The last time the Seattle Mariners made the playoffs they had perhaps the most magical season in baseball history – that didn't end in a World Series title.
It was 2001, and Ichiro Suzuki had led the team to a record-tying 116 wins (while also becoming just the second player ever to win MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season) and made the offseason loss of Alex Rodriguez a distant memory. A tightly coiled combination of defense, hitting and speed, Ichiro was unlike anything baseball had seen in nearly half a century, and he was ours. I'll never forget seeing this throw less than a week into his major league career and thinking, "This is not a normal human."
For fans like me in the Pacific Northwest, the 27-year-old Ichiro was a symbol of hope, an icon for a new beginning. These M's, a mix of young stars (not just Suzuki, but Mike Cameron and Freddy Garcia) and talented veterans (Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Jamie Moyer), were built to win today and tomorrow, and even when they came up short against the New York Yankees in the ALCS for the second straight year, you could take some solace in the fact they seemed poised to become regulars in the postseason. A World Series title almost seemed – dare I say it – inevitable.
Fifteen years later, I'm willing to admit that forecast was a tad optimistic. The Mariners have yet to return to the postseason, have lost 90-plus games six times and have been interesting even less than they've been competitive. But at long last, all of that may be changing.
Following Monday's 9-3 win over the San Diego Padres, Seattle sits at 29-21 and is just a half-game behind the Texas Rangers for first place in the AL West. They only just relinquished a long hold on the top spot after getting swept by the Minnesota Twins, a reminder that with the Mariners, there is always a trapdoor. But this season feels different; Seattle hasn't climbed the standings with a scalding hot streak or a random string of lucky breaks – instead, they've made the leap by changing everything.
Following an 86-loss season in 2015, they hired Jerry Dipoto to become the general manager and he replaced manager Lloyd McClendon with Scott Servais. The moves look great now considering the team's record, but these changes were perhaps even less inspiring than the ones made in the last decade – the overwhelming number of which turned out to be dumpster fires.
In four seasons with the L.A. Angels, Dipoto feuded with established skipper Mike Scioscia and, despite putting together a lineup that featured Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, still made only one playoff trip. Servais didn't just lack managing experience, he lacked total coaching experience; Servais was Dipoto's assistant GM with the Angels but had never led a team…not to mention the fact that, after a career as a backup catcher, the name "Scott Servais" screamed anything but excitement for fans that happened to recognize it.
And yet, a change in chemistry – both in the front office and the clubhouse – is exactly what this team needed.
Robinson Cano is having the MVP-caliber season Seattle expected of him when they signed the second baseman to a 10-year, $240-million contract, hitting .293/.345/.585 with 15 home runs. Four other players on the team have at least seven home runs – including Dipoto pickups Dae-Ho Lee and Leonys Martin – which is a lot when you consider that fans have endured seasons like 2011, when only five hitters on the club hit seven or more homers all season. And while ace Felix Hernandez endures perhaps the worst season of his career so far ("worst" and yet he's still got an ERA of 2.86), the rotation has been a strength, thanks to Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and offseason additions Wade Miley and Nathan Karns.
It seems clear now that we as Mariners fans can have legitimate hope for the present, not just for a future that may never come; The M's have had five top-five picks since 2005 and the best of them is Brandon Morrow, who is currently pitching in the minors for the Padres.
They are better at the top, they are better in the front office, they are better in the dugout, and because of that, they are better in the bullpen, the field and in the lineup. Maybe they don't win 90 games. Maybe they do miss the playoffs for the 15th season in a row. But given the changes and the way in which they're winning ballgames, I believe the Seattle Mariners will at least be relevant all summer.
And perhaps this time the Mariners can save their magic for the postseason. I don't need 116 wins to be happy; I'll just take 11 of them in the playoffs.