"Did you hear that Pete Carroll has been named ambassador to the Vatican?"
"After Carroll's goal-line call in the Super Bowl, President Obama figured Pete is the only man in America who could bring 20 million people spontaneously to their feet shouting, 'Jesus Christ!' "
PEORIA, Arizona -- If you're still stressed from the Seahawks' Super Bowl loss -- or, worse, if you lost big money because of that dubious goal-line call -- there's a way to decompress and enter a kinder, gentler realm.
Enter, please, into the world of Mariners spring training here in Peoria.
Major League Baseball, unlike National Football League football, does not center around violence, booze and betting during an intense 16-game season and playoffs. Baseball remains our national pastime, a slower-paced family sport played over a 162-game season, prior to its playoffs, and relatively free of the on- and off-field "Look at Me" antics of NFL players, who are legends in their own minds. Those who love baseball, and can take or leave NFL football, might characterize pro football as barbarism, baseball as civilization.
The Mariners' pitchers and catchers, along with a few position players here voluntarily, took the field Saturday morning in Peoria for their first official workout, although several had been here on their own earlier. It has been a warm, dry February in the Valley of the Sun and Saturday was another of those days. The complex playing fields and public areas were in superb condition with deep green grass, which had been fertilized and then watered daily. Most fans attending were senior citizens or families with children. Players took time to sign autographs and chat with the kids.
This will be Manager Lloyd McClendon's second season leading the Mariners. Last year's team came within one victory of the American League playoffs and, on paper, has improved in the offseason. But a key injury or two, an unexplained slump by a pitcher or hitter, or even an umpire's mistaken call can shatter high hopes of February and March. Who would have predicted the Kansas City Royals as last year's American League champs? Who foresaw the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers as also-rans?
You can point to a single most-damaging play, which kept the Mariners out of last year's playoffs. It came in the 9th inning of a Mariners game in Texas. A routine ground ball went to rookie shortstop Brad Miller, whose short flip to second baseman Robinson Cano would end the game and give staff ace Felix Hernandez a victory. But Miller tossed the ball well over Cano's head and lost the game both for the Mariners and Hernandez. It was devastating. The team required several days to get back in stride.
There were also disappointing late-season starts by Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the most consistent starting pitchers. There were injuries and illnesses suffered by outfielder Michael Saunders and first baseman Justin Smoak, both now wearing Toronto uniforms. There were the mid-season and pennant-race acquisitions by General Manager Jack Zduriencik -- designated hitter Kendrys Morales, center fielder Austin Jackson and outfielder Chris Denorfia -- all of which seemed positive at the time. But all three floundered and only Jackson remains, hopeful of returning to his prior form as a Detroit Tiger.
The 2015 edition of the Mariners is deeper at all positions than last year's. Hernandez, Iwakuma, J.A. Happ (acquired from Toronto for Saunders), James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and Erasmo Ramirez will contest for the five starting pitching positions. Danny Hultzen, after a year lost to injury, is back to compete as well. Relief pitching also is deep.
Probably the most important addition to this year's Mariners is Nelson Cruz, who led the American League in home runs last year. He will fill a previous black hole at designated hitter and play a corner outfield position as needed. He also is a hard-nosed competitor.
Third baseman Kyle Seager and second baseman Cano are proven all-stars. The initial starting outfield likely will include Dustin Ackley in left field, Jackson in center, and a right-field platoon of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith. But also available will be Cruz and Rickie Weeks, a former all-star second baseman now available for utility duty. Another possibility will be James Jones, who flashed great speed and potential as a rookie last year but who still is raw both afield and at bat.
Mike Zunino is the starting catcher. Able backups are available when he needs a break.
The big question marks are at first base and shortstop. Logan Morrison displaced Smoak last season at first base and hit well down the stretch. But he is at best a journeyman fielder and no one knows if he will hit this season as he did last August and September. Miller and Chris Taylor will compete for the shortstop position. Both have potential to be major-league regulars. Miller is the better hitter; Taylor has a better glove. But can either deliver consistently over the course of a long season -- and a pressurized pennant race?
Zduriencik had opportunities over the off-season to trade young talent for more established players at first base and shortstop. But the veterans were nearing the ends of their contracts and were not certain to re-sign after 2015. There are other possibilities if Morrison or Miller/Taylor fall short. Ketel Marte is a flashy young shortstop already at the Miller/Taylor level. Jesus Montero, the once ballyhooed catcher/hitting prospect, has reportedly cleaned up his act and is now a first baseman. Weeks and utility man Willie Bloomquist also can play first. And there are two blue-ribbon, hard-hitting young rookies, D.J. Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan, available to play first as well (or, for that matter, third base or a corner outfield position).
Clubhouse and on-field chemistry are important in baseball, a long-season sport in which the players take extended road trips and are constantly interacting. We'll see how this season's additions and subtractions affect that chemistry.
The atmosphere at the opening of spring training, among the pitchers and catchers, was upbeat and businesslike. No pitcher appeared to be suffering arm miseries, as several did last season. The workouts were brisk. Pitchers practiced fielding drills on four fields. Catchers practiced on another. Then they got together.