Under pressure, Mariners hope they can be good — and goofy
Being fun and likable doesn't always make a team pitch, hit or play defense better, but in a game where success is often defined by having the mental capacity to overcome frequent failure, the good vibes help.
Seattle Times staff columnist
PEORIA, Ariz. — The big controversy Thursday morning was merely in jest, of course. You know these daffy Mariners. Their version of strife amounts to which teammate can out-quip the next.
On this day, Mike Sweeney had come up with a new idea to unite the team's non-starter position players. Last season, he established "L. Ben Show" (pronounced "el bencho") for the reserves. But that's so 2009. So Sweeney gathered "the goons," as he playfully calls his type, held a meeting to emphasize the importance of their roles this spring and gave them T-shirts pronouncing their new name and mission.
"The Peoria Fire and Rescue team," the shirts read.
Declared Sweeney: "From the fifth inning on, we're firing and we're rescuing!"
A few minutes later, Ken Griffey Jr. walked into the clubhouse, smirked at the shirts and started singing the hook to a late 1990s song by Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige.
"Someone please call 9-1-1!" he bellowed several times on his way to the training room.
But just when Sweeney was feeling proud of himself, shortstop Jack Wilson interrupted and jokingly accused him of starting a clique. Wilson picked up a newspaper and imagined the next day's headline.
"The Seattle Mariners — a team divided!" he exclaimed.
Which brings us to today's message. Or maybe you should just consider it a hope.
This season presents a great challenge to all the joy and chemistry the Mariners have shown since hitting rock bottom in 2008. They were the happiest team ever to post a third-place division finish a year ago, and it was appropriate because the Mariners made a surprising 24-win improvement. The 2009 season ended with manager Don Wakamatsu taking an ice-cream pie to the face, with all of the coaches receiving beer showers from the players and with Griffey waving to the Safeco Field crowd atop the shoulders of Sweeney and Carlos Silva.
Oh, the thrill of going 85-77.
If the Mariners have a similar season in 2010, the celebration won't be as dramatic. Actually, it would be nonexistent. The pressure is greater now. Cliff Lee is here. Chone Figgins is here. The Mariners are a trendy pick to win the American League West. Anything less than 90 wins would leave the fan base feeling something between disappointment and indifference.
With those expectations, with the combustible Milton Bradley looming as a challenge, and with a group that will struggle at times because of its questionable offense, you must ask this: Can the Mariners stay loose?
It won't be easy this time, but the Mariners expect they'll remain jovial and, more important, unified. Being fun and likable doesn't always make a team pitch, hit or play defense better, but in a game where success is often defined by having the mental capacity to overcome frequent failure, the good vibes help.
"Expectations and pressure are things brought on by outside influences," said Sweeney, whose bid to make the team has been boosted by his 10-of-13 hitting (.769 average) this spring. "Last year, we expected to be great. Nobody else did, but we did. So I think if the guys in here stay focused on us, on who we are, everything will be just fine."
In fact, Sweeney returned to the Mariners, in part, to ensure just that. He teamed with Griffey last season and turned a sullen, bickering clubhouse into a joyous one. The Mariners aren't inclined to have a roster with two almost-retired veterans who can't play the field much this season, and Griffey is the old guy with the guaranteed deal, so Sweeney must be extraordinary to make the team. Still, he wanted to be here to help the Mariners prepare for this playoff run the right way.
"Definitely, that was a goal of mine," Sweeney said. "I had a couple of other offers to play with other organizations. But this was my No. 1 pick, even though it's going to be more of an uphill climb. With or without me, this team is going to be great. We have a chance to get into the playoffs, and, I believe, win a World Series. They just need to work hard and stay relaxed. I know I can help with that."
Take the pressure. Leave the good times.
Outside the Mariners' clubhouse here, there's a hallway with large pictures of M's players on the walls. As a prank, the players put up mini, 2x3-inch framed photos of Sweeney and reliever Sean White next to the gigantic ones.
"Hell, yeah!" Griffey yelled when closer David Aardsma showed the images. "That's what I'm talkin' about!"
The Seattle Mariners — a team amused. For now. And, cross your fingers, for good.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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