In 2003 I am dragging my cleat feet around in outfield dirt. I am forming the arc of a Frank-sized “U,” the last symbol in the sentence I am making on a Little League baseball field. Unlike tracking fly balls or pulling a hit down the left field line, dirt-drawing has always come naturally to me. Later, on the ride home, I will ask my dad to play Lou Bega’s Mambo Mambo, the compact disc that produced “Mambo No. 5.” I’ll stare out the window and fantasize about dancing and singing “Mambo No. 5.” In the fantasy I spin extravagantly. In the fantasy I wear a fun hat. Did you know I am not made for competitive athletics?
I fantasize about the fantasy because right now, in 2003, I am a piece of the peculiarly communal sadness readily available (though not exclusive) to youth sports: nothing matters, except everything matters. We can’t do the thing, but we do know we can’t do it. Right now, I am carving language into the field because our pitcher can’t throw a strike and there’s no one left on the bench to pitch and so the opposing Little League team is effectively walking itself to victory. Our pitcher—a boy I remember with eyes the color of Glacier Freeze Gatorade—grunts every time he throws the baseball. Up and out. Down and in. Just a little high. Another walk, another run. Grimace. It is hard to try and come up short. It is hard to watch when you cannot help.
Eventually the umpire invokes the Mercy Rule, which is exactly as mortifying to a 10-year-old pitcher as it sounds in these typed letters. We jog back into the dugout. We did not do the thing. We sit down on the wooden bench full of wasps. A dad-coach claps his hands and tries to rally our spirit, but we ache in the way it’s hard to make sense if you’re not 10 years old, or 30, or 50. We ache knowing we will not win.
The right fielder nudges me, waves away a drowsy wasp chasing his Big League Chew breath. We watch our pitcher ball both of his fists hard enough that they turn white and start to resemble the horsehide he couldn’t control. The right fielder asks what I was writing in the dirt. I say, “MAY THE FORCE BE WITH U.” The right fielder lets out a guffaw the size of Jason Giambi that pokes a hole in our morgue calm. Just like that, we are saved.
In 2020 I am feeling a specific sadness that seems immune to figurative language. This immunity is not granted by the feeling’s unwieldiness but rather its innate biological specificity: I recognize the way this feeling feels in your body and can see the corona it leaves hanging about your eyes, but I don’t presuppose to understand it like I understand mine. I do know that in place of figurative language that flattens, we have agreed to measure out this feeling-sadness in statistics. We allow the world to become known in rising and falling numbers. We chart our grief.
I am not trying to be oblique in this languaging: to live in 2021 and move through a pandemic is to become a quick study in data-based empirical analysis. Today I measure out my sadness in digits. These digits are, of course, me and you and everyone between us. They are our stories and they sit still but they stand for motion, either it’s presence or absence.
In 2020 the first installment of The History of the Seattle Mariners appears on YouTube. It is not a pandemic movie, though it looks like something that could theoretically be made without leaving your apartment. Its six parts—now able to be streamed in full and for free as a “Supercut Edition”—fixate around a computer-generated graphic of a grid. This grid tells the story of the Seattle Mariners, a fantastically stupid and fancifully romantic baseball team that’s half Don Quixote and half windmill. The Seattle Mariners are a rubber object that willingly produces its own dramatic tension.
Each box in the film’s grid represents a single year in the existence of the Mariners, and each year-box contains a few different lines. A particularly bloopy one runs horizontal across each year moving up or down depending on team wins or losses: this bubbling indicates how many games above or under .500 the team is at any point in the season. When the Mariners are above .500, the bubbles are green. When the Mariners are below .500, the bubbles are red. If “.500” doesn’t mean much to you as a metric, you might think about it in terms of sending two (2) of the four (4) emails you’re supposed to send in a given day. Baseball is here to remind you that accomplishing half of a day’s tasks is more than enough usually to call it a day.
Another line in the grid’s graphs is a horizontal green bar indicating the finish of the first-place team in the Mariners’ division. This metric is an aspiration until it becomes a plot point. A baseball season is an exercise in joyful duration, in stupid survivability. At the beginning of every year’s baseball season, my friend Mike reminds me what one of the game’s poet-managers, Earl Weaver, once said: “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” Or: “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe/ to bear with unbearable sorrow—and to run where the brave dare not go.”
