Why M's Fans Flocked to Safeco

As Seattle Mariner fans are left to collectively scratch their heads trying to make sense of the 2004 version of the hometown nine, one has to wonder if Bill Bavasi is doing the same thing. It's a rare thing when a Major League team with 99 losses ends up with attendance figures that rank among the top 10 clubs in baseball. But the million-dollar question is; why did fans still show up at the ball park?

Was it because Seattle fans tend to be resilient bastions of hope who attend regardless of the games' outcome? Ask the Sonics and Seahawks organizations that question, and I suspect the answer would be an emphatic "you're dreaming!"

Let's face it, the Seattle sports scene is made up primarily of casual fans who will turn their attention to anything they deem more entertaining at a moments notice. We live in a spectacular region of the country where distractions are a plenty, so what kept us all so captivated? Was it morbid curiosity?

The Mariners have been in the top echelon of baseball success since the start of the 2000 season, so could it be that we all forgot what losing felt like and couldn't wait to see what came next?

Was it slick marketing?

You have to admit that the retirement announcement of long-time Mariner Edgar Martinez was a pretty smart move given the fact that we all knew it was coming anyway. Apparently, making his retirement official allowed us to cherish his last at-bats that much more. Personally, I've cherished his at bats for the last 18 years so I felt more regret than joy, but I don't blame people for holding on for one last "Eeeeed-garrrrrrr!"

But even prior to Martinez officially announcing his retirement, fans were already showing up at Safeco Field in high volumes.

Was it the pursuit and of a completely overlooked record by the game's most unique player?

To a small group of Seattle fans it was an epic moment when Ichiro stood triumphantly at first base with fireworks exploding in the background, as we all celebrated accordingly. But the moment ended as quickly as it began. Was the chase the reason?

Or, was it because the 2004 season just felt different?

It started normally enough. In typical Mariner fashion, Scott Speizio, Rich Aurillia, Eddie Guardado and Raul Ibanez were signed during the winter. Four nice-guy veterans who personified the Mariners "vanilla" approach to free agents, and the season began with high expectations and little excitement.

Then the wheels fell off, and, in a bold move that went against everything we thought we knew about the Mariners front office, Bill Bavasi raised the white flag and traded Freddy Garcia- in June. Bavasi subsequently designated local boy John Olerud, one of Seattle's favored sons in a move that must have shook Pat Gillick to his core, for assignment to make room for PCL slugger and cult hero Bucky Jacobsen. Mariner's fans found themselves tuning in each night to watch Bucky and fellow call-up Justin Leone, launch tape-measure home runs, even as the losses kept piling up game after game.

The Mariners soon transformed into the Seattle Rainiers as prospect after prospect was paraded onto the field. Coming from an organization that needed to be reminded it had a farm system in years past, Mariner fans had something new to cheer about- the future.

As Bavasi continued to throw paint on the wall to see what would stick, Bobby Madritsch separated himself from a highly touted pack of young pitchers that also included the much-heralded duo of Travis Blackley and Clint Nageotte. With a quiet confidence that barely masked an inferno raging inside his Native American blood, Madritch emerged as a legitimate starting pitcher of the future.

We than learned why Carlos Guillen was made expendable as 20-year-old Jose Lopez was called up and immediately thrust into the spotlight. With visions of Miguel Tejadas dancing in our heads, Lopez showed us signs of greater things to come, even if the numbers didn't show it. Incidentally, even though Guillen had the career year Seattle fans had been expecting for half a decade, he ended up on the disabled list in the middle of September and finished the season in the same place Mariner brass feared he would- out of the starting lineup.

Finally, with a month left in the season, minor league phenom Jeremy Reed got the call and demonstrated why he was the Topps Minor League Player of the Year last season.

Though the numbers were spectacular, a .397 batting average, it was his fantastic plate discipline that had baseball fanatics pining over the 23-year-old. Reed was better than advertised, and, in the ultimate sign of respect by a pitcher to a rookie hitter, was intentionally walked by Rich Harden of the A's on September 29th.

To many clubs, these moves would be business as usual, but for the Seattle Mariners they were monumental. Bill Bavasi's moves this season signaled a fundamental shift in the way talent would be evaluated and used in the future.

The 2004 season felt different to nearly three million Safeco visitors because it was. Whether you like Bavasi or not you have to honor his courage to make some extremely difficult and bold decisions, even if it meant temporarily alienating his fan base.

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