Total collapse. Complete loss of confidence. Little faith in even the idea of a bailout.
No, for a minute, we're not talking about the economy and the mess in Washington and Wall Street, but that other horrific collapse: the Seattle Mariners baseball team.
Upon revival of the M&M morning news meeting last week, regular commenter Jason assigned a story in a comment thread: "I'd like a column on how to save the Mariners and where they rank against some of the other pathetic MLB franchises."
Excellent idea, and I've been watching the local papers with an eye out for just such an analysis. No luck.
First, if you haven't followed Seattle's dismal baseball season, the Mariners set a new record for futility: Their 101 losses weren't the most ever -- the not-yet-lovable Mets of 1962 still hold that honor, with 120 -- but the M's were the first team to lose in the triple digits while also paying their players at least $100 million. Do that for 7,000 straight years and you could pay for the Wall Street bailout, but I digress.
Anyway, last week the Seattle Times seemed to promise the kind of takeout Jason suggested with a five-part series, "Rebuilding the Mariners." But what a disappointment. (The P-I, which seems to have given up on baseball coverage, didn't even attempt a meaningful season wrap-up. And U.S.S. Mariner, a blog with the best local baseball coverage, hasn't taken a comprehensive stab either.)
In the Times, instead of doing what the series title implies, breaking down the team's strengths and weaknesses and mapping some sort of route out of the woods, writer Geoff Baker burns through many expensive pages of newsprint to make some obvious points: Big contracts will make it tough to reshape the team; the Mariners don't have enough good hitters; they do have a couple of promising pitchers; the ownership group hasn't been brilliant, but it isn't going anywhere; the field manager, promoted at midseason, brought a little old-school discipline but no more success than the guy he replaced.
OK, fine. Anyone who has spent more than three innings at Safeco Field or tuned into FSN this year knows all that already. So now what? Baker doesn't get much beyond noting that that will be a big challenge for the next general manager, to be hired soon.
Baker also ruined much of his credibility as a reporter, at least in my eyes, by writing last week that the Mariners' franchise player, Ichiro Suzuki, is so disliked in the clubhouse that team meetings were convened and at least one player had to be held back from fighting him. Trouble is, Baker attributes all this to one unnamed "clubhouse insider." When the story was predictably denied Baker offered the lamest defense: "You'll just have to trust me on the anonymous source."
Trust me: Anonymous sourcing is weak, in sports no less than in politics, and hanging a story -- especially one this explosive -- on just one unnamed "insider" is unacceptable. Go back and watch "All the President's Men":
Ben Bradlee: Bernstein, are you sure on this story?But back to baseball. Anybody who has seen my fantasy-team moves up close, and that includes at least three of our regular readers, knows that I'm no more qualified for drafting a Mariners blueprint than Bill Bavasi, the moronic general manager they just fired.
Carl Bernstein: Absolutely.
Ben Bradlee: Woodward?
Carl Bernstein: I'm sure.
Ben Bradlee: I'm not. It still seems thin.
Howard Simons: Get another source.
But I'm no less qualified either. So here's my prescription.
When faced with a massively bad team like this one, there are three basic options: Blow the team up and start over, which usually means a long, slow painful "youth movement"; try to win right away, usually by hiring a couple of genius free agents to fill holes and turn things around; try for some modified, middle-course rebuilding program.
Baseball's full of success stories employing all three strategies. I'd go here for Option 3, mostly because the M's have too many overpriced and under-contract players to pull off a full-blown, Florida Marlins-style nuke job.
My basic principles would be that, with a few exceptions, no player is off limits if a decent trade becomes possible; no jobs are guaranteed; and the rebuilding plan should emphasize pitching and defense first. I'd look to dump salary where I could, and not mislead fans with happy talk about being "competitive" this coming season.
Given that, the untouchable players on my Mariners would be promising young pitchers Felix Hernandez, Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith, along with Ichiro. Whatever Geoff Baker says about him, Ichiro is one of the few Mariners who can put fans in the seats, and at 200 hits and 100 runs scored a year for eight years (the only other player to do that was Lou Gehrig) he's no slouch on the field.
Elsewise, around the horn, I'd try to make the best of a bad situation at catcher, where the Japanese ownership insisted on a three-year, $24-million contract for the inept Kenji Johjima, by making Johjima the backup to up-and-comer Rob Johnson. Move another catcher, Jeff Clement, to first base, giving up on midseason call-up Bryan LaHair (who was an improvement over the hated Richie Sexson). Keep Jose Lopez at second and Yunieski Betancourt at shortstop, with the option of moving either of them if needed, and hang on to Adrian Beltre at third base. Expensive he may be, and somewhat disappointing at the plate, but he's a rock defensively, never misses a game and remains one of the few power threats in the lineup.
In the outfield, look to trade left fielder Raul Ibanez, even though he's the team's most productive hitter. He's got value on the trade market, which is rare on this team, and he'll be too old to be useful by the time the team is good enough to win. Move Ichiro to center, whether he likes it or not. Give Wlademir Balentien a chance to win the right field job, with Jeremy Reed, Mike Morse or open tryouts all available as backup options.
Build the rotation around Felix, Morrow and Rowland-Smith, with the other spots an open competition among Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva, the disappointing acquisitions from last winter, along with Ryan Feierabend, Jarrod Washburn, R.A. Dickey and whoever else shows up next spring with a pair of cleats and a jar of Ben-Gay. The bullpen can sort itself out from the dregs and the hungry prospects in camp.
Will the team win? No. It's pretty much the same gang of losers who have been out there all season, with the subtraction of a couple of lameos already discarded and, one would hope, the motivation that no job is safe.
As for the second part of Jason's assignment, comparing the Mariners' prospects to those of baseball's other bad teams, I presume he means his hometown nine, the Washington Nationals. I don't know much about the Nats, except that Michelle and I saw them play this year at their new stadium, along with Jason and his girlfriend. Not a great-looking team.
I do know that even in their ineptitude the Mariners are inept: Incredibly, they won the last three games of the year to finish a game and a half better than the Nationals and thus not quite the worst team in the majors. Meaning Washington and not Seattle will be rewarded with first pick in the upcoming amateur draft.
So, with the second pick, some patience and maybe a giant rescue plan from Congress, I suppose it's possible the Seattle sports pages will be worth reading again in a couple of years.
In the meantime, a final suggestion for the Mariners: Keep the hot dogs. They're pretty good.