Evening baseball in late September. (Photo by author)

The Seattle Mariners return to the playoffs after a 21-year drought.

The Seattle Mariners will be playing in major league baseball’s postseason for the first time since 2001. With a walk-off home run on Friday night, the team clinched its position in the championship tournament. Their appearance as a wild card team ends the longest active playoff drought in men’s professional sports.

Of course, baseball being what it is, this is only the sixth longest MLB playoff drought of all time.

Two decades is an eternity in sports and life and a city. Seattle is different than it was in 2001. The luster has worn off what were brand new stadiums. The seats look out on a taller skyline. And a more people are around to enjoy the game. Let’s look back for a moment.

The Seattle Mariners’ last playoff appearance took place in a new stadium and city on the verge of change. After opening Safeco Field halfway through 1999, the team found success in 2000, and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. After defeating the Chicago White Sox in the division series, the Mariners lost to the ever detestable New York Yankees. In the off season, the Mariners lost shortstop and admitted steroid user Alex Rodriguez.

Nonetheless, the 2001 Seattle Mariners won more games than any other team in MLB history other than the 1906 Chicago Cubs. But then six games in September were postponed due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and an early round playoff win against the Cleveland Indians let way to another loss to the Yankees, this time a team of verve and destiny who would eventually lose to Arizona.

A changed town

That’s the legend of 2001 in Seattle. Since then, reality on the ground has been interesting. Sports have been great, but for baseball and basketball. The neighborhoods have changed. The city has grown. The tempo is not what it was at the turn of the millennium.

Since 2001, Seattle has added more than 150,000 people, growing by almost 25%. The metro region has added just under a million at about the same rate. Those arriving are working differently. Amazon and Microsoft passed Boeing as the state’s largest employers in 2019. Boeing has not been headquartered in the Evergreen State since 2001 when it moved to Chicago. It’s been long enough, in fact, that the fickle airplane manufacturer is moving its headquarters again, this time closer to federal regulators in Arlington, Virginia.

In the decade leading up to the Mariner’s last playoff appearance, there were very few tall buildings constructed in Seattle. Since then, 30 towers of heights over 400 feet have filled in the distance between the ballpark and the Space Needle. The tallest of these is Rainier Square Tower with its curved east facade rising to 850 feet. For five years of the last 20, Seattle had the most construction cranes of any city in the United States.

The McGuire Apartments saga occurred and passed into memory during the Mariners’ postseason drought. The 25-story Belltown building opened in 2001. Its construction flaws were discovered four years later, and it was demolished by 2010. The open lot has since been developed with 250 apartments, a hotel, and a Bartell Drugs.

Fans are not getting to the ballpark the same way either. Seattle voters approved light rail in 1996, but construction did not get underway until 2002. Since then, 19 stations have been added along the Link’s 1 Line, including the immensely convenient SoDo Station. During the playoff drought, two more voter initiatives were approved to expand the light rail system. The network will grow by two dozen stations over the next three years.

A changed sports town

Since the Mariners lost their ALCS playoff series in 2001, other Seattle teams have picked up some championship hardware. The Seattle Storm fit four WNBA championships, and Sue Bird’s entire career, in the last 21 years. The Seattle Sounders, which began playing six years after the Mariners last playoff win, picked up two MLS Cups. And the Seattle Seahawks got themselves one Lombardi Trophy in 2014 and gave up another one on the goal line a year later.

The Sonics have not done much, as they relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. Special hat tips and accordant gestures to Howard Schultz and David Stern for orchestrating the unpopular move. But a growing number of signs suggest the Sonics will be back soon.

In baseball, there is only one active player left from the 2001 season. That was Albert Pujols’ rookie year, and he just hit home run number 700th to punctuate his valedictory season. Eleven cities have opened new ballparks. One team — the (other) Washington Nationals — moved from Montreal, built a completely new ballpark, and won the World Series during the Mariner’s postseason drought. As a previous attender of games at Stade Olympique and appreciator of loonie dog night as well as the deafening slams of plastic seats in a brutalist concrete donut, I can definitively say that not having baseball in Quebec is an absolute loss.

