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December 6, 2012 at 11:45 AM

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Mariners need to stop living in past and recapture fans

Arne Christensen lives in Ballard and runs two baseball blogs - about the 1995 Mariners and baseball history - as well as one about Northwest earthquakes.

The Mariners’ eagerness to celebrate the 1995 season became a joke for many fans a while ago. At this point, it’s more of a bitter reminder of the franchise’s futility over the past decade and its position as one of two major-league teams not to appear in a World Series. I created a website about that remarkable year, and certainly there’s a place for warm nostalgia for ‘95. But as the years go by, it increasingly seems that the Mariners are using the season as a crutch rather than a spur driving them to improve on what happened in ‘95.

In 1995, the Mariners could have looked at the deep resentment toward Major League Baseball because of the strike, Ken Griffey Jr.’s injury, and a team struggling to stay at .500 well into August, and decided not to throw away more money on personnel moves. After all, the franchise might be moving from Seattle.

Instead, they signed Joey Cora in early April, traded for Tim Belcher in mid-May, signed Norm Charlton in mid-July, then traded for Andy Benes and Vince Coleman. Within a few months of those moves, the Mariners had an overwhelming return on their investment to improve the team. Those deals yielded a new stadium, a huge multi-year jump in attendance, and goodwill toward the Mariners that lingers (weakly) today.

By the turn of the century, the Mariners had become inexplicably resistant to making significant midseason moves to ready the team for a playoff berth and success in the playoffs. Some believe that former manager Lou Piniella left Seattle over this unwillingness to deal, and ever since, the franchise has been unwilling or not competent to make those sorts of moves, during the season or offseason.

So fan patience keeps eroding. The Mariners should learn the lesson from ‘95: Instead of running the franchise intent on the goal of ensuring a year-end profit, the team needs to take intelligent short-term risks to pursue long-term gains. Interest in the team has eroded too much for management to just wait for prospects to mature and hope to be in the playoffs in 2014 or 2015.

When the Sonics left town in 2008, the Mariners had a great window of opportunity to recapture the hearts of Northwest sports fans. The 2009 season was a step toward doing that, but since then the team has slumped back to subpar play and turned off fans with numerous missteps. The Sounders have steadily gained ground on the Mariners, and an NBA team could be back in town soon. The NHL also could come to Seattle. Taking everything into account, I don’t think there’s time to lose: The Mariners need to demonstrate a full commitment to fielding an interesting, competitive team next year, one that at least has honest hopes of becoming one of the two American League wild cards.

This wouldn’t require signing Josh Hamilton. The 2012 A’s and Orioles showed (as have the Giants, and many other teams before them) that intelligent maneuvering and a solid organizational structure can overcome the lack of a superstar and the failure to bring in Prince Fielder or some other marquee free agent.

We can assume that the Mariners would love to do what the A’s and Orioles did and get back into the playoffs in 2013, but consider the news since the Mariners’ season ended. The franchise surreptitiously raised prices for many season-ticket holders, solidified its opposition to an NBA/NHL arena, messily parted ways with Bob Engle and many other international scouts, and started the roughly $10 million project of putting up a giant TV screen at Safeco Field. None of this indicates that the Mariners are firmly focused, day after day, on putting better players on the field.

Mariner fans are asking for something besides slogans like “ready to play” or “patience” or “believe big”. Pro sports isn’t a charity, and people don’t have to wait for a winner. They are not obligated to “support the team.” In any case, they’ve already amply supported the Mariners, with the $340 million of public funding for Safeco. They just want to see a winning team, one that deserves their attention and money, one that doesn’t act like it’s entitled and doesn’t make excuses for its failings.

The Mariners need to stop pursuing the meager returns of celebrating a should-have-been-better past and work hard to win new commitments from new fans. If you were in the Northwest in October 1995, you know about the depth of the region’s enchantment with the Mariners during the run at that pennant. Many people are still waiting for that enchantment to return. The Mariners have to do more to make it happen.

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