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Mariners’ home opener: Are we ready to forgive?

Ken Griffey Jr.

A Day in the Bleachers is Arnold Hano’s classic 1955 story of a fan that plops down a few bucks for a ticket in the bleacher seats at the Polo Grounds in New York City, and ends up witnessing Willie Mays’ sensational center field catch from one of the best seats in the house. For Seattle Mariners fans, who will witness their 33rd home opener Tuesday at 3:40 pm, Hano’s strategy might be a good one this season. Sit in the outfield, have simple expectations, and hope for something dramatic.

After all, on any given night, the outfield at Safeco may feature a couple of future Hall of Famers: Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey, Jr. Combined with the youthful athleticism of Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, the Mariners’ outfield may finally be capable of running down those balls driven deeply off of a pitching staff that still lacks an ace and a dependable closer.

The loss of 101 games last season — the worst record in the American League — feels all but washed away by time, an icy Seattle winter, and most notably the return of The Kid. Almost no one expects an older, noticeably heavier Griffey to lead the lowly M’s to the team’s 1995 splendor, but he is a sort of one-man economic stimulus plan for Sodo Mojo. His return has resuscitated ticket and merchandise sales. Might Griffey save baseball in the Northwest for the second time?

As if on script during last week’s Opening Day in Minnesota, Griffey hit his 612th homer, the 399th as a Mariner. The Consonants (Wakamatsu and Zduriencik) got their first wins as the new field manager and general manager respectively. The Mariners earned those recent wins with a roster that bears little resemblance to last year’s. In fact, they have changed their line-up so radically that Ichiro (who rejoins the team this week after treating a bleeding ulcer) was compelled during spring training a few weeks ago to say he would need a set of baseball cards to figure out who his teammates are.

He may also need a Babel Fish language translator. Known as one of the most international teams in baseball, the Mariners’ pitching rotation goes something like this: Venezuela, Quebec, Venezuela, Wisconsin, Australia. The bullpen is still sorting itself out, but a published poet and novelist from the Dominican Republic is emerging as the set-up guy.

Over plates of eggs at a diner in Bellevue recently I sat down with former Major Leaguer and Mariner broadcaster Dave Valle. I wanted to ask him how a Mariner fan copes with the downs and episodic ups of this franchise. How does he maintain that buoyant smile?

“You gotta love the game,” Valle began. “The days of Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Edgar Martinez playing their entire careers with one team are over. That was a different era. The Mariners organization has got to sell the game. I grew up a Yankees fan in the 1960s. The Mick was old and Roy White was their best player. It was not a winning franchise. You had to love the game and I did.”

And yet that is my nagging question about M’s fans. Do they love the game? Do they appreciate the history and story being written here? The dwindling crowds at Safeco Field are among the quietest in baseball. Baseball gruff (visitors) plays Seattle nice (home). And if comments on local radio and blogs are anything to go by, we are the first to give up when the team or a player is not performing. In places that have suffered far longer than Seattle — Chicago and until just recently Boston and Philadelphia — the fans love the game and the team no matter what. Those fans know, whether their team is good or terrible, they have a Big League team in their town. Every season their team will play host to the big and the little stories that make baseball America’s pastime.

Remember what it’s like not to have a local team.

Northwesterners tell me they remember being avid fans of the San Francisco Giants during the 1960s and early 70s. There was no Seattle team then, but the Giants felt like the home team. Fans could hear the Giants radio broadcasts, and if nothing else at least Juan Marichal pitched in Tacoma during his pre-Hall of Fame career.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I had no Big League team. My favorite player was a Cincinnati Red. The Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros would have been a better cultural fit; even the Kansas Royals and St. Louis Cardinals were geographically closer. But, no, I loved the Reds because fellow Oklahoman Johnny Bench was their catcher. I couldn’t wait to read the box scores each morning to see how Bench and the Reds had performed.

I’ll admit that I thought hard about whether to invest more money on a losing franchise when the deadline to renew my Mariner season tickets came around last winter. But then I looked at the schedule and realized that the Giants would be in town this season, which means that Washington Huskies standout and Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum would pitch in his hometown for the first time as a Major Leaguer. Randy Johnson will return to where it all started. And how could I miss the opportunity to yell at the Yankee and Red Sox faithful who annoyingly take over Safeco Field each year when their team is in town?

Fans who would grouse about a low-performing Mariners franchise should keep two things in mind. First, regardless of how the M’s do this season, we have a team whose history is still being written. NBA fans, sadly, do not. Second, look across Royal Brougham Way to the gleaming Sounders FC, the big leaguers in town who have come from nowhere to remind us that Seattle can field a competitive sports franchise with a loud and proud fan base.

Spring is in the air and there are murmurs already that the Seattle Mariners will follow in the footsteps of the Tampa Bay Rays, last year’s worst-to-best story. I can’t wait to greet the AL Champion Rays later this month when they arrive in Seattle.

Meanwhile, here’s how to get a little baseball cred, a fan’s guide to being a Serious M’s Fan:

Buy a scorecard and learn to keep score. It’s easy, you will learn the game and it’s the best souvenir in the ballpark.

Next time you are in Safeco, yell something, anything, at a player a coach or an umpire. Forget about the wave, participate in the game.

Go see the University of Washington Huskies baseball team play Oregon State at Safeco on May 8. Several of the guys on the field that day will be in the Big Leagues.

Read the USS Mariner blog. You won’t find much Seattle nice there.

Use Safeco Field like a sort of information dashboard. It’s possible at a glance to know at any moment during a game just about everything happening in baseball — pitch count, pitch speed, strikeouts, scores, and who’s pitching in all games played that day and the rankings of teams by division.

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