Thiel: Fixing fences is lame patch for Mariners

Thiel: Fixing fences is lame patch for Mariners

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Thiel: Fixing fences is lame patch for Mariners

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on October 4, 2012 at 6:42 AM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 4 at 2:30 AM

Best news for the Mariners this week: The Oakland A's won the American League West.

That means the Mariners do not stand naked and alone on the national stage of baseball humiliation. They are naked with the Angels and Rangers, who also were stripped by the same rag-tag, low-rent, no-money, crappy-stadium, fan-forsaken outfit that is so mud-fencepost ugly that successful motion pictures are made about the A's.

Perhaps the mere sharing of humiliation doesn't sound like good news to you. Perhaps you thought the best news of the week was moving the fences in so Mariners hitters no longer need the Hubble Telescope to see the advertising signs.

But given the multitude of other issues facing the Mariners, altering the fences is a little like putting whipped cream on Spam.

The shrunken dimensions will make no Mariner a better hitter, even if, as with whipped cream, it seems better. Nor will outcomes necessarily improve. Whatever power numbers that might go up can be nearly offset by the decline in Seattle pitching effectiveness.

The park has been an extreme pitcher's park by design. What has changed is baseball, and what hasn't changed is the club's top management.

Safeco was designed in 1997 at the height of the steroid era when Ken Griffey Jr. was winning the MVP award in the Kingdome. That year, baseball averaged 4.77 runs a game, compared to 4.33 in 2012. The average batting average was .267, today .255. While some immeasurable part is due to more regulation of PEDs, it's also true that pitchers today are simply bigger, stronger, more informed and better trained than 15 years ago.

The Mariners bosses designed Safeco to be more fair than the Kingdome's bandbox dimensions, but didn't apparently calculate for climate, improvement in pitching and failure in their ability to turn the additional revenues into sustained baseball success.

Since we're talking about 1997, despite the small sample size, it is amusing to make a quick comparison in power production, in light of the murmur of approval that greeted third baseman Kyle Seager's unexpected arrival at 20 homers this season.

Griffey hit 56, Jay Buhner 40, Paul Sorrento 31, Edgar Martinez 28, Alex Rodriguez 23 and Russ Davis 20. Together the Mariners hit 264 home runs, which was, and remains, the single-season MLB record, to hell with the Bronx Bombers.

That team won one playoff game.

The Mariners knew they were short of pitching heading into the new park. So they began remake the roster. Only they didn't do it fast enough or well enough, on multiple levels.

Heading into Wednesday's final game, the pitching-healthy Mariners had 148 homers and scored 607 runs compared to the 264 and 925 of 1997. And the Mariners are happy the the 2012 numbers are a couple ticks up from the previous years' anemia.

Despite the season's modest improvements, the Mariners remain last in the American League in batting average, runs, hits, total bases, RBI, slugging and on-base percentages. The only improvement, ironically, was in home runs, from 109 to 149.

Which brings us back to Oakland. The A's are 13th in average, 12th in hits and 12th in on base percentage, yet won six of their last seven against Texas, including a 12-5 victory Wednesday after trailing 5-1, to take the AL West with 94 wins. Seattle again finished last, with 75 wins, for the seventh time in nine years.

The A's did it with baseball's lowest payroll, with a manager, Bob Melvin, the Mariners fired, while turning over nearly half the roster, and came from 13 games back of the division in June. At that date, the Mariners were 16.5 back of the Rangers and regressed to 19 behind the A's.

What the A's accomplished is the best team story in baseball this year. What they did to the Mariners, relative to resources, is shopping-bag-over-the-head embarrassing.

The Mariners response was to jump into the season-ending excitement with word that they were going to make over part of the ballpark. Not the franchise, the management or even the roster. The fences.

As expensive as 2x4s have become, they're a lot cheaper than hiring Prince Fielder.

Before the game on getaway day, Wedge held court in his office with reporters, fielding bigger-picture questions. Naturally, he was more optimistic than his 75-87 record would warrant. Asked if he imparted a final theme to his players, he said, "I want them to understand how good they're going to be in the future. I don't say that without reason. People who don't see that, don't choose to see it.

"We're a better team. That's a fact. We're going to continue to get better. You can see they're on that path. Championships don't come easy."

Having never seen one in the Mariners' 35-year history, that last statement rings true. But the contention that skeptical fans "don't choose to see it" rings a little hollow simply because they've watched teams like the A's, Orioles and Nationals rise up while the Mariners flatline.

So I asked Wedge whether what the bosses were ready to commit resources to make his rhetoric a reality.

"That's a slippery slope," he said, drawing laughs, "but a good question."

Squirming, he dodged any substantive answer.

"The first thing to come to mind is to get better offensively," he said. "That is ideal. Without looking at free agent possibilities or the trade market, you can't dive into it. A veteran presence in the middle of the lineup would be great. Easier said than done."

Baseball fans knew that three years ago. Still hasn't happened. The point wasn't to be specific about a need as much as to offer Wedge an opening to a simple declarative statement of intent, like:

"Whatever it takes, we'll do. Including fixing the fences."

Instead, the bet is here that it will be merely fixing the fences.

The park may change, the game may change, but the constant over the last decade has been the franchise's ability to finish last. Asked after Wednesday's 12-0 win whether Oakland's success gives hope to the Mariners, Wedge was dismissive.

"Oakland is a completely different club and situation," he said. "We're building to the point where we can sustain it. We want to get there and stay there."

So that's why the the fences are being changed.

Yes, bringing the fences has the practical virtue of getting closer to a balance between pitching and hitting. But it doesn't bring Seattle closer to Florida, Texas, Arizona and Southern California, where veteran players with options prefer to live with their families in the off-season, and doesn't make seasonal travel easier with a second divisional team in the Central time zone starting in 2013.

Much must be overcome in Seattle for baseball to succeed. Just as was the case in Oakland, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.  Takes more than managerial optimism.

Wedge knows it as well as anyone. But to say so, well, as he said, it's a slippery slope.

MARINERS FINALE GRAND -- The Mariners saved one of the biggest for the last Wednesday, grinding up the listless Angels 12-0 behind Blake Beavan's seven-hit shutout over eight innings in which he struck out one and walked none. The teams were the only ones out of contention in the AL West, but the Mariners have had more experience in meaninglessness. . . . It was the largest margin of victory over the Angels since 1987 . . .  Casper Wells had a three-run homer as part of a six-run seventh inning. He, Kyle Seager, Trayvon Robinson and Jesus Montero each had a pair of hits . . . Cy Young candidate Jared Weaver gave up two runs in the first inning and was pulled for reasons of fatigue, dropping his record to 20-5, with three losses to the Mariners . . . The final crowd of 15,614 gave the Mariners a season-crowd total of 1,723,286, a drop of 173,650 from last season's Safeco-record low.

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