It turned out the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics had something in common after all.
Each spent one day of the 2012 season in sole possession of first place in the American League West.
In March, when the Major League Baseball schedule began with a two-game series between the division foes in the Far East, the batting orders appeared interchangeable. Neither team boasted much power, nor many names fans might recognize in Japan. (Except for the Suzukis: right fielder Ichiro with Seattle, and catcher Kurt, no relation, with Oakland.)
The most substantial link between Mariners and the A’s? They were given no realistic shot to contend in 2012. The AL West title surely would go to either the Rangers or Angels, whose anticipated horse race had been bankrolled by a wintertime arms race for free agents.
There was a horse race, as riveting as any in pennant-stretch history, only the race found the A’s charging from 13 lengths behind to edge the Rangers at the wire. By the time the season ended Wednesday, the mood of baseball fans in Seattle and Oakland could not have been more dissimilar.
The AL West champions charged onto the Oakland Coliseum field for a giddy group hug, then took the party to the clubhouse for another raucous celebration – 40 hours after their guarantee of a wild-card slot wasted several bottles of cheap but serviceable champagne on Monday.
The A’s de-facto playoff game in Oakland preceded a subdued finale at Safeco Field, in which the Mariners scored 12 unanswered runs during what might’ve been their most comprehensively impressive effort of the season: solid starting pitching from right-hander Blake Beavan, an 11-hit attack that included Casper Wells’ three-run homer, and some nifty defense with Wells again providing the highlight. His throw from right field arrived in plenty of time for catcher Jesus Montero to apply a tag on sensational Angels rookie Mike Trout.
The crowd of 15,615 cheered the play, and seemed to perk up as reliever Stephen Pryor retired the bottom of the ninth in order, but nobody was pretending Wednesday was anything but an early-October version of a Cactus League game.
Afterward, Seattle manager Eric Wedge paraphrased a version of his pregame remarks to reporters, stressing how the Mariners – specifically, their core of young players – have made “obvious” strides since last season.
And then he was asked about the 2012 A’s, who’ve shown the world how rebuilding can be accomplished in more ways than small gains achieved over five-year installment plans.
“Completely different ballclub, completely different situation,” Wedge said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’ve had an exceptional year, and they should feel good. But everything we’re doing is to build a championship club for the long term.
“We’re not looking to just get there,” Wedge added. “We’re looking to stay there.
The numbers support Wedge’s insistence that the Mariners, as he put it, “are further along than farther away.”
During his first season on the job, in 2011, Wedge presided over a six-game improvement, from 61 victories to 67. The 2012 Mariners spiked the victory total to 75. It’s a pattern that suggests finishing 81-81 or better in 2013 is a logical aspiration, if not a prospect certain to convert casual fans into season-ticket holders.
But on a day when the A’s were spraying champagne, it was difficult to exult in the Mariners’ painstakingly deliberate quest for the sunny side beyond .500.
Wedge’s team, it seems to me, should pay attention to what the likes of Oakland (74-88 last season) and Baltimore (69-93 last season) do in the playoffs. Yes, they’re different ballclubs representing different situations from the Mariners, but there are lessons to be gleaned from their turnaround campaigns.
Impatience isn’t necessarily a negative. Restlessness isn’t tantamount to emotional weakness.
“Oakland has proven what any team is capable of doing,” said second baseman Dustin Ackley. “Nobody saw them as a playoff team, but anything can happen in baseball.”
As the A’s were toasting an epic division title accomplished with a roster full of anonymous youngsters and obscure journeymen, the Mariners went about their business as if it were the last day of summer school. They didn’t pass, they didn’t fail. Their grade, once again, is “incomplete.”
The report card on Wednesday was more prized in Oakland, where a team that was supposed to struggle alongside the Mariners finished the regular season with grades befitting a franchise known as the Athletics.
They earned straight A’s, and they’re hungry for more.