For the Mariners, the world has changed too. In 2001, Edgar Martinez was in the lineup with Lou Piniella managing. Edgar played another three seasons. Piniella would manage another eight years, one for the Mariners, three for Tampa, and four for the Cubs. 2001 marked the debut of Ichiro Suzuki. The ten time All Star would spend 14 of his next 19 MLB years with the team, and post a gaudy 3,089 hits. Only 32 other players have reached the 3,000 hit plateau.

The 2001 Mariners are tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most wins ever in a season. Since then, the team has only broken 90 wins in a 162-game season three times. They’ve lost more games than they’ve won 12 times. 

Ownership of the team changed in 2016. Through a series of transfers of interests, long time minority owner John Stanton took control of First Avenue Entertainment from Nintendo of America. Longtime chair Howard Lincoln stepped down from the chairmanship. Since the last playoff berth, the team has had 10 managers and 5 general managers.

The Mariners are joining an expanded MLB playoff format. This is the first year that will see three Wild Card teams in the playoffs. Each league will have six teams playing for the championship, with the lowest four seeds in a three game series to decide who advances to play the 1- and 2-seeds. The playoffs have been expanded twice since the Mariners last participated.

A changed everything

Twenty years has seen dozens of baseball movies, surprisingly none starring Kevin Costner. There are terrible sequels to Air Bud and The Sandlot as well as a remake of the Bad News Bears. We had to suffer an attempt to make Jimmy Fallon a movie star in Fever Pitch. Chadwick Boseman broke out as Jackie Robinson in 42. And, of course, there was the great Moneyball which featured Brad Pitt eating and let everyone in on the secret that Kevin Youkilis was the Greek God Of Walks. Youkilis would spend his entire career in the majors without the Mariners getting to the playoffs.

During the draught, there have been four different actors playing Spiderman. (Spidermen?) Four different Supermans. (Supermen?) Iron Man became inevitable, as did the MCU juggernaut. More Star Wars movies were released during the drought than before. There was only one Fast and Furious movie the last time the Mariners were in the playoffs.

Moneyball does raise the specter of the way baseball has changed since the millennium. The Oakland A’s unique statistic methods — sabermetrics — was an outlier. Between the team’s perennially bottom dwelling payroll and the shadow cast by the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was compelled to strategize differently. His team of Princeton economists then infiltrated the rest of baseball. Probably the best evidence of this is the advanced stats that get shown on Apple TV’s Friday night baseball broadcasts. 

Now, let’s reflect on that phrase for a moment. Try thinking about streaming a baseball game on Apple TV in 2001. The best selling phones in the early 2000’s were the Nokia candybars. The first BlackBerry smartphone was released in 2002. The first iPhone would not be released until 2007. Actually, the first iPod was released on October 23, 2001. That was the day after the Yankees defeated the Mariners in the ALCS.

And where were we as a people in September and October of 2001? That’s a truly difficult question. The fall started out pretty well, then it turned sideways real fast. I had the opportunity to visit the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum this summer. They do an excellent job keeping the atmosphere somber. They do a better job of separating the events of the day sectioned from the remembrance of those lost. Highly recommended, if you can visit.

I’ve also gotten to go to visit a particular farm in Iowa. This is the point where any reasonable baseball article would quote Field of Dreams. And, trust me, I can do the “People will come, Ray” speech by heart. For lots of reasons.

Unfortunately, too many people make a terrible mistake listening to James Earl Jones talk about the continuity of baseball. They think it’s about scraping back what’s gone by, and clutching it like a precious jeweled egg. People use the “America rolls by like an army of steam rollers” line to argue against change and justify toxic nostalgia or preservation at any cost. But that’s not why it’s important. After all, this is the same movie where Annie Kinsella mocks someone trying to ban books by saying, “I think you had two fifties and went right into the seventies.”   

The People Will Come speech is about connection, as is baseball. It’s a deliberate finding of the story, being able to take a spot today and work to the start of the thread. Hand over hand through reference and statistics and memory and the joy of listening to a game, the appeal of baseball memory is about discovering the joy of today and the hook to some point in the past. The gift isn’t only the old dusty package tied with a string. It’s knowing the route to get there. Seattle, as a very young city, does not have many of those kinds of threads. This fall’s return to the baseball playoffs is setting up to be one of them.

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Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.