Mariners baseball changed forever in 1993

Contributing writer Jae Easterbrooks writes in about the change that the Seattle Mariners franchise made in 1993, erasing a history of bad memories and replacing it with a team that competes, a city that loves baseball, and a fan-base that will settle for nothing less than a World Series Championship.

Many long-time Seattle Mariners fans shake their heads in wonder that the franchise which once struggled to regularly lure even 10,000 fans to a game could possibly have evolved into a powerhouse on the field and at the turnstiles. Such has been the effect of moving the team from the cavernous Kingdome to the baseball palace that is Safeco Field, and fielding a winning team in the process. But it was the events occurring approximately a decade ago that would come to form the fault line for team fortunes and account for the difference between Mariner fans then and Mariner fans now.

The Great Divide between Mariner eras occurred in 1993, separating what can be termed the time Before Lou—our version of the Dark Ages—and After Lou. While the M's finally achieved a .500+ season in 1991, they were still just 1-15 in .500+ seasons over the franchise's history. Not many Major League clubs had wallowed in such misery as long as our Mariners and we fans wallowed right along, when we were even paying attention. Just to make the point, we returned to our normal state in 1992, closing in on a hundred losses under the guidance of new and soon to be old skipper, Bill Plummer.

For long-time fans, the old feelings sown before the arrival of Lou never seem to fade, due to memories of watching favorite players regularly leave and years of seemingly endless losing streaks. Just amble down Occidental—where the ghosts of that old baseball pillbox, the Kingdome, still haunt Seahawk Stadium—and you'll feel the history come back to you, like it or not.

The life of an M's fan Before Lou was about many things. It was about watching baseball played on fraying, cartilage-crushing Astroturf, while washing down the bad taste of the play on the field with the even worse taste of a soggy hotdog and stale bun. And, if beer was your beverage of choice, you better have liked it watery. There weren't many concessions options inside, and walkup food vendors were virtually non-existent. Why set up private booths outside a team venue that had no fans?

Mariner baseball back then was about how you couldn't give good tickets away to friends or strangers on summer days. It was about needing an oxygen tank to climb to your seat in the upper deck and feeling like you were watching the game from the moon when you got there. It was about concourses so narrow they made a half-full stadium feel like a crowded subway station, and endless bathroom lines. It was about echoes that lasted for minutes, and painful losses that lasted for lifetimes.

In the time Before Lou, there was no money for payroll. Those days were about inconsistent hitting and horrible pitching, especially in relief, with retreads such as Steve Trout and Tom Niedenfuer examples of the snake-bit players the M's always seemed to inherit. Mariners baseball back then meant no decent free agent would dare step foot in Seattle. Our breakthrough free agent signing in 1990, Pete O'Brien, continued our luck, eventually chasing Mariner favorite Alvin Davis out of town just as Pete inexplicably stopped hitting. This reversal of fortunes succinctly summarized the life of M's fans and their team. In the time Before Lou, one way or another, the Baseball Gods would always smile wanly upon the Seattle Mariners. This had a permanent effect on Mariner fan culture, where optimism was never allowed.

As a result, Before Lou, there was no massive on or off-season interest in the Seattle Mariners. No one gathered around the office water cooler to talk passionately about how the team did the previous night. We didn't have superstitions back then. No one worried if they wore the wrong hat the M's might lose that night. Your mom didn't watch the games or know at least some of the player's names. We didn't worry to the point of heart attacks whether we would land Miguel Tejada or just settle on second-tier free agents.

But now we do.

First, however, we had to suffer a little more pain. When original Mariners owner George Argyros sold the team to Jeff Smulyan, the sneaky radio magnate who some believe harbored covert plans to move the M's to Tampa Bay, it looked like we might finally have reached the end of baseball in Seattle. Again. But a glimmer of good fortune finally appeared in January 1992, when a group from five local businesses offered to purchase the Mariners. After initial resistance, baseball owners assented to the sale and a new era was soon to arrive.

And then Lou stepped ashore in the Northwest. The fiery on-field general with Spanish lava for blood agreed to take the helm of the good ship Mariner. As Lou admitted several times, more than a few friends and confidantes advised him not to, but he did it anyway. Somehow, slowly, things began to change—and this time, maybe for the first time ever in franchise history, that change was for the better.

The next two years were unforgettable, complete with falling ceiling tiles, a cancelled World Series and an unbelievable post-season in 1995. Mariners fans know the history. On August 3, 1995, behind California by 13 games, Seattle magically and majestically surged ahead, refusing to lose, and staged one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the major leagues, finishing the regular season with a 25-11 run.

In a dazzling five-game series that radiated more energy than a nuclear fireball, the M's captured Puget Sound's heart and imagination with a miraculous, come-from-behind victory against the hated Yankees. It was the swirling euphoria of that moment that would lead to the eventual funding of Safeco Field, and transform the Mariners into the regional favorite the team has become.

Today, the only part of the Mariners that remains from the "old days" is local radio deity Dave Niehaus. In virtually every other respect, the team and our fan concerns have evolved. We understand we can still lose good players, but we also know we can compete for the best ones, too. We worry about team management making the big mid-season trade that will put us into the playoffs. We even dream about the World Series. We still hate the Yankees, but realize we've got a shot at beating them someday and punching our way through to the Big Dance. And even though we're not entirely optimistic all the time about our favorite team's future, we're more hopeful than ever. Such is the reassurance that comes from having a well-run franchise playing in a money machine like Safeco Field.

Of course, the Ms' success has brought challenges too. It was a breeze to score tickets to watch mediocre baseball in the monolithic Kingdome, circa 1993. But baseball in Seattle is number one now, and it's a mite tougher to get tickets today for the Safe, much less to even get to the stadium and find parking. Turns out, watching great baseball played in dazzling summer sunshine is a lot of fun. Who knew back then?

Then there are the more subtle challenges such as deciding which stand you'll buy your garlic fries from, or if you feel like grabbing a hotdog, sushi or barbecue? Which seven-dollar micro-beer do you want? Can you possibly afford a pretzel, too? Which hat will you buy for yourself, which shirt for your child? Such choice was unknown here, once upon a time.

The primary change from the time Before Lou, and now however, is that we simply care more. Where it may have been accurate to once call most M's fans "fair weather," now we are among the most passionate in all baseball. Fan reactions to Lou's return as Tampa Bay's manager, A-Rod's departure for more money, the possibility of Edgar retiring and poring over hot stove activity in the wintertime, all prove the point.

When we finally imploded the Kingdome in March 2000, the monolith that was once our visual reminder of the time Before Lou—those Dark Ages—was no longer. What remained, however, was a desire to salve the pain of a generation of bad baseball played there, with a World Series championship. And who knows, maybe someday our last shred of fan doubt will be allayed with just such a day.

Jae can be reached at Jeasterbrooks3@comcast.net for comments on his first story at InsidethePark.com.

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