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After 21 years of pain, Seattle baseball fans feel something new: Hope

Julio Rodríguez and his Mariners teammates celebrate with fans who had waited more than two decades for such a moment. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Before the celebration, before the fireworks, before the Seattle Mariners doused a 21-year playoff drought with beer and champagne, John Stanton attended a funeral Friday. As the Mariners chairman said goodbye to a friend, people kept taking breaks from mourning to talk baseball.

“The Mariners are giving us hope,” Stanton heard them say again and again.

Over the past few months, as the Mariners grew from a 29-39 disappointment to the cusp of a breakthrough, Stanton’s responsibilities as principal owner changed with their fortunes. He didn’t need to answer for the franchise’s competitive sins anymore. He was now high-fiving strangers in the grocery store.

But the bursts of excitement were just appetizer vibes compared with the joy of Friday night when, at 9:28 p.m. Pacific time, on the last day of September, the Mariners clinched a postseason berth that had eluded them for two decades with movie-script drama.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Cal Raleigh emerged from the dugout as a pinch hitter and blasted a walk-off home run to deliver the euphoria, shaking off a thumb injury that had kept him out of the lineup recently and ensuring the Mariners would have an indelible moment to go with their long-anticipated unburdening.

“It was the craziest thing ever,” Raleigh said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to forget that moment.”

Stanton stood in a rowdy clubhouse afterward, his white hair wet and ruffled, and motioned toward Raleigh.

“It’s so special, just standing in his presence,” said Stanton, a 67-year-old Pacific Northwest lifer. “It is for every kid that grew up in Seattle. This is so cool. The city deserves it.”

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Sports are often a painful obsession, built to guarantee perpetual dissatisfaction. Every year, there’s a single champion rising above a frustrated swarm. The experience is full of anguish, booing and constant “what if?” musing. But the hope of a new season always brings us back, and sometimes the persistent get rewarded for continuing the chase.

From 2002 to 2021, Seattle experienced 20 bleak Octobers. Three times, the Mariners won at least 90 games and missed the postseason. They won at least 85 games five other times, and it wasn’t good enough to end the drought. Ten men managed at least 50 games in those two decades. Four executives tinkered with the roster. Three presidents shepherded the organization. Stanton, a wireless-industry pioneer who had been a minority Mariners investor since 2000, took control six years ago. But for all the change — all the rebuilding plans that started with promise and all the trades and free agent acquisitions that prompted encouragement — the Mariners could not escape a miserable label: the team with the longest postseason absence in America’s four biggest professional sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL).

To the organization, the description may have felt like an arbitrary statistical creation to frame the Mariners’ futility, but the pain beneath it was all too real.

“I haven’t been in Seattle but a few years, but I feel like I’m one of the fans that has waited for 21 years,” 25-year-old pitcher Logan Gilbert said. “It was just a culmination of a lot of waiting.”

In 2000, Stanton joined the Mariners during the best time of their 46 seasons. They finished 91-71 that season. In 2001, they were even better, tying a major league record with 116 victories. On Friday, the Mariners will enter the playoffs for only the fifth time in team history. The other four appearances came in a seven-season cluster between 1995 and 2001. The beginning of Stanton’s run with the Mariners straddled the only time they’ve been to the postseason in back-to-back years.

“I thought every year we’d go to the playoffs, right?” Stanton said.

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He laughs at his naivete now. He should’ve known better. Stanton was born on Queen Anne, the Seattle neighborhood that sits on a 470-foot hill. He went to school in the nearby Bellevue district. He was 14 when the Seattle Pilots became the city’s first major league team in 1969, but they were sold and relocated to Milwaukee after just one season. He cried when they left.

“I got cut from my junior high baseball team the same week,” Stanton said. “For me, that was the worst baseball week of my life. To see this, over 50 years later, is just so special and surreal. To see these guys that have come together as a team, to see where we were in June to now, it’s just amazing.”

On June 19, after a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, the Mariners were 29-39. Since then, they’ve won nearly 64 percent of their games. Although they can be an eyesore on offense, their pitching and defense give them the profile of a potentially dangerous postseason team. They have four top-end starting pitchers: veterans Luis Castillo and Robbie Ray and emerging stars George Kirby and Gilbert. Their bullpen, full of power arms and interchangeable parts, is among the best in baseball.

While the Mariners lack offensive consistency, they have an interesting mix of young talent, power throughout the lineup and a whole lot of charisma. Rookie center fielder Julio Rodríguez is a 21-year-old budding superstar who loves the spotlight. First baseman Ty France made the all-star team along with Rodríguez. Third baseman Eugenio Suárez is an emotional catalyst who performs well in big moments. The team ranks in the top 10 in home runs. When the Mariners get runners on base, players are unselfish and willing to do the little things to move them. And they know how to win tense, chaotic ballgames. They did so a year ago in finishing 90-72 and narrowly missing the playoffs. They followed up on that success with a similar formula this season.

“They like when the light shines on them,” said Jerry Dipoto, the president of baseball operations.

Dipoto has been in charge of the ballclub since late in the 2015 season. He hired Scott Servais as the manager before the 2016 campaign. Servais led the Mariners to an 86-76 record in his first season, and after a losing year the next season, they went 89-73 in 2018. They were solid but aging. Those 89 wins still left them third in the American League West, eight games behind Oakland for a wild-card spot.

The Nationals and their fans know the bottom. This isn’t it.

Dipoto went to Stanton and the ownership group with a strategy to rebuild. He referred to it as a “step-back” plan. Somehow, he was able to trade Robinson Canó and the final years of his massive $240 million contract to the New York Mets. The front office kept making good decisions to replenish the farm system. The team endured a 68-94 season in 2019, which Servais described this way: “It was harder than I thought it was going to be. It’s easy to say [you’re rebuilding], but it’s difficult to watch. You’re driving to the park, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, how are we going to win this thing?’ ”

The “step-back” phrase became an easy target for ridicule. Dipoto lived with it as he continued to make trades for more youth and optionality. He didn’t stray from his vision. He learned to make fun of himself.

“If you had taken a poll back then, there might not have been a less popular person in Seattle,” he said.

The Mariners had another losing season in 2020, a 27-33 mark during that strange pandemic year. But they caught fire late in 2021 and nearly made the playoffs. Then, at 10 games under .500 this June, it seemed the plan had peaked and hope was about to fall apart yet again.

“It was our lowest point, not only this year but of the whole project,” Dipoto said. “But if we hadn’t lived through that adversity, I don’t know if we’d be the same team.”

They’re a team positioned for more than random success. The goal is to build a sustainable winner, and the Mariners are two good seasons into that. As they return to the playoffs, they will set aside relief over finally arriving and plan for an extended stay.

At that funeral, Stanton spoke with Daniel J. Evans, a former Washington governor and U.S. senator who is 96. For years, he has told Stanton that he expects Seattle to win the World Series in his lifetime. Normally, Stanton nods and tells him the Mariners are working on it. On Friday, he was bolder.

“It’s going to happen,” Stanton vowed.

He didn’t promise it would be this year. He didn’t lower expectations, either.

The Mariners are giving him hope, too.