I see you nodding: this formulation perhaps misrepresents baseball as an overly exciting enterprise. And it is! Occasionally. It erupts from positional gentility into kinetic combustion. A field full of standing humans suddenly becomes a relay of unspeakable language, unuttered truth, and the sound of wood impersonating thundercrack. And then it ends, deadly boring again until the next possibility. Baseball games—maybe even more so than their cousin contests in other sports—unfold in the font of life, containing all its straining rhythm and stomping joy. Have you walked around in days? You know what it is to endure baseball.
True to form, the bulk of The History of the Seattle Mariners isn’t an especially titillating watch. The camera eye pans the grid of history. It zooms in and zooms out, tilts and spins, scrutinizes. It is nearly four hours of tabulation and graphitization. It watches like an eye watches baseball, or a friend, or a friend watching baseball.
And so I have never felt less able to describe what is actually happening in a given frame of film; every move of The History of the Seattle Mariners is a comment on how we describe things. Every line and bloop and squiggle represents whole collections of heartbreak and joy and the labor human bodies produce. This is a movie where whole limbs of history appear as snaking squiggling lines and you somehow never walk away unmoved.
This is because the gambit of The History of the Seattle Mariners isn’t solely that we rely on translations of life (data) to make sense of living (action). This observation is beautiful and necessary of course, but certainly not exclusive to Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s film. The crucial turn, the bliss kiss of The History of the Seattle Mariners, is actually that so much of the data we use to measure out our living—success, merit, glory, catharsis—basically means nothing at all.
Here: if earlier you found yourself wanting some translation of the term “.500” you may also find this spit of context helpful: the Seattle Mariners are a very bad baseball team.
They lost at least 95 games in six of their first 10 seasons (and would have probably had a seventh if not for the strike-shortened 1981 season). Near the end of the first part, near the end of the beginning, Rubenstein notes, “Altogether, they lost 924 games in that period, over 60 more than anyone else.” That feels pretty bad! Not content to call a feeling only one way, Rubenstein goes on: “A look at run-differential is an even scarier sight. Powered by five dead-last-in-the-MLB finishes in their first 10 seasons, they allowed nearly 1,400 more runs than they scored in that time which is over 70% worse than the second worst team.” And then the translation: “Needless to say, they never even sniffed the top of the AL West to gain entry into the Postseason.”
The Postseason is a very real phenomenon, not just in baseball, but most sports. You put in enough days and you have enough success and you get to keep playing. You get to play to win. The Postseason is a future in real time. I am not sure what our Postseason looks like, in the short or the long term. But in 2021—as in 2003—it is ice pack relief to see that a history can proceed in spite of success.
Early in the film, Bois confesses of these early struggles: “If you’re only interested in winning and losing, this is the end of the story. Forty-three seasons, the vast majority of them losing seasons, 3,219 wins; 3,622 losses. Zero championships, zero World Series appearances.” Of course, the film goes on for a good long while. Of course, I hope we go on for a good long while.
The History of the Seattle Mariners begins with these renderings of failure to design a new metric for understanding a future. It is a film that redesigns how we might succeed. I reveal myself as a reductionist and a Yankees fan when I say “the Seattle Mariners are a very bad baseball team;” what I mean is, they’re not historically successful. They’ve been plenty good over the years, especially after their first awkward decade. They won lots of games, eventually building a period between 1995 and 2001 where they made the Postseason four times in seven years, advancing out of the Divisional Series and into the American League Championship Series in three of those four occasions. Each time they came up short, sure, but that’s way better than whatever a metaphoric .500 feels like. Shouldn’t that be something like enough? Doesn’t at least the possibility of an After mean we might someday move into it?
