Losing, Disappointment and the Myth of the Bandwagon Fan

Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz connects for a solo homer in first inning against the Baltimore Orioles, Tues., Aug., 11, 2015, at Safeco Field in Seattle.   (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz connects for a solo homer in first inning against the Baltimore Orioles, Tues., Aug., 11, 2015, at Safeco Field in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The M’s dusted the visiting Orioles last night 6-5 in extras with a walk-off single from Austin Jackson.  Yes, this game had all the 2015 Mariner trademarks.  Got behind in the first 2-0 on some shaky pitching by starter Taijuan Walker. Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo got Walker off the hook with first inning dingers, Mariners lead 4-2.  Kyle Seager drove in a fifth run in the second to take a 5-2, and that was the name of that tune.  Walker found himself and cruised through six. The offense, getting the lead thought “Did your bit Hookie,” and took a breather.

But Walker was gassed after six and the call went out to the pesthouse that is the Seattle bullpen.  The Bartender went 1.1, but left after surrendering a two run blast to Adam Jones. Joe Beimel, the lefty veteran, came in and coughed up a bolt off the bat of Chris Davis.  Game tied in the 8th, and we’re down to a battle of bullpens.  Well shit, that’s a lot like bringing a knife to a gunfight.  We’ve seen it before and we know how it ends. Some Rodney, or Smith, Rollins or Rasmussen, Farquar or Olsen, gives up the game winning homer, walks in the go-ahead run, or pushes the winning run across by cleverly bouncing the pitch between Mike Zunino’s legs. The visitors do a victory dance, the M’s walk heads down to the dugout, the deal is done.

Not this time.  Austin Jackson singled the game-winner home in the 10th, after a series of splendid gyrations by the Orioles; series tied 1-1, with the series decider this afternoon.

So this leaves the beloved Mariners pretty much where they’ve been the last couple months: eight games behind the faltering Astros, seven games behind the second wild card spot with seven teams in front of them.  Their weaknesses remain a bad bullpen, inconsistent starting pitching, and an inability to hit with runners in scoring position. I don’t see this getting better.

And it happens at a bad time. The M’s have continued to draw well for a lousy team.  Nearly 25,000 fans showed up on a Tuesday for Country Music Night. The team is 7th in the league in attendance and seem quite likely to eclipse last year’s 2.06 million attendance mark. They are kind of fun to watch, as long you don’t mind cussing out most M’s batters as they watch a 2-2 pitch float by for a strike with runners on second and third and two out, or having your heart broken by the two-timingest bullpen in the major leagues. Calculating the length of Nelson Cruz home runs (like how many Cruz home runs would it take to make a round trip to Pluto) or predicting the date of the next Mike Zunino hit always makes for an interesting game.

Despite this excitement, Friday is a watershed day.  The Seahawks, winners of a Superbowl and the reigning NFC champions, play their first exhibition game Friday night. Though the M’s will be on the road, hoping to be the latest to pummel another bad team, the Boston Red Sox, and their game will be at 4:30 PDT. The Hawks will be on the tube from Denver at 7:00 PDT, it’s inevitable that sports fans will migrate away from the disappointing loser to a demonstrated winner.

There’s been some talk on social media about the Mariners and bandwagon fans. I’ve got some news for those folks: Seattle is a front running town.  Fans here like winners. When the M’s were very good they set records for attendance. When Ken Behring owned the Seahawks and they were terrible, he couldn’t give tickets away. I’d be interested to know Sounders attendance as they’ve stumbled through their games the past few weeks.

Listen, if folks on Mariners Nation and the Seattle Mariners Facebook pages are still posting more than “Fire Fat Jack,” or “I’ll never watch this team until they get rid of Chuck and Howie,”  or “Mariners suck!” they aren’t bandwagon fans. Generally speaking, they have a passion for baseball and an affection for their home team.  They know their players.  They know the standings.  They know the score.  And they know it’s not pretty.

This team had such high expectations, not just from local media, but nationally.  I ran across my copy of the pre-season predictions for SI yesterday, with Cano and Felix on the cover.  I sighed heavily and tucked it away.  I know it doesn’t help, but most of the season predictions were wrong. The Indians foundered every bit as badly as the M’s. The Nationals, most writers’ pre-season pick to win it all, remain 2.5 games behind the surprising Mets, and five games out of the Wild Card. The Red Sox, picked to win the East, are absolutely vile. The Astros lead their division, and so do the elderly Yankees (at least for the time being.) The Mets lead the NL East and the surprising Cubbies have 3.5 game lead over the beloved Giants for the second Wild Card. The only really good teams are the Royals and Cardinals. The prognosticators misfired too.

Note to self: don’t buy the pre-season hype.

No, if fans are critical of Lloyd, or Jack, if they’re tired of Zunino striking out, if they are frustrated that Kyle Seager can’t hit with runners in scoring position, if they are exhausted by the bullpen’s rotating Goat-For-the-Day and they are critical in pointed language, they aren’t bandwagon fans.  They are knowledgeable, they know how the game should be played and they are sharing their informed opinions.  Most are veterans of ’95 and ’01 and they’ve seen how the game should be played. This ain’t it, and based on last year’s success, it’s hard to understand what the hell happened. True fans question roster construction, situational decision-making, as well as player performance. They aren’t blind and they aren’t stupid, and real fans of the game are critical.

No the bandwagon fans left long ago. They left when the Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham (oooooh, shiny.) They left when the M’s were 9-11 at the end of April and the NFL held their draft. They left when Robinson Cano, the $240 million man, stumbled out of the gate and team couldn’t seem to hit his way out of a paper bag. They left when Jack traded for Mark Trumbo, another in a long line of all-or-nothing players Zdurencik seems to be in love with. They left after Fernando Rodney gave up four runs to the A’s on April 12th to back into a win (while true fans gave up after Rodney blew his sixth save on August 5th.)

So enough talk about bandwagon fans. Though I’ll still watch regularly to see if Felix can dominate in his last ten or so starts, to know exactly when Cruz is the first player to hit a ball on to Royal Brougham Way in a game, to watch Seager make great plays from third, to hope Ketel Marte turns into something special. But I reserve the right to criticize, bitch, fuss, piss and moan as fans have throughout baseball history.

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