The Mariners: Free merch does not a baseball team make

The Oakland A's are the closest thing to a rival for the Mariners. The Mariners are as close to .500 (16-19) as they've been since early on. The weather is forecasted to be as close to summer as May gets around here. And the three games the Mariners will play against the A's this weekend are the only ones at Safeco in the first 24 days of May. Close enough to get you to attend?

Or, as Dr. Seuss might have put the question: Do you need to be given a bat, a cat, or a cat in a beard hat?

The question comes about because the Mariners recently hit rock bottom of major league baseball attendance standings. Their 17-game average of 17,852 is a milestone believed to be a first in Safeco's history. And that included crowds of 30,000-plus on giveaway nights for Dustin Ackley bats and beard hats — the quirky chapeau that was as inexplicable as it was popular. Sort of the Munenori Kawasaki of fashion.

Can free kittens be far behind?

Kansas City and Cleveland have since sneaked under the Mariners average, partly due to inclement weather, but that is minimal salve. The Mariners are being outdrawn by the A's in Oakland — the notoriously baseball-resistant town — by the Rays in Tampa and the Marlins in Miami. And that's in Florida — a state that has always believed the baseball season ends April 1, drug-running being the only year-round athletic event enjoyed by all.

The Mariners are even being outdrawn — not to mention outplayed — by the Astros in Houston, who were ordered out of the National League and granted refugee status by the American League West, thanks to pressure from the United Nations, whose only alternative was Uzbekistan.

Seattle's franchise nadir was reached April 29, when 9,818 attended a series opener against Baltimore. Yes, it was a cold Monday school night, but 10 years ago the Mariners would have gotten that number for a poetry reading by Ichiro. In Japanese. In a car.

When baseball teams promote throwback nights, crowds under 10,000 aren't what they mean. But for you kid-lets and newcomer-lets; intimate gatherings have long been a distinct part of the Seattle baseball tradition.

For their first 13 years in the Kingdome, the Mariners didn't have a single year that averaged more than 17,000 a game. Even in the fabled breakthrough year of 1995, the count was 22,655.

But that summer’s six weeks of good baseball was so intoxicating that, less than four years later, a publicly-subsidized $538 million stadium was open for business. The Mariners, for their part, appeared set for approximately infinity, leading all of baseball in 2002 with 3.5 million customers.

Turns out, they don't make infinity like they used to.

Every remaining member of the secret society of Mariners fans — they do walk among us — knows that in the decade-long litany of decay, a new sore has developed: starting pitching.

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the veteran hires of Joe Saunders (one year, $6.5 million), Aaron Harang (two years, $12 million) and the call-up of rookie Brandon Maurer, haven't worked out so well. None are terrible, just inconsistent. But it is the desperate need for their stop-gap presences in 2013 that is the vexation.

They are starters because Brandon Morrow, Cliff Lee, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas are not. Those five are starters of average or better major league talent, who the Mariners have traded in the past five years — primarily for offensive players who did not or have not worked out to date. (The Mariners also caught a bad break with the arm soreness of promising young starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.)

Obviously there remains hope that Justin Smoak (Lee), Jesus Montero (Pineda) and veteran Kendrys Morales (Vargas) will become major league average hitters. But there is little dispute that, to this point, the sale of pitching assets to fix hitting deficits has allowed the Mariners only to tread water. It's better than drowning, but another disturbing example of the pervasive inability to make anything other than incremental progress.

The invitations to spring training of veteran pitchers Jon Garland, 33, and Jeremy Bonderman, 30, were signals that the absence of the traded, prime-time vets was not going to be filled by the supposed wealth of talent in the farm system. Garland was picked up by the Rockies, for whom he is 3-2 with a 4.75 ERA in six starts over 36 innings. Bonderman is building arm strength in AAA Tacoma and remains a possibility.

The rotation could work itself out. Nobody was expecting the 2009 Phillies, either. But because the offense — eight hits in the past two games in Pittsburgh — still can't carry its weight, the Mariners remain lopsided, with too few carrying too many.

Lopsided is no way to roll.

Nor is it a way to attract customers. The fading constituency has seen so much of the same for so long that it has pushed back, locked elbows and turned for the door.

Thanks for the beard hat, they say. Keep the kitties. See you someday.

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