Beyond that hint and even more vitally, the Seattle Mariners became a container for people like Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki and Félix Hernández, baseball players who populated days of the week like titans in stories we’ve forgotten but never forgotten to tell. The film has their numbers, just like it has so many others, but it also knows in its bones the truth of the un-numberable, the reality of converting feeling into knowing and then back into feeling. “The Mariners aren’t special,” Jon Bois reminds us, “on account of their lack of success, it’s just that success is entirely irrelevant. We’ve entered a new realm here, one that doesn’t operate on the dead currency of winning and losing. Unless you let those limits go, you’re an astronaut who brought your wallet. The Seattle Mariners are not competitors. They’re protagonists.”
I don’t know what time of day you are in right now—maybe you are fondly or anxiously recalling another time in your history. But I hope you read those words and feel at least half (“.500”) as good as I feel when I recall them. Beyond any metric of success shoved on our backs, there is only the way we move forward in time (which we might understand as “history”) and the ability of that motion to be flecked with joy (which we might understand as “future”). For the sake of this essay, let us call the writing of this unchartable feeling “the Seattle Mariners.”
This feeling—the intersection of testifying at the known and ballasting into the not-yet knowable—maps The History of the Seattle Mariners. I would love to sit with you over strong black coffee and talk about how Edgar Martínez is maybe the best pure hitter in baseball’s long story; Bois and Rubenstein share that urge, I think, but want to both contextualize the talking and see it as a tool for talking about the possible. They remember (recall), for instance, that to start the 1996 season, Martínez had 66 extra-base hits in his first 84 games. They re-member (remake) this mythological feat by knowing that Martínez spent the better part of his 20s working in a furniture store in Puerto Rico before just barely making a Mariners’ try-out after working all night and catching a scout’s eye despite his relatively older age, despite his obviously tired body.
At operation between accomplishment and context, The History of the Seattle Mariners offers us an opportunity to reframe how we consider victory and failure, or more generally, the lure and trap of success. Bois and Rubenstein provide us with a language (stats) to understand that the superhuman feeling we attach to Edgar Martínez is real and knowable, which is to say, possible. When a stat is particularly good—when it makes a human say “what” out loud—it feels like a sneak, a cheat on life. Surely the world can’t be like that, we think. And then it is. That’s the appeal of sports, the wonder of unknown possibility; sports indicate the cracks in things we assume to be inevitable. If you can unfix your brain and accept that Ichiro had over 2200 hits in the 10-year span between 2001 and 2011—a reality no other major league ballplayer has come close to, before or since—then why can’t you accept so much more? Stats indicate the world writ larger. If you unwrite them with care, like this film, you assert how moveable what we take to be reality really is.
And so I consider my sadness, the one that sends me to this movie over and over. Maybe like a bad season, the sadness doesn’t ever really dissipate. Maybe we just take turns carrying it around for a while. Don’t press me for proof of this proposal. I am still the floofy 10-year old scratching in the dirt. All I know for sure are the people I love and the way we trade tensions and reliefs each day. Seasons chance. For the sake of this essay, let’s call this phenomenon “baseball.”
Unlike most of the assertions I make, I have proof of this last one. It comes to me by way of John Sterling, a man who has not seen a movie since the 1953 Ethel Merman/ Donald O’Connor vehicle Call Me Madam, probably. John Sterling has been calling Yankees games on the radio since 1989. Sometimes, when something joyfully improbably happens, when something you can’t believe becomes real, an always gobsmacked John turns to his on-air partner, Suzyn Waldman and says, “That’s baseball, Suzyn!”
The History of the Seattle Mariners isn’t baseball-less—amid its numbers and squiggles is the occasional in-game sequence. When you watch baseball (on television), the camera eye largely follows the ball itself. Vis-à-vis the rules of the game, any scoring is determined by the position of the ball. It becomes a tiny god. Bodies may move it, but it alone can determine success. Inevitably, because a baseball can’t stand on its own (exception: Mr. and Mrs. Met), a shot in televised baseball will then tend to pick up whoever is holding or hitting or throwing the god at the time.
This history then, this thesis of Mariners, asserts how frankly unimportant the baseball is. The baseball represents order, victory, loss, narrative. The baseball exists in imagined systems of success and failure around the bodies that move it around. If there is meaning produced in the game of baseball, it is not the placement of the baseball but rather the movement and interlacing of the bodies around it. Baseball is so stupid; sometimes a ball is a strike and sometimes a strike is a ball and sometimes the distance between that difference is the umpire wanting to get to the innings break quicker because he inhaled two hot dogs in the last innings break. Imagine thinking you could succeed or fail at something this plastic.
