Mariners’ clinch celebration a magical moment for Seattle players and fans alike

With Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

When the ball off the bat of Mariners Catcher Cal Raleigh crashed through the windows of the Hit It Here Cafe in right field, I did what I assume the other 44,000-plus Mariners fans in the ballpark and thousands of others across the country did.

I gasped. I shouted. I looked around in disbelief. I watched in complete shock and awe as the entire Mariners roster and coaching staff did their customary post-victory dance to celebrate.

As the infield celebrations gradually died down, I began to process what I had just witnessed: my favorite team hit a home run to end a 21-year hitting drought. And I was there!

Even the day before, I couldn’t have dreamed that such a thing was possible. In late August, with a Mariners postseason appearance looking increasingly likely, I called my shot and booked flights to Seattle hoping to see a postseason clinch. That hope required great sequence and timing, but I was content knowing that I would be excited to cheer on my favorite team in their home park regardless of the context.

Therefore, when I arrived in Seattle on Thursday, I was ecstatic that I was almost certain to see a clinch in some form. But even as the M’s playoff odds ballooned to 99 percent last month, it was hard to see what it would be like to see them secure a postseason spot — let alone how it would actually happen.

Paradoxically, the person with arguably the greatest possible impact on the situation was standing on a mound 2,400 miles away. With the magical number one, the Mariners could clinch a postseason berth with either an Orioles win or loss, and the Orioles were in the Bronx facing the Yankees in a game that started almost three hours before the Mariners took the field against Oakland . .

Veteran Orioles right-hander Jordan Lyles was tasked with keeping Aaron Judge in the yard and the Orioles’ ever-thin postseason hopes alive, pitching seven strong innings in a 2-1 win. And so, instead of learning their postseason drought ended by looking at their phones in the second inning Friday, the crowd at T-Mobile Park was given a chance to see the Mariners close in a much more fitting way: with a win.

When Ty France hit an RBI double in the bottom of the first, the afternoon began to crystallize — or so I thought. I assumed the offense would hit A’s rookie lefty Ken Waldichuk and count down the strikeouts for the clinch. Instead, the A’s tied it in the top of the second, and after that both offenses went silent.

For the next six innings, it was nothing for either side. Waldichuk settled. Mariners starter Logan Gilbert was outstanding. Suddenly, it was the ninth inning, still tied 1-1. When rookie reliever Matt Brass hit Jordan Diaz with a rough slider to end the top of the ninth, the crowd roared — and reality began to set in: The Mariners could end the drought with a walkoff hit.

Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ played as the stadium prepared for mayhem. A tied game going into the bottom of the ninth is almost always an intense environment, but this one was heightened to an extreme degree. A potential storybook ending had arrived on a silver platter. A run to end the drought. That’s all it would take.

At this point, looking around at the sold out crowd felt like a fever dream. He also felt the game should have ended with a homer. And that was reflected in offensive hacks from Haniger and Santana, who went down swinging against hard-hitting A’s reliever Domingo Acevedo.

When Raleigh stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter, it was clear he had the same goal: End this thing with a swing. And can you blame him? In these scenarios, no one fantasizes about pushing a ball the other way for a base hit. It’s always about hitting a target!

Well, seven pitches later, on a 3-2 slider just down the belt, Raleigh launched a long ball for the ages. The drought was over.

An entire fan base could finally exhale—well, after we (we) are done screaming, of course.

The truth is, I don’t even know the half of it. You see, I’ve been a Mariners fan for a little over a decade. Growing up outside of Washington, there was no local team to stick with at a young age. The Nationals arrived when I was 10, but their early games failed to make baseball a big priority for me. The arrival of Bryce Harper helped fuel my love for the sport, but it wasn’t enough to make me a fan of the team as a whole.

Instead, I was crazy about an infectiously electric pitcher on the other side of the country named Felix Hernandez, who had recently won his first Cy Young Award. I loved staying up late to watch West Coast games and tried never to miss Felix’s start. Ultimately, I was drawn to the Mariners more broadly, despite their severe lack of talent around Felix.

Then on August 15, 2012, King Felix threw the 23rd perfect game in MLB history. That just about sealed it: I was a Mariners fan, for better or for worse.

