The 2014 Seattle Mariners dominated Major League Baseball in a category unrelated to pitching, hitting and fielding.
They logged 51,540 air miles, more than any other team and twice as many as some. The world “grueling” comes to mind, because that’s how almost every mention of the Mariners’ road schedule was described: Grueling.
When the schedule wasn’t called grueling, it was called exhausting, or demanding, or cruel and unusual punishment arranged by a witless commissioner’s office as unfamiliar with Rand as it was with McNally.
But mostly, it was grueling.
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The leader in the clubhouse at “grueling” references, it turns out, was the clubhouse leader himself. Lloyd McClendon isn’t the sort of manager who contrives excuses, but when analyzing the late-September slump that denied the Mariners a playoff berth, McClendon has pinpointed the schedule.
Specifically, a schedule requiring his team to play 11 road games in 11 days, across three time zones. McClendon was so concerned about the trip — from Seattle, to Anaheim, to Houston, to Toronto, then back to Seattle — he mentioned it moments after a 10-inning defeat at Safeco Field, on Sept. 20, cost his team the lead in the wild-card standings.
“Listen,” McClendon said, “this is a grind. We have 15 games left now and this schedule is grueling, the travel is grueling, the whole nine yards.”
McClendon’s second season with the Mariners begins Friday, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training. He’ll be challenged to improve upon his work in 2014, an exciting turnaround campaign for a team that gained confidence from its self-assured skipper.
If I’d had a vote for A.L. Manager of the Year, it would have gone to McClendon, who inherited a club that finished 71-91 under Eric Wedge. McClendon’s Mariners went 87-75, keeping hope alive until midway through the season finale.
My only quibble with McClendon was the incessant bemoaning of the toll air travel took on his players. He knew all about the schedule — he knew he could do nothing about the schedule — but instead of rolling with punches thrown at a geographically isolated franchise, McClendon fought a fight that only became a distraction.
McClendon and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regard each other with a mutual admiration. But there’s a philosophy essential to Carroll — pay attention only to what you can control and ignore the rest — McClendon has yet to grasp.
Remember the Seahawks’ famous aversion to East Coast games that kicked off at 10 a.m. on their Sunday body clocks? The Hawks, impervious to a schedule they didn’t arrange, have won six of the last eight “morning” games they’ve played in the East Coast time zone.
Not to disparage legitimate concerns about jet lag, but how grueling can any road trip be for the Mariners? The players have access to a private plane. Baggage is handled by others — luggage is the least of their worries — and upon arriving in the hotel lobby, they’re given a room key.
No hassles with overbooked flights, no waiting in line at a cab stand, no hotel reservation canceled by a botched computer system.
And this is grueling?
A better definition of grueling, it seems to me, is a middle-of-the-summer homestand awaiting any team that doesn’t play on the West Coast and isn’t made comfortable by air conditioning implemented under a closed roof.
Take, for instance, Kansas City, where the average high temperature in July approaches 90 degrees, and where the humidity is Burma-at-sea-level thick. While the Royals are drenching their uniform jerseys with a gallon of sweat every night, the Mariners are enjoying a climate where the average July high temperature is 80 degrees, with no discernible humidity.
You’d think Seattle’s agreeable summer climate would be an enticement for prospective free-agent hitters, but the Mariners aren’t inclined to accentuate the positive.
“Safeco Field is not a great hitting park, and it hasn’t been,” team president Kevin Mather told ESPN 710 Seattle last October. “We moved the fences in, we made some adjustments and we have some players. Clearly we have to sell, but a bigger problem for Seattle is our travel schedule.
“That’s what kills us.”
The most grueling road schedule ever conceived — the Missouri-to-Oregon expedition of Lewis and Clark, a 28-month round trip with nary a night spent in a luxury hotel room — killed only one among the traveling party of 50.
Some 210 years later, nothing is more problematic about the Mariners’ chance at contending than worries about a travel schedule that could kill their chance at contending.
Play the hand you’re dealt, guys, and try to remember: The geography that makes Seattle such an isolated air-travel anomaly is the same geography offering the best summer weather imaginable.
I’d call that a bargain. Leave the grueling to those hitters facing Felix Hernandez on an 0-2 pitch.