That meaning of The History of the Seattle Mariners then, is Mariners pitcher Rick Honeycutt using a thumbtack taped to his finger to cut the surface of the baseball and manipulate it only to be caught by the opposing team (because they could see the thumbtack taped to his finger) and try to deny his cheating only to then forget he had a thumbtack taped to his finger and wipe sweat off his brow and give himself a simply Hawthornesque scarlet gash. Or it’s the Mariners trading catcher Brad Gulden to the Yankees for a “Player to Be Named Later” (a common practice in the sport) only for that player to be named Brad Gulden, who became only the second player in baseball history to be traded for himself. The meaning is Mariners third baseman Lenny Randle hitting the ground and trying to blow a slow dribbler over the foul line instead of just fielding it. There is the way that all of these events take place in the 1981 baseball season which was, by all accounts, a failure.
Again and again The History of the Seattle Mariners traces the tension in success, going so far as to eventually insert an imagined World Series victory into its grid-world. Bois adds the graphic to his grid-world and entertains what it would feel like for the Mariners—an exercise that to this point feels like the sublime valley somewhere between gods and jesters—to make it to the top of the mountain. He narrates the whole imagined thing and at the end, lets it hang: “If that’s what you wanted, you got what you wanted. Now, of all these stories, what’s your favorite? What’s the story you’re telling first? If that was the one, you aren’t ready for this team yet.”
A narrative is knowable but a story goes on in all directions. The subject of baseball is the thing that keeps the score but the moment of baseball is nothing, the no time between scoring and winning and losing. The joy we as watchers glean from viewing is from the no moment, a crackerjack satellite smiling in space.
And so The History of the Seattle Mariners gestures to a world wherein the rules and rulings fundamentally do not matter; to be alive amid them is enough, and to make friction amid them divine. All the arbitrary rulings of a given reality fall to stupid joys, idiot glee rubbing up against deeply felt melancholy. Baseball—especially when viewed through the Seattle Mariners—comes to mean the meaninglessness of meaning. For the purpose of our future, let us call this meaninglessness “stupid.”
Of all the stupid things I love about baseball and sports, maybe my most beloved is the idea of “due.” Despite all the ways we can utter probable realities and predict nearly everything a body can or will do, “due” exists as an act of faith, nearly blind, as in old so and so hasn’t had a hit all day…they’re due.
In May 2021 I am watching a television screen and the baseball commentators whose foreheads retain too much water are talking about a man named Albert Pujols, the best baseball player on Earth for 11 years. Watching Albert Pujols swing a hunk of timber at a tiny spinning horsehide was like watching Ajax strike at the stars and realign them. Watching him was cheatcode stuff in real-time, an action other humans purported to do but as if touched by foresight or fortune or a kind of cosmic confluence. He threw baseballs as if they were nodal parts of his biology, molecules just waiting to be rejoined with the new constellations he made every day. The mythological man in a Cardinals ball cap with power to all parts of the field and all hearts of the world.
And so, the pedestrian sport we played after middle school dismissal bells, this stupid activity we were driven to and from in our parents’ Chevy Blazers and Saturn Ions, became a container that—even among our ineptitude—was fully capable of housing daily miracles. We were somehow implicit in the same language as Albert Pujols. We were somehow a part of this history. We could stand in line at Fred and Murray’s Kosher Deli on summer afternoons and stare at the dusty boxy TV over the register and the utterance of “half sour or full sour on those pickles?” could all of a sudden soundtrack images on the television worthy of the lyric, the ode, the awesome. We’d all meet back at the park after dinners, after diners, after the game of miracles we could watch on our television screens—did you see that play he made? Did you see what Pujols did today? Can you believe it, what you saw?
