A year ago Friday, on May 13, 2015, Scott Servais was working for the Los Angeles Angels as an assistant to general manager Jerry Dipoto.
The names rang a kind of vague bell — ex-ballplayers who’d bounced around, two guys among the fewer than 19,000 men who’ve worn a major league uniform — but I knew nothing else about the duo prominent in restoring baseball as a Seattle-area conversation topic.
A year ago Friday, the Mariners’ record was 15-17. Their lineup card for Game No. 32 found Seth Smith leading off and Dustin Ackley playing center field. None of the last three batters in the order — Ackley, catcher Mike Zunino and shortstop Chris Taylor — were hitting over .200.
Seattle occupied third place in the AL West, 4 1/2 games behind Houston, but the surprising Astros were candidates to regress and the Mariners, whose hot-stove expectations no longer were simmering, still had as good a chance as anybody in a division up for grabs.
“Talent will play in this league because you play 162 games,” then-manager Lloyd McClendon said after his team hit six homers in a May 12 victory over the Padres. “You’re going to have spots where you have good luck here, good luck there, but in the end, talent will play out.
“We have talent on this club. We have guys with track records, and I believe what the numbers say in the book are going to come to fruition, and I think you’re starting to see that.”
McClendon thought wrong. The Mariners not only failed to compete, they never pushed their record beyond .500, a frustration that led to the overhauling of both the front office and the roster.
It’s fun following a first-place team that regards no late-inning deficit to be insurmountable, and it’s fun being able to attach identities to names we little recognized a year ago. Take Servais, the journeyman catcher whose post-career résumé included every job title but “manager.”
Aside from the sluggish early-April home stand that suggested the new boss was the same as the same as the old boss, Servais has yet to encounter the adversity sure to await him. It’s too early, in other words, to tout Servais as a potential AL Manager of the Year.
But it’s apparent he’s up to the task, no? There’s a keep-baseball-in-perspective balance about him, a confidence, a look. His pitcher might load the bases in the eighth inning of a tie game, and the camera close-up of Servais doesn’t show him muttering and pacing.
The camera shows a baseball lifer born for the long haul, somebody who’ll reflect on the outcome, win or lose, with a smile.
And then there are the players, whose biographies were similarly obscure before they joined the Mariners. A year ago, here’s everything I knew about Chris Iannetta: He was a big-league catcher.
Now I know he’s a take-charge type who boards the team bus back to the hotel after a late rally in a road victory and likely shouts: “Was that fun, or what?” Just my imagination — it’s been more than three decades since I was allowed a seat on a baseball team’s bus — but that’s the sense I get. On a team whose nucleus of veterans (Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager) is low key, Iannetta brings some passion into the mix.
A year ago, I had no idea starting pitcher Wade Miley works at the pace of a short-order cook besieged by a wedding party after the wedding party. He throws the ball, the catcher returns the ball, and in the time it takes to flip an egg with a spatula, he throws the ball again.
On the other hand, I had no idea reliever Joel Peralta, who turned 40 in March, would celebrate his 40th birthday during the same spring-training appearance he celebrated his 37th birthday. Peralta’s pitching line the other day read “1 inning, 1 hour.”
Last week, I saw a movie called “Everybody Wants Some!!” about a college baseball team in Texas preparing for the 1980 school year. The first 20 minutes is a perpetual party scene, raucous and profane and not especially interesting. But then the characters are given some depth — the goofballs are revealed as sensitive, the tough bar brawlers are revealed as vulnerable — and the rest of the ride is a joy.
Watching “Everybody Wants Some!!,” I couldn’t help but think of the 2016 Mariners and how they’ve captured my imagination. Many of the characters were no more than names a year ago, and now they’re actual human beings with strengths and, yes, weaknesses.
I mean Leonys Martin, who was he? Turns out he’s a center fielder with a golden glove and a cannon arm. Dae-Ho Lee, who was he? Turns out he’s a big-bodied first baseman with a fearsome swing and a winsome smile. Nori Aoki, who was he? Turns out he’s a bit of an adventure in left field and on the basepaths, but an obvious upgrade over Seth Smith as a leadoff hitter.
On May 13, 2015, the Seattle Mariners were two games under .500 and going nowhere. Now they’re in first, front-runners for a playoff spot denied them since 2001.
The more I see them, the more they intrigue me. Their season has the vibe of that first college party where everybody is getting to know each other, when the music is blasting and the night is young.