Bonds' blockbuster and Cal Ripken's tearjerker. If Lou and his boys weren't so occupied with their mantra of playing—not to mention winning—one game at a time, they'd surely wonder why such a spectacular season has earned them such scant respect. During the Yankees' 114-win rampage in 1998, only a heathen might've suggested that they wouldn't go all the way. Of course, those Yankees did, losing only two games in the postseason and sweeping the World Series against the Padres. Apparently, for the 2001 Mariners to indelibly etch their names in history, they'll have to dominate in the postseason, as well.
Of course, a greater accomplishment than impressing the skeptical baseball world will be to bring Seattle its first world championship since the Sonics' 1979 NBA crown, and the first ever in Mariners' franchise history. To a city that believed even when the rest of the country did not, that would be the most poignant reward.