The History of the Seattle Mariners, by Bob Connally

15 May

I’ve said before how much it annoys me that there’s always a sense of obligation to tell non-baseball fans that a movie or show that involves baseball in some way is worth their time. As though it requires some sort of special interest or knowledge about the game. I mean, we all know that only doctors get why Scrubs is funny and only grave robbing history professors can truly appreciate an Indiana Jones movie, so why shouldn’t that be true for Bull Durham or Moneyball?

The thing is, I’m completely biased here. Not only am I a lifelong baseball fanatic, I’ve also lived in Seattle since I was a year old and I’ve consumed a tremendous amount of Seattle Mariners baseball, be it on television, radio, or at the ballpark. Yes, my heart belongs to the Baltimore Orioles in the end due to Cal Ripken being my favorite ballplayer throughout my entire childhood but I’m a Mariners fan too. But believe me, straw man/woman reading this who doesn’t care about the Mariners or even like baseball. Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s 6-part documentary about the history of the Seattle Mariners is a captivating, soul-stirring, and at times hilarious examination of an incredibly weird sports franchise and what that franchise can teach us not only about sports but about life itself.

The series, which is available for free on SB Nation’s YouTube channel, opens with, “This is not an endorsement of arson,” and if that doesn’t hook you right away then I don’t know what to tell you. This first 33 minute long episode (the 6 of them range anywhere between 24 and 51 minutes) covers in fascinating detail the bizarre circumstances in which the Seattle Mariners even came into being. While they weren’t added to Major League Baseball as an American League expansion team until 1977, Bois traces their existence back to a serial arsonist burning down Seattle’s Dugdale Field on July 4, 1932. This led to the construction of Sick’s Stadium (yes, that really was its name) which played host to various minor league franchises until a Major League expansion in 1969 in which Seattle was awarded a brand new organization. “But wait,” you say, “I thought you said that the Mariners didn’t come into existence until 1977.” Don’t worry. Bois will explain everything.

Over the course of the series, Bois (with the assistance of Rubenstein) takes us through it all, beginning with the hapless early years which included a game in which the team’s uniforms were stolen during a road trip to Texas and they were forced to buy Milwaukee Brewers hats from a vendor because they were the closest looking thing to Mariners hats that were available. Bois tells us all about the legends of Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro. He goes in depth into the 1995 playoff series that almost certainly saved the team from being sold and moved to Tampa (my brother and I attended games 3 and 5 of that series when I was 13). And he covers what has now become the longest running playoff drought not only in Major League Baseball but all of North American professional sports (NFL, NHL, and NBA included).

What makes this engaging for the vast majority of people who aren’t Mariners fans is how Bois’ main interest is in the individuals in this story. It’s not about how Ken Griffey, Jr. is on the shortlist of greatest all around players in the history of the game, it’s about how he was the 13-year old son of a Major League ballplayer and never forgot being insulted by the owner of the New York Yankees in front of his dad, making it his mission in life to make that owner pay on the field more than a decade later. It’s not about how Edgar Martinez became the greatest designated hitter in baseball history, it’s about how he was a struggling factory worker in his 20s who went to tryout for the Mariners on little sleep after a night shift. But maybe most of all it’s about how, “Yankees got married to Marilyn Monroe and hung out with the Rat Pack. Mariners made toilet jell-o and threw up because it was funny.” This is about personalities.

On a purely personal level, the greatest joy I get from this series is Bois’ admiration for the longtime voice of the Mariners, Dave Niehaus. Niehaus had experience as an announcer but when the Mariners hired him to be their first head play-by-play man in 1977 he would get the opportunity of a lifetime. He would connect the team to the fans and become- and believe me when I say this is not hyperbole- the most widely beloved person in the history of Seattle. I don’t mean in Seattle sports, I mean in Seattle. Bois himself states, “I doubt you’d find a single person on earth who knows Dave Niehaus and doesn’t love him.” Just last week, now a decade after his death, Niehaus won a poll on Seattle sports radio where he beat the likes of Griffey, Super Bowl winning Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and even the Seahawks 2013 Super Bowl title as the favorite thing in the history of Seattle sports and it wasn’t even close. 

As a baseball loving little kid in the late ’80s, Dave’s voice was the Mariners for me. This was an era when home games were never televised and even many road games wouldn’t be shown on TV until several hours after they had ended. Dave on the radio was how I experienced most of my baseball and when I was 6-years old I envisioned two career paths, ghostbuster or baseball announcer. Dave’s gifts as a storyteller transcended the game and no matter how badly things were going for the M’s (which they usually were), you stuck around for him. One of my favorite memories of his is a game from around 1993 or ’94 when they were getting soundly trounced by the Yankees. I was goofing around in the backyard with the radio on and I’ll never forget Dave expressing how glad he was that at least it was going to be the Mariners’ last game at Yankee Stadium that year because it meant he wouldn’t have to hear Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York again. Dave rarely expressed an emotion other than excitement but his bilious rant about his hatred of New York, New York was so hilarious and honest. To this day it’s the first thing I think of when I hear that song (even when the gremlins start singing it at the end of Gremlins 2).

After Dave died of a heart attack in 2010, after 34 seasons of making mostly bad baseball sound magical, I said to a friend of mine that Dave was a guy who could have just walked into my house unannounced (and obviously not even knowing me) and I would have been okay with it. In fact, I would have offered to make him dinner. He wasn’t a friend or a family member but he was more than a celebrity to me and to a whole lot of people who’ve lived in Seattle over the years. The reality was he had been in our homes, in our cars, and had been a welcome part of our lives for decades. Bois, who is not from Seattle and therefore didn’t grow up with Dave as a regular part of his life, still sees, appreciates, and shows how important Dave Niehaus was and still is to Seattleites. More than anything else, I hope people who watch this series get even the slightest understanding of how special that man was. I hadn’t planned on writing three full paragraphs about Dave Niehaus here but now that I think about it, I was always going to.

As Bois explains, the history of the Seattle Mariners is not about wins and losses. It’s not about the lack of championships. It’s about how special people can be, whether they’re extraordinarily talented or weirdos who play elaborate pranks on their manager involving putting jell-o in their hotel room toilet. It’s about how fans can connect with Hall of Famers and weirdos alike and how there is so much to appreciate about a team beyond its place in the standings.

I hope I’ve won you over here because this series is really something special. You may not come out of it a baseball fan but you will appreciate the Seattle Mariners for everything that they are, toilet Jell-o and all.

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