Salk: Scars remain as Mariners return, but hope isn’t far away

Mar 27, 2024, 6:55 PM | Updated: Mar 28, 2024, 9:33 am

Seattle Mariners Mitch Haniger...

Mitch Haniger of the Seattle Mariners takes the field at T-Mobile Park in 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seasons change on earth because our planet is a giant sphere, spinning on its axis which is tilted on its orbital plane, thus changing the angle at which the sun hits our location. Things grow in spring, mature in summer, fade in fall and die in the winter … only to be reborn and start the cycle all over again.

Mariners’ young core, now veterans, fueled by last year’s letdown

I’ll avoid the easy baseball analogy (did you know a baseball is also a sphere that can spin on its axis???) and even the temptation to joke about how we’ll soon start measuring how much “horizontal run” our planet has. But there is no sport more caught up with that seasonal cycle than baseball.

Because we live in a place where winters can get dreary, many of us in Seattle look to the spring for hope. Many of us cling to the occasional warm day as a preview of the joys of summer to come. And because of that, we wait for baseball season with all the patience of a puppy as you prepare its food. Baseball has long been equated with hope and the promise of what is to come.

Unfortunately, Seattleites haven’t often gotten to feel the rewards that can come at the other end of that promise. Playoff appearances for the Mariners have been far too infrequent and that ultimate reward has never really been in sight. We ride the ups and downs through the summer but have consistently been disappointed by October.

Even worse, the frustration of this past fall turned into a furious rage by winter. The players spoke up, the management threw verbal gas on the fire, and then at the winter meetings in December, we found out that the budget wouldn’t be rising the way many (including some in the organization) thought it would. Like you, I was I was furious. I said that the need was to spend more money, and I believe that still today.

Last year was hard for Seattle Mariners fans. For some, it was hard because it was exactly what they expected to happen. They didn’t like the offseason moves and weren’t surprised at all when the team fell short. For others, like me, it was more of a shock. I did think the team would make the playoffs, and maybe even do more than that. Quite obviously, I was wrong.

But the way the season went – the predictions of championship glory by those both in and outside the organization turning to disappointment, ultimately a rebuke by the young leaders in that clubhouse, and it all was followed by that end-of-season press conference – made for wounds that won’t just quickly heal. Just turning the calendar to spring, feeling the sunshine and opening up the gates might not be enough this year. The payroll did not significantly rise and there are plenty still furious about it.

Last season’s injuries cut deep because they called into question the faith many had placed in those who had made promises just a few seasons earlier. The rebuild was over and it was time to go. But instead of heading into the breach loaded for bear, there was a sense that someone forgot to supply all the ammo. And trust, as we all know, takes time to build, and even longer to rebuild after it’s been broken.

Manager Scott Servais, president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and their staffs did what they could do to start that process. Scott went to work on the Seattle Mariners’ players, visiting the leaders and providing more transparency that is customary. Baseball operations took on the challenge of revamping the roster without any financial flexibility and used the mantra “find a way” to creatively improve. I believe both have succeeded, at least on paper.

The players seem mollified by the actions and words of management. Many of the fans are looking at this roster and seeing reasons for optimism. It is, after all, spring once again.

But as the great Bret Michaels once crooned, “Like a knife that cuts you, the wound heals, but that scar, that scar remains.” And let’s be clear, last season produced scars. I know I’ll wear them for a while.

Before cuts to turn to scars, they generally scab over. I get the sense that is where we currently are in this process. The return of Mitch Haniger and the arrivals of Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver and others has helped everyone start to heal. But the moment something happens (like Jordan Montgomery signing in Arizona a day after we learned Bryan Woo would start the season on the injured list), it scrapes off that scab and reopens the wound. Every time a team outside of New York and Los Angeles spends a dime or two, it’s like someone is squeezing the lemon juice all over it, and we find ourselves right back where we were in December.

This year, it will take more than just a turn of the calendar page to bring back that annual feeling of hope. We are going to need to see results.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from giving this team an opportunity to earn back our support. This is still a nucleus of players that earned their way into the playoffs just two seasons ago and fought until the final day of 2023. This is still the fifth-youngest roster in the league despite not having a single player making his major league debut on opening day. And this may very well be the best pitching staff in baseball coupled with one of the frontrunners for the MVP.

Baseball has a habit of surprising us. Not only that, it often frustrates us to the breaking point (and sometimes past it) before redeeming itself again. Even last season’s Mariners fought their way back into contention with a great July and ridiculous August.

I often tell the story of my friend Mike B. who called me from LA on July 2, 2004 – the day after Derek Jeter dove into the stands to make a play while Nomar Garciaparra sat on the bench – to renounce his Red Sox fandom for good.

“I’m done!” he told me. “I am now an Angels fan.”

Nearly four months later, he celebrated what was probably his happiest day as a fan when the Sox beat first the Yankees in the ALCS, then the Cardinals in the World Series to exorcise 86 years worth of demons. Yes, he was able to jump back on the bandwagon (and he hates when I tell this story).

The scars from last season are quite raw and painful to the touch. Seattle Mariners fans have every right to react to any reminder of last fall. It’s going to take some time and a whole lot of meaningful wins before their support comes without the underlying urge to panic, blame and lash out.

This year might feel a little different. We might wear our frustrations a little closer to the surface, ready to give up at the first signs of trouble. And there will probably be some trouble along the way.

Personally, the start of another season is making me feel my own scars. I blew it last year and it’s made me a little gun-shy to get overly excited about this team. While the pitching is elite, it is also short on depth. While the bullpen is filthy, it is already banged up. While the lineup is longer, it is full of players with serious injury histories. And while their new offensive strategy has merit, the defense is a legitimate concern.

Related: How Seattle Mariners hitters are embracing new approach to offense

But it’s also spring. It’s time to remember that there are reasons to be excited. It’s time to allow hope to take root, even if it’s coupled with that nasty scar tissue. It’s time to let the 2024 team speak for itself, rather than having to answer for the sins of its predecessors.

It’s time for baseball.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Breakdown: What Seattle Mariners bring north this year is very different
Dontrelle Willis: Mariners’ rotation provides ‘quality every single day’
Passan: Mariners’ Rodríguez can take game to another level in 2024
Inside how the Mariners’ pitching lab gets most out of relievers
Why Jeff Passan ‘flirted’ with picking Seattle Mariners to make World Series

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