The Mariners entered Monday’s series opener with the Toronto Blue Jays on a seven-game losing streak since opening the season 2-0. They won the first two games of that series, and had a great chance to win the third before reigning home run king Jose Bautista ended their aspirations of a sweep with one swing.
Yet despite the series win over a solid baseball team, the stretch marked rock bottom in the last decade of Seattle baseball. How could that be, you ask? Let us peek at the attendance figures.
On Monday, Felix Hernandez faced off with one of the hardest-hitting lineups in baseball, his first start in Safeco Field as reigning Cy Young winner. He floundered, but in one of the young season’s great ironies, the soft-hitting Mariners put up eight runs in the last three innings, winning the game on reserve Luis Rodriguez’s walk-off single.
A total of 13,056 fans were in attendance, many of them absent by the time of the comeback (and many more booing as the team they travelled to see—the Blue Jays—gave away their lead). The largely anti-Mariner crowd was the smallest in the history of Safeco Field.
Two days later was almost predestined to re-set the dubious “record.” Instead of Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, the young and relatively anonymous Jason Vargas took the bump. And the game started at 12:40. On a Wednesday.
Sure enough, 12,407 fans were on hand to watch the come-from-behind Jays victory, barely filling Safeco Field to one-fourth its capacity. ROOT Sports, Seattle’s local broadcaster, eventually gave up on showing groups of fans in the stands.
Twelve years does not make a stadium old, but it sure takes the luster off of it. By and large, people no longer attend Mariner games to see Ichiro or wander the beautiful ballpark; most Seattleites who want to go have been before, and the team isn’t good enough to draw them back.
Do not get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with the Safe. The family environment is still second-to-none. The problem is the team’s recent performance.
It has failed to make the playoffs every year since the miracle 116-win 2001 season. Only twice since then have the M's finished as high as second in the four-team American League West.
The honors bestowed on the franchise since 2001 are more dubious ones, “first team to lose 100-plus games with a $100 million payroll” (2008) being the one that hurts most. Last year, they again lost 101 games. The Mariners have ceased to be a conversation piece outside of sports radio hosts and the most diehard of fans.
Yet despite their struggles, Safeco had continued to have decent attendance numbers. Last year, despite the worst record in the American League, the Mariners finished 21st in attendance.
That time is over. Fans have gone from angry to apathetic—and indifferent fans do not attend games. The city’s Safeco Field saturation point also appears near, if it is not there yet. So where to go from here?
There are two reasons to have faith.
One is that the rainy, 50-degree days spent playing middling American League East teams will end as spring fades to summer. More fans will come out simply because of the weather and competition. (The Yankees visit for a weekend in May and the Red Sox do likewise in mid-August.)
The second reason for hope is longer-term, but hopefully more lasting. This team is getting better.
It appears, barring injury, that they have found their second ace of the future in Michael Pineda. The 6’6” fireballer has looked downright dominant, and maturity and his friendship with Hernandez will only help him on the mound. Young and powerful, Justin Smoak already helps anchor an admittedly weak lineup.
In AAA, 2B Dustin Ackley just hit his first home run of the season and looks to learn the ropes at second base—a position he converted to upon being drafted—in time to get his feet wet in the MLB when rosters expand in September.
And those are simply the two most well-known names. Nick Franklin, Alex Liddi and Kyle Seager are working their way towards the Safeco infield, hoping to complement Smoak and Ackley from the left side. A cavalcade of young arms is on the way as well, hoping to be ready to join the rotation over the next few years.
It is not an immediate solution to the attendance problem, and regrettably Safeco Field—as last series showed—no longer takes care of attendance on its own. Hopefully some crisp Seattle weather and a likeable group of young players will provide the immediate attendance relief.
And hopefully in a few years I won’t have to use phrases like “likeable young players” and “crisp Seattle weather” to give Seattleites a reason to head to Safeco Field.