<
>

Could this finally be Mariners' year?

PEORIA, Ariz. -- In the 1980s, Seattle Mariners fans Terry and Jan Lovett lived in Kodiak, Alaska, on the distant wind-swept island that is 1,430 air miles (and 2,700 highway and ferry miles) northwest of Seattle. This was back before the Internet, back before every team had a 24/7 cable network televising each game, back before live streaming.

So in order to catch their favorite team's games live, the two often were forced to drive to the top of 1,270-foot Pillar Mountain in hopes of finding an AM radio signal that would allow them to listen to beloved Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus inside their car.

Alvin Davis swings and drives the ball deep to right! Fly, fly away! And that home run cuts the deficit to 7-3. My, oh my!

"It had to be a clear night," Jan said. "And then you would hold your breath that you don't slide down the ice on the way back home."

That, friends, is dedication. Of course, dedication is what you need to be a baseball fan in Seattle.

Seattle is the only current major league city to never host a World Series. It lost its first major league team, the Pilots, after just one season when Bud Selig hijacked them to Milwaukee. Seattle got the Mariners in 1977, but it took 15 years before the fans enjoyed a winning season. The Mariners won an American League-record 116 games in 2001 but still lost the ALCS in five games (damn you Yankees!) and haven't been back to the postseason since, the longest drought for any team based in the United States.

Sure, Toronto hasn't been to the postseason in 22 years, but at least Blue Jays fans have back-to-back World Series titles (1992 and '93) to make up for that.

This spring, however, Mariners fans not only are optimistic -- "You have to be optimistic all the time. Otherwise what are you going to teach your kids?" said Christina Frankel-Barton -- but justifiably optimistic.

For one thing, Seattle is coming off its most competitive season in years, going 87-75 and falling just one victory shy of reaching the playoffs. The Mariners' pitching staff allowed the fewest runs in the majors, had the lowest ERA in the American League in 25 years and Felix Hernandez finished just short of winning his second American League Cy Young Award.

The Mariners also look to be improved this season, particularly on offense.

Last year, the Mariners signed Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees and the second baseman was a tremendous positive at the plate, in the field and in the clubhouse -- his presence and example provided motivation for his younger, less experienced teammates. This winter, Seattle signed 2014 home run champion Nelson Cruz, who will be an enormous bat to slip into the lineup between lefty hitters Cano and All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager.

"I think it's a complete changer," said Seager, who homered with Cruz in Sunday's 8-0 victory over the Rangers. "We brought in Cano the year before and that changed the dynamic and the Cruz signing is going to be just as big as Cano. A), you're bringing the home run champion into the lineup, and B), they have to pitch to Cano. It will be fun to watch."

Cano says Cruz will not only help in the lineup but in the clubhouse, as well. "Now you've got more than one guy who has been in the league for a lot of years," Cano said, referring to himself last year. "Now, we've got Nelson, Rickie Weeks, Seth Smith, guys who can help the others out."

Seattle's offense doesn't need to be that much better as long as the pitching remains strong, particularly if young lefty James Paxton can stay healthy. "We saw how dominant he can be last year. We need him to stay healthy," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "He's vital for our success."

The Mariners are a favorite of many to win the American League West. Some people are even projecting the Mariners as not only the division champion but as -- gasp! -- a World Series team.

"It feels great," Paxton said. "With the additions we made in the offseason and guys getting experience last season and being in a little bit of a race, I think this team is prepped and ready at making a run at the postseason.

"I feel like it's in our hands. We have the talent in order to get there. We just have to allow ourselves to do it."

On the other hand, Mariners fans have been disappointed before. There also was good reason for optimism after strong seasons in 2007 and 2009, and each time the Mariners lost 101 games and finished last the next season.

"They have a lot more players that are interesting and had a good year last year so it could be cool," Mariners fan Ron Coleman said while watching workouts Sunday with his wife, Holly, and daughter, Olivia. "But I'm kind of realistic, too. Baseball is not like basketball where usually the best team wins. There are so many things that can happen and players who can get injured. But the pitching is solid so this year is a real possibility. You have to be hopeful."

Coleman grew up listening to Niehaus call Mariners games while doing chores at his rural home in central Washington. He and his family live in Redlands, California, now but the Mariners remain his team, just as they have been since they played their first game in 1977 when he was 4 years old.

"Last spring I would say we were learning how to win. I think this spring we expect to win. And that's a big difference."
Lloyd McClendon, Mariners manager

"You never can change teams," he said. "I guess it would be easier to pick the Yankees, but you don't pick the region you're born in."

Speaking of regions, the Lovetts now live in Sitka, Alaska, which is much closer to Seattle than Kodiak. Because this is no longer the '80s, they also are able to watch every game on the team's cable station, Root Sports. The two are so passionate about the Mariners that every year they mark their calendars with the reporting date for pitchers and catchers as soon as it is announced.

"There have been some years that have been heartbreaking but we're not abandoning the team for anything," Jan said. "We think this is their year. Every year we think 'This is their year.' ... Until the last day of the season, we're always optimistic. And then the day after the season, we're just depressed because there is no more baseball on TV."

"But this is going to be a longer season this year," Terry said.

Perhaps they and many others are right. Maybe, just maybe, this season will end the misery for Mariners fans and reward that optimism and dedication. And possibly give Seattle fans reason to yank down those ubiquitous Seahawks 12th Man flags and raise Mariners 10th Man flags instead. Hey, why not? The Kansas City Royals made it to the World Series last season after a 29-year drought.

"Last spring I would say we were learning how to win," McClendon said. "I think this spring we expect to win. And that's a big difference."