For a spit of history, Albert Pujols—like Ken Griffey Jr., like Ichiro Suzuki, like Félix Hernández—was the best baseball player in the world. And then was kind of a great baseball player for a few years, even if he wasn’t Promethean, even if he wasn’t impossible. And then he was a pretty okay baseball player for a while, who maybe expanded the zone too much, who swung off-balance, who couldn’t leg out a single like he used to. And then he became a pretty bad baseball player, broken down like all of us by the way bones grind in sockets and joints crickle and muscles seize. And on this night in May of the year 2021, this is the Albert Pujols who is unceremoniously designated for assignment by his baseball team, the Angels.
“Designated for assignment” isn’t quite like the Mercy Rule, but it’s a cousin notion. One is a contractual term that means a player is no longer a member of a team’s 40-player active roster. The other is an etiquetteish facet of youth sports that tries to staunch overscoring, a phenomenon typically deemed unsporting. Both roughly mean it’s over.
It’s over isn’t inherently a sad designation. Pains alleviate. Suffering abates. There’s a channel dug out in our brains that knows that ending is part of starting. We continuum until eventually. It’s stupid and sad and joyful, for a good while if we’re lucky. And then it ends.
The in between-stuff, the history of our lives, is just the way we turn to each other. The History of the Seattle Mariners is a someone I turn to because it offers this wisdom disguised as farce. It asserts that we don’t need to needlessly interrogate the stupidity of living to find the catharsis of meaning or a narrative implication. The History of the Seattle Mariners is the first cultural object I’ve encountered that painstakingly constructs a specific, relatable history—that of a single baseball team—only to use that construct to then gesture towards the futility of completion and the locks storytelling puts on our collective subconscious. It uses the definiteness of hyper-specific stats to suggest that if everything can be plotted, anything might be doable. Even if the world seems like the same kind of bad every day, the numbers paint a different picture, if we’re only willing to write them that way.
And so if I could write anything in the 2021 dirt today, it would be, “NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.” One of the most anxious baseball stats is Win Probability, which quantifies the percent change in a team’s chances of winning from one event to the next. It’s displayed a few times in The History of the Seattle Mariners, but I remember when the advent of Statcast allowed it to be displayed in real-time during live television broadcasts. Everyone I know hated it. We didn’t want to know who was going to win, really. We just wanted to witness our trying and then do something else. We wanted, which is the thing, I think.
It is the end of 2009 baseball season and the Mariners’ cosmic Win Probability has sunk to nothing point nothing. They won’t be going to the Postseason, nor will any of their players win significant personal acclaim. Ichiro is still playing, and still hitting, but we don’t win alone. And so the Seattle Mariners bring back the man who knows that lesson best—they bring back Ken Griffey Jr., who was there for all those so-close years, who year after year almost beat the single season homerun record but only almost. After the 2000 season, Junior left Seattle to play in Cincinnati, where, like Pujols after him, his body began to break down. We try and then things end. We call it sad, but mostly it just is.
At the end of the 2009 baseball season, Junior isn’t who he used to be but he’s still Ken Griffey Jr. He hits three home runs in the final homestand and smokes a single in his last at-bat. After the game, his Mariners teammates hoist him and Ichiro on their shoulders and cart them around the field. It isn’t in celebration of success or to stave off failure. It’s just an eruption of joy in the reality of the situation.
Of the event—which is recounted near the end of The History of the Seattle Mariners—Bois says, “You’re looking right now at a team that isn’t going to the playoffs, they didn’t even really come close. But they’re getting a standing ovation and waving their caps in gratitude. This is Whoville. I have never ever seen another team do this. This team and these fans aren’t celebrating any kind of on-field accomplishment: they’re celebrating one another. They’re celebrating themselves.”
I think we may only be due for what we do to and for each other. I confess here that I have been asking you to hold my sadness for a little while. For the sake of our future, let us call this holding, “love.”
When we tell each other stories, we lay down our collective sadness for a while. We hold each other up. Imagine a body as tall as a movie screen, as vast as a forest of douglas fir, as strong as the stick of maple Ken Griffey Jr. used to turn baseballs into remembered constellations; this is what we look like in love. I hope there is only a finite set of sadness that we move around. I can hold yours, if you need. Old so and so, I’ll say, you haven’t felt good all day. You’re due.