My sixth grade baseball team was a juggernaut. We had been solid all through little league, always near the top of the league. Now, in our final season of “major league” ball before heading to the world of middle school baseball, we had matured into a talented and powerful group. With the added benefit of getting to play weak fifth grade teams, we were ready for a special year.
We opened with the traditional jamboree, where each team plays a couple of innings before rotating to a new opponent. To start the season, our lead-off hitter, Ryan Cullier, stepped to the plate. A sturdy first baseman with a good eye and a smooth lefty swing, Ryan immediately put a fastball over the fence and off a car, and we immediately knew this was our year.
We hit the ball hard and often, a steady barrage of homers over the 200 foot fences that had seemingly shrunk in distance from when we first viewed them in third grade. Our pitching was good, our defense was solid, and we had more talent than anyone else. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were better than everyone else, and when we did, there was no reason to ever lose a game. We came to every game expecting to win, and no team could do anything to take that expectation from us.
We didn’t lose. Ever. Some teams we humiliated, some games were close, but they were all wins. We had one traditional rival, a group of our good friends from the other side of town, and our games with them were always tight. This year, we had already beat them twice, heading into the our final match-up, which was also the last game of the year. I’m sure they wanted to beat us, but an undefeated season is something to be cherished, and we had no desire to blow our shot at one.
We entered the last inning with a slim lead, and our ace, big Mike Cortez, came in to close out the season. He wasted no time in carving through the only three batters he faced, and we were undefeated. We knew we were the best team that season, and we played every game expecting to win. We played loose and with confidence, and we won. Attitude matters in sports. Teams that know they belong on the field, who don’t think anyone can beat them, don’t lose very often.
What has stood out the most about the Mariners in their recent stretch of winning baseball is a complete change in attitude. When the team called up Nick Franklin, and then Mike Zunino and Brad Miller, everything changed. From the minute they stepped on the field, it was clear they belonged, and they knew it. Confidence and a love of baseball radiates from each of them. More importantly, they are infectious. The team suddenly looked like it believed in itself, and played like it, too.
Contrast this new wave of talent with the first wave, which included Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. They alternated between looking confused and nervous at the plate, and their demeanor only grew worse as their performance plummeted. Only Kyle Seager has been good from the start, but he’s a steady but seemingly quiet performer who brings none of the visible bravado and enthusiasm of the new wave.
There are different ways confidence and a will to win manifests. Marques Tuiasosopo’s UW Rose Bowl team had a magical ability to come back and win any game, no matter how late it was. There was never any quit or fear. The 2001 Mariners felt like a team with every player on a hot streak, but it felt like the streaks would never end. The 1995 Mariners had a magic like that UW team, plus Edgar and Griffey and the Big Unit, and by the end of the season there was a sense of inevitability culminating in Luis Sojo’s inside the park grand slam and later The Double. Sometimes a new player keys the momentum, like Russell Wilson with last year’s Seahawks. It’s as if the team sees the newcomer and realizes, “Oh this is what we’ve been missing. Now it’s time to win.” Not all good teams have the magic of these teams. They do all have a clear confidence and lack of fear.
While the Mariners change in attitude bodes well for their future, it’s important to be clear that talent is still the key to success. Attitude is vital, but it is more of a prerequisite to winning. Talent without confidence and attitude will be inconsistent and likely unsuccessful, but attitude without talent is just bravado and losing seasons. Each of the examples above were powered by phenomenal talents with great confidence, and they ignited a magic that swept over the whole team.
As important as the attitude brought by Franklin, Miller and Zunino was the talent they brought. They effectively replaced Brendan Ryan, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero, each a complete black hole in the batting order. With the rookie trio, the line-up suddenly had three solid bats to go with Seager, Ibanez, Morales and a resurgent Justin Smoak. A weak line-up was instantly deeper and better. Rallies were sustained, because they did not die as soon as they reached one of the many dead spots in the line-up. The excitement of hitting and actual fun baseball swept over the whole team, and all of a sudden they were winning. This happens in sports, because attitude and confidence matter. When teams and players see they can win, they tend to win more. It takes a catalyst, talent and belief. For the first time in years, the Mariners seem to have all three. Not coincidentally, for the first time in years, the Mariners are exciting and interesting.