Drayer: Mariners became exceptionally close-knit despite — or perhaps because of — 2020’s challenges
With a 6-2 loss to the A’s under the shadows of the concrete palace known as the Oakland Coliseum, the Mariners’ 2020 season came to an end Sunday. As it was no doubt for every other team in baseball, in game, out of game, the season was unlike anything we have ever seen before.
The results for the Mariners? To be honest, not unexpected. It was a year of learning, of the youngest roster in baseball gaining experience that general manager Jerry Dipoto hopes will propel them closer to contention in the not-too-distant future. That all will be broken down as we get into the offseason. A sneak preview: there was far more on the pleasant surprise side of the page than the other. What comes immediately to mind as the season ends, however, is an appreciation for how they got here.
As the NFL begins to hit its stride and more and more college conferences start to fire up, it’s worth remembering that baseball was the canary in the coal mine when it came to navigating pandemic sports outside a protective bubble. The first hurdle was the ugly negotiation for a season between MLB and the MLBPA that ended in no agreement and commissioner Rob Manfred mandating a 60-game season.
With COVID-19 continuing to loom, there were those who chose to opt out rather than take their chances finding out if the protocols agreed to jointly by MLB and the MLBPA could keep the disease at bay. While most agreed to play, there was unease expressed by a number of players at the onset. Many in baseball, including Mariners manager Scott Servais, were not sure that a full season would be completed.
“I had questions,” he admitted. “I think a lot of people did as far as would all of the teams be able to stay on point with protocols and certainly there were some hiccups. I’m glad we were able to get through it.”
One week in and the season was in peril with over half the Miami Marlins team testing positive for COVID-19. Baseball stayed flexible, however, and the season was able to continue. The answer for what to do if there were positive tests? Stop. Games could be moved, doubleheaders scheduled. As improbable as it sounded that the Marlins would ever be able to make up seven games or the Cardinals 15 in a tight 66-day schedule, not only were they able to recoup the lost games, both teams were able to do so and make the postseason.
In total, 43 games were postponed and rescheduled due to positive COVID tests or instances when teams elected not to play to bring awareness to social justice issues. While the Mariners did not have a player or staff member test positive during the regular season, they did see a series postponed and rescheduled due to a positive case on the A’s and had a postponement and two home series moved to the road because of the West Coast wildfires.
With the season already scheduled to have fewer days off than than what would have been had in an equivalent 162-game season, the reschedules and doubleheaders took an additional toll. Add in the daily health and safety protocols and strict restrictions on what players could do on the road – these players will probably never want to order room service, carry a boxed meal home from a game or eat at a solo table in a hotel ballroom again – in many ways this short season proved to be more grueling in reality than it appeared on paper.
“Sixty games in the course of 162 is nothing, but this year, with all of the extra stuff going on, it’s been probably more of a mental grind than the physical part,” said Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager. “Just having to deal with testing and all the differences, the quarantining and all of the restrictions, that’s what this year was. We wanted to play, we wanted to get out there. I’m thankful we were able to do that.”
“I think this year has thrown things our way we never could have expected on and off the field, with COVID and all the challenges it presented,” said pitcher Marco Gonzales. “Some really tough protocols, things that really changed some routines and we could have let that get us down and that would have taken us down a bad path, but we didn’t. We had some good leadership and I thought we really, really just stuck true to each other and became unified though that.”
The experience was similar for rookie first baseman Evan White.
“From the COVID side of things, we’ve never had to experience anything like that,” he said. “It’s kind of tough when you go home and you can’t really go out and separate the game from home sometimes and that can be a challenge, but coming in each and every game and having those guys that you built relationships to, talk outside of baseball with, was really good.”
While there is no metric that can be attached to the relationship-building, it has been apparent even from the distance of the press box. The group White is a part of that came up from Double-A together were already close, but that group has expanded to encompass the team as they have pushed forward through the experience of 2020 baseball.
“It might be the tightest group, close-knit group I have been around,” said Servais. “A lot of that might be because they line up in age and where they are in their careers. I say that but then we do have some very strong veteran presence on our team. I give those vets a ton credit for giving back, coaching guys up a little bit, talking them through on-field situations, off-field situations, and also credit in not being so stuck in their ways that they are open to some of what the young players bring.”
Never was this closeness more apparent than when the team chose to address social justice issues. Tough conversations were had in the clubhouses and hotel lobbies on the road. Individual truths were told and they had great impact with this young group willing to take on more than just trying to navigate their way through a MLB season.
“I really think it brought us a lot closer together in realizing that we all come from different backgrounds,” White said. “We all see different things and to be able to kind of open our eyes and see what some guys have gone through and what family members have gone through really gives us perspective on real situations and real issues that are out there. And I think the coolest thing was for us to come together and support one and other and love on one and other, was really special this year.”
Where in years past baseball was firmly “keep the heavy stuff to yourself,” it appears it has all come out in the Mariners clubhouse. It has become part of their foundation, a part that center fielder Kyle Lewis believes is important that they are able to express. Athletes in 2020 will not be confined to being entertainers only.
“I think this is just kind of a great year in establishing that we are a team that is going to be in full support of whatever we need to be in full support of,” Lewis said. “If something is going on in the country that requires our attention then we will give that as well. We aren’t afraid to make those stances when need be. We just ultimately are going to be an inspiration for the community and I think it is great to be a part of that. I think it’s rare that you get those moments in time. When you get them, you have got to take advantage of them. It’s great to be a part of that.”
These players have experienced a season unlike any other in baseball history. It has challenged them on the field and off the field but they have gone through these challenges together. They will go to work on individual improvement during the offseason but the bond they have created in the clubhouse appears to be solidified. A byproduct in part because of an unimaginable set of circumstances that were the 2020 season, but one that surely should benefit them going forward.