Sultans of Squat

The Mariners prove that less is more, except when less isnt more.

READERS FREQUENTLY ASK how the Seattle Mariners, having won 28 and lost 27 since the All-Star break, can still be within a base hit or so of the playoffs. After researching the works of every noted economic theorist from Paul Krugman to Arnold Schwarzenegger, my answer is simple: Worker productivity is keeping the teams October hopes alive. Productivity, after all, means maximizing output while minimizing labor. Nobody does it better than the Ms.

Saturday night last, for example, the team had five runs on just four hits, a terrific display of maximizing output (winning, that is) with minimal work. The Ms actually expended more effort than necessary when they finally deigned to score in the eighth, which transpired as follows: Ichiro grounded out, Guillen fanned, Boone walked, Edgar doubled, Olerud was walked intentionally, Cameron was hit by a pitch, and Winn poked one. The Boone run proved to be the winner, so the Mariners neednt have bothered with the other four in a 5-0 victory. Knowing this the next day, the team evidently was of a collective mind to do more with even less. Accordingly, by the end of seven, the Ms had one run and the lead on just three hits and were looking to give hard-luck starter Ryan Franklin a rare win for another gutty performance (hes the best fifth man since Billy Preston of the Beatles). The Anaheim Angels, themselves testing the limits of worker efficiency this season, managed a couple in the eighth, and the home guys lost 2-1 in a game that came and went well within the time it took for their proletarian hard-hat homies, the Seahawks, to press NFL standards for maximizing output (a 38-zip win with just 323 yards of total offense).

The Ms are traveling now, trying to do yet more with less to set up a three-game Armageddon with Oakland at Safeco starting Friday, Sept. 26. Between now and then, well no doubt be privy to all kinds of ways of scoring without actually hitting. Fans of the team (which drew its 3-millionth 2003 customer during the recent home stand) have been catching on, with shouts and banners reflecting the new reality of high-productivity baseball. Instead of bleacher signs reading Hit it here, Boonie, we see placards with Work a base on balls, Bret and Let the pitcher plunk you, Cammy. Behind the plate, the Ms partisan patter is mostly directed to opposing batteries, with fans shouting: How bout a wild pitch? and Lets have a passed ball!

Fans are sensing what has been shown by a number of players, none of them with the Zen serenity weve come to expect from Ichiro Suzuki. Ich has seen his average drop 10 or more points every month since midseason. As Monday dawned, he had fallen from the .350 level to a very mortal .309, this after a 1-12 weekend. During his postgame locker-room levitation, Ich seemed to address what normal observers would view as his hitting woes, but since there were no Japanese translators (most sportswriters, in fact, are bilingual but are limited to speaking passable English and either Pig Latin or Gangsta Rap), one had to guess about his remarks. My own inference was that Suzuki said, in so many words, either when the raindrops tip the balance of the bamboo fountain, the koi will be at peace or why dont you scribes go piss off for a week or so?

Bob Melvin, the skipper who started the season in his early 40s but now is just a few months younger than Lou Piniella, looked about ready to break out some celebratory champagne Sept. 10 when the field lights went out at Safeco. It might mean, after all, that the game would be postponed and the Ms wouldnt have lost again. That they went on to win four straight brought palpable joy to the manager, but after the Sunday loss, even the optimistic Melvin spoke of the need to win remaining games.

The skip has incurred little criticism during his maiden voyage with the Mariners. It often owes more to his even demeanor than his tactical decisions. A week ago, for example, he wanted the bunt during a middle-inning situation. The Ms were down 2-0 with a runner on second and none out. The bunt? To give up an out for third base with the runner already in scoring position? When you need two runs?

But back to this business of worker productivity. Capitalists have a special soft spot for the phenomenon because it poses a win-win situation: Management gets more output for less labor; once this is institutionalized, management gets to can extraneous workers and pocket the payroll dough (hence, a jobless recovery, as Krugman might explain to Schwarzenegger). It doesnt quite work that way in baseball, because workers have contracts and are paid even if they dont perform (Jeff Cirillo has demonstrated this for two years). But players can be excised in other ways, and if I were some of the Mariners showing such peculiar worker-productivity tendencies, I might start imagining myself wearing another uniformmaybe even civilian clothesnext year.

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