Beyond Felix, though, the online Mariners fan community I’ve been slowly integrating myself into seemed accustomed to celebrating a large portion of the roster regardless of the team’s record. Seattle’s geographic isolation from the rest of the baseball (and sports) landscape seemed to foster community patronage and appreciation for its players. Even though I was thousands of miles away and had never been to the city in my life, I was fascinated.

After a decade, and last weekend, I learned the city’s experience of showing love to its club in the most exciting context imaginable: on the brink of a postseason berth at long last. I was lucky enough to sit in the King’s Court A Felix launched in 2015but I hadn’t been to the Pacific Northwest since.

In addition to the excitement surrounding the playoff push, I was there for Fan Appreciation Weekend. While much of the programming during the games focused on celebrating the fans in the stands, it seemed that the fans wanted to show their appreciation for those on the field as much as possible.

It helps that the 2022 Mariners seemingly have someone for every type of fan to cheer for. There’s Julio Rodriguez, the new face of the franchise, who has his own cheering section in center (The J-Rod Squad) like Felix once did down the left field line. You have Marco Gonzales, JP Crawford and Mitch Haniger, the familiar faces who shouldered the brunt of the drought the most.

Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo are high-profile players who have greatly bolstered the rotation. There is the highly effective bullpen filled with prolific flamethrowers and skilled con artists. Let’s not forget Carlos Santana and Eugenio Suarez, the veterans who have shown incredible snaps time and time again throughout the summer.

Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty are the main relievers and agents of chaos on the basepaths. There’s Jarred Kelenic, the super-talented prospect who has struggled mightily but is also starting to figure things out just when the team needs him most. Even Brian O’Keefe — a 29-year-old catcher who was called up to make his MLB debut when Curt Casali went on the paternity list — got a huge ovation for his first career hit Saturday:

And let’s not forget the lanky right-hander with an alter ego named Walter and the cowherd affectionately known as the Big Dumper, which changed Mariners history forever. From my seat in the stands, it was clear how much each member of the roster means to the city. The people of Seattle didn’t just want to get back to the playoffs for themselves. They also wanted it for their players, who worked so hard to achieve what the 20 teams before them failed to do.

I always say to people who (rightfully) assume that Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro sparked my M fandom: Of course I love those guys — how could I not? — but they’re not the ones that attracted me. King Felix won me over and then many others that followed kept me invested, from franchise staples like Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz to lesser known but still lovable guys like Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Zunino. It saddens me that these players never reached this special moment, but their contribution to my fandom and to the team cannot be underestimated.

All this weekend, I kept thinking about the lifelong fans who have a significant emotional attachment to people like Ichiro, Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Alvin Davis, the iconic broadcaster Dave Niehaus and so many other Mariners of the past, from the miserable his lows in the 80s to the 116-win team in 2001. Sure, I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life over the last decade staying up late to watch a team on the other side of the country fail repeatedly, and it felt amazing that that dedication paid off on Friday night.

But I also know that what I feel pales in comparison to the feelings of those who endured the entire drought and whose connections to the team and its history stretch back decades. And for those people, many of whom I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with during my four days in and around T-Mobile Park, I couldn’t be happier.

This long, arduous chapter of Mariners baseball is over. In one move, Raleigh emphatically closed the book and finally erased the word “drought” from the fans’ vernacular.

But beyond the relief of that moment, there’s significant reason to be excited about what happens next. Because unlike the few teams of the past decade (2014, 2016, 2018, 2021) that sniffed the season but didn’t have rosters that were vague and completely unsustainable, this is a team with a great foundation for future success.

No matter what happens this postseason, the Mariners are here to stay. The roster will likely see some turnover this winter — Jerry Dipoto is the GM, after all — but there’s a strong core in place, and postseason pushes should become the expectation, not a dream.

“When Jerry and I came here seven years ago, we had one goal,” coach Scott Servais said during his postgame address to the crowd. “We needed to end the drought.”

He then continued: “Yeah, we ended the drought. But this team is just getting started.”

Jordan Shusterman is half @CespedesBBQ and baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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