50 years of bad baseball

No, this blog isn’t about the Brewers.

It’s about their predecessor and that team’s replacement, as Art Thiel reports:

The Mariners Saturday will be acknowledging, or commemorating — “celebrating” doesn’t seem quite the right word — the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the awkward runt of MLB that lasted a single season. Enough time has passed that the criminal ineptitude of the operation now seems more like a childhood prank on the order of stuffing Aunt Thusnelda’s wig down the toilet.

To salute whatever that was, the Mariners are staging another Turn Back the Clock event ahead of the 1:10 p.m. Saturday start of the game against Baltimore. The players will wear Pilots uniforms and the first 20,000 fans will receive a replica cap, complete with the “scrambled eggs” trim on the bill.

Sadly, there is no scheduled appearance for buccaneer Bud Selig, the Milwaukee car salesman who in 1970 bought the Pilots out of bankruptcy for $10 million and made them the Brewers. If the ceremony included placing the early-day Clay Bennett in a dunk tank at home plate, a sellout would be guaranteed.

Alas, the best participant witness they can summon is Gary Bell, who pitched a complete-game, 7-0 win over the Chicago White Sox April 11, 1969, the Pilots’ first home game at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium in Rainier Valley. It was the harbinger of nothing.

Now 82, Bell, who had his 12th and final MLB season in Seattle, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. That will generate hundreds of lame jokes about his joining the Mariners’ current rotation. Then everyone can sit back and enjoy bags of popcorn at the 1969 price of 50 cents, the club’s magnanimous financial/nutritional instant ritual to reconnect with the ancients.

It is too bad the promotion doesn’t include distribution of copies of Ball Four, the seminal book by Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton that ripped the skin off the game and became one of the turning points in 20th century American sports journalism/literature. Much of the book was Bouton’s bemused reflections on the hapless Pilots and the tawdry customs and characters that populated America’s then-most popular sport.

Bell’s appearance Saturday evokes the irreverent mention of him by Bouton in the book:

Gary Bell is nicknamed Ding Dong. Of course. What’s interesting about it is that “Ding Dong” is what the guys holler when somebody gets hit in the cup. The cups are metal inserts that fit inside the jock strap, and when a baseball hits one it’s called ringing the bell, which rhymes with hell, which is what it hurts like. It’s funny, even if you’re in the outfield, or in the dugout, no matter how far away, when a guy gets it in the cup you can hear it. Ding Dong.

It’s funny, unless you’re Mitch Haniger. But we digress.

The larger narrative Saturday is that the Mariners are offering up something beyond Bell, hats, popcorn, video and music of yesteryear (yes, there will be an organist playing live).

They are offering the 2019 season as a replica of the 1969 season. It may be a reverence for history unparalleled in the annals of sport.

The Pilots finished 64-98, 33 games back of the division lead, thanks in part to the terms of expansion regarding player acquisition that left them largely with castoffs and unproven youngsters. The under-capitalized team drew 677,944, 20th among 24 MLB teams, thanks in part to a hastily renovated minor-league ballpark that opened with only 19,500 seats, some of which were still damp with fresh paint, and tickets priced among the highest in baseball.

The 2019 Mariners are operating under no similar constraints.

The franchise, originated from a settlement of a lawsuit over the Pilots departure that was destined to prove the American League team owners to be a gang of scofflaws, scalawags and brigands, is owned by prosperous members of the community. They operate a vast regional monopoly with its own TV network in a spectacular, rain-proof stadium funded by taxpayers, who once gathered in sufficient numbers (3.5 million in 2002) to lead all of MLB in attendance.

All of these advantages that have accrued over a half-century put the lie to the claim from many critics in MLB, from the 1960s through the the mid-1990s, that Seattle was a bad baseball town. It was, instead, a town of bad baseball.

Then. And now.

Entering Wednesday’s games, the Mariners were 31-46, a winning percentage of 40.3. Maintaining that pace for the balance of the 162 games would give the Mariners a 65-win season.

Again, the Pilots won 64. As did the Mariners in 1977. Both were first-year expansion teams.

If the Mariners fall off their their current languid pace just a tick — the pending trades of starter Mike Leake and other older veterans with a lick of value makes the proposition seem likely — they can match the win totals of predecessors from long ago.

The case can be made, then, that the 2019 outfit is tantamount to Seattle’s third expansion baseball team. Given the number of World Series appearances in the half-century (zero), the 3/0 ratio is one of the more astounding counting stats in baseball history.

The regression makes clear they are Benjamin Buttons of Baseball.

The difference between then and now is, of course, intent. The 1969 Pilots and 1977 Mariners didn’t want to be bad, but were crippled by outside circumstances. The 2019 Mariners, despite benefiting from the accrued advantages mentioned above, want to be bad.

The modern-day purpose of deliberate badness, we have been told, is to acquire younger, better, cheaper, contract-controllable talent in order to have, down the road at a time unknowable, sustained competitive success at a high level.

The psychological problem is that nothing in MLB’s largely misbegotten half-century in Seattle offers hope of that possibility. Nor does the volume of MLB teams currently tanking along with the Mariners suggest that strategy will do anything but become more difficult. The competition is more intense for the same talent. The small middle class in today’s game means there’s too many teams in the same shallow end of the pool.

Not counting two strike-shortened years, the Mariners have had 11 seasons in which they had fewer than 70 wins, including six seasons of 61 or fewer. The full-season franchise low was 56 in 1978. In 43 years including this one, they have had four seasons of playoffs.

Since the Mariners have failed as a have-not team and a have team, with a bad stadium and a great stadium, with local ownership and non-local ownership, with no local TV revenues and lots of local TV revenues, the aspiration should be to set the franchise record of 55 or fewer victories. Everything else has been tried.

At least this time, the club won’t go bankrupt and move to Milwaukee.

As of Wednesday, 17 of the 25 active players were not on the roster at the end of last season. That’s expansion-level churn. For the rest of the season, I’d stick with the Pilots uniforms and 50-cent popcorn as physical reminders of the attempt to go where no Seattle team has gone before. And never wants to go again.

As it happens, YouTube has video and audio of the 1969 Pilots:

The documentary shows different attitudes about the Pilots from what Bouton wrote about in Ball Four. If Bouton is to be believed, the Pilots spent more time doing, shall we say, other activities than baseball — not quite to the level of the fictional North Dallas Forty, a thinly veiled portrayal of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys, but suffice to say Ball Four was a real shock to baseball fans when it was published. (My thought upon reading Ball Four and North Dallas Forty was to want to be a pro athlete, irrespective of whether I had any actual athletic skills.)

All of this shows how much professional sports has changed in just the past 50 years. It is unconscionable that any major pro sports league would allow an ownership group as undercapitalized as the Pilots’ owners were to own, by purchase or by expansion, a team. One would think Major League Baseball was mortified to have a franchise sink into bankruptcy after one season. The Pilots made the United States Football League appear to be a model of financial stability, and you know what happened to the USFL.

 

 

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