Up until his blister acted up Tuesday night -- and we'll be getting back to that blister, buster -- Shohei Ohtani has been an utter delight for nearly every person even tangentially related to Major League Baseball. He is the rare novelty act who has, in fact, invented his own
Up until his blister acted up Tuesday night -- and we'll be getting back to that blister, buster -- Shohei Ohtani has been an utter delight for nearly every person even tangentially related to Major League Baseball. He is the rare novelty act who has, in fact, invented his own novelty: To be a fantastic hitter and a pitcher isn't just considered impossible to do, it's considered impossible to try. Ohtani is a cheat code.
But you know who isn't enjoying the "Ohtani Experience"? Mariners fans. While the rest of us are falling all over ourselves attempting to come up with new superlatives to describe Ohtani, Mariners fans get an extra little punch in the gut every time his name comes up. He could have been theirs.
Remember back in November when we all spent a disproportionate amount of our hours handicapping where Ohtani would sign? It was the parlor game that we thought at the time was the reason the offseason was taking so long to get going: When will the Japanese phenomenon make his decision? Unlike most free agents, Ohtani would be paid the same wherever he went, which meant he could go anywhere. But we all agreed Seattle, with its history with Japanese players, the strong Japanese presence in the city and Safeco Field's unique appeal as a pitcher's park that's also kind to left-handed hitters, was a snug fit.
The Mariners did little to tamp down their eagerness: General manager Jerry Dipoto said his team was "bringing the big guns." Seattle cleared out the most international spending money for him. Dipoto even put his city's reputation on the line: "It is all about how you, as a city, an organization and as human beings, appeal to an individual rather than the final paycheck," he said at the time. "In my lifetime, that's never really been a thing." In addition to everything else, Seattle is a wonderful city to live and work. You had to like his odds; we all did.
But no, Ohtani chose Los Angeles, of all places. Not only did the two-way star not choose the Mariners, he picked their closest division rival -- a team, like them, that felt it was one Ohtani away from being a playoff favorite. Seattle not only lost him, it has to look at him 19 times a year. The club can't even fall asleep before his games like those of us in the Eastern Time Zone. The Mariners must see Ohtani and be constantly reminded of what they lost. He is the road not taken; they are the path he did not choose.
This has led to a rather nauseous feeling among Mariners fans anytime Ohtani succeeds, which, as you may have noticed, has happened rather frequently this season. In the comment section at excellent Mariners blog Lookout Landing, they've taken to calling him "[Redacted]," as if he is Lord Voldemort, one whose name must not be spoken. (Sample quote: "I allowed myself a glimmer of hope that he would flame out in MLB…. Could you imagine him doing all that as part of THIS lineup?") Every moment of euphoria we have when watching Ohtani is another poke in the Mariners' eye. Our joy is their pain.
And that pain is, of course, is always particularly palpable in Seattle, thanks to "The Drought." Now that the Buffalo Bills have ended their postseason drought -- albeit only for a quick, dull cameo Wild Card Game loss -- the Mariners officially own the longest playoff drought in the four major North American men's professional sports, a fact that no one needs to remind them of.
"The Drought" looms over everything the Mariners do, from appreciating the career of Felix Hernandez (who notoriously has never appeared in a postseason game) to constructing the current roster to evaluating the long-term future of the franchise to even bringing back Ichiro Suzuki, whose glorious rookie season remains the last playoff appearance for the team. (He has actually played only one fewer playoff game with the Yankees than with the Mariners.) To look at Ichiro in that Seattle uniform today, and contrast it with what he looked like in 2001, is to see the physical manifestation of "The Drought." It is the ravage time wreaks on us all.
Because of "The Drought," the Mariners and Dipoto are always scrambling. They can't embrace, at least not yet, the boom-and-bust philosophy some other MLB teams (including the division-rival Astros) have deployed, trading off assets to step back for a few seasons with the enticement of glory down the road; Seattle has invested too much in its current roster, both financially and emotionally, to turn the ship around now. Robinson Cano is signed through 2023; Jean Segura is under team control through '22; Kyle Seager has a contract through '21. King Felix still doesn't have that playoff game appearance and his start to '18 has been tough.
Seattle faithful has stuck with its club, through this all, through every desperate incarnation during "The Drought" -- to start over, to not wring every bit out of this roster you can to get that one measly playoff game, would feel like a betrayal. So Dipoto trades like a madman and tweaks the roster on the margins at every opportunity. He's pedaling as fast as he can.
Early 2018 returns have been surprisingly positive. Despite a sleepy loss to Houston on Tuesday night, Seattle is above .500 thanks largely to an excellent offense that is dangerous top to bottom. Cano has been fantastic, Mitch Haniger has built on his breakthrough 2017 season and the team's No. 11 prospectDaniel Vogelbach has become an instant folk hero. The Mariners have nine position players with an OPS+ over 100, the league average.
The issue, as it has tended to be, remains the pitching, with Hernandez struggling, James Paxton off to a slow beginning and Marco Gonzales getting knocked around every outing (while Cardinals' No. 4 prospectTyler O'Neill, the player the Mariners traded for Gonzales, is destroying the baseball for Triple-A Memphis and is expected to join St. Louis on Thursday). Mike Leake has been a pleasant surprise, but if he is your most reliable starter, there are problems.
Still, the Mariners are hanging in, and there may be no team in baseball that needs a hot start more. The Astros are perhaps MLB's best team; the Angels have been blistering from the get-go; the Red Sox's terrific start assures that the American League East looks to have a lock on one of the two Wild Card slots. There just isn't much room for Seattle to maneuver; it has little margin for error.
If the Mariners can hang in, there might be some pitching on the market at the Deadline, and they, as much as anyone in the sport, are all-in as buyers this season. The club's best players -- other than Haniger -- are all on the wrong side of 30, and as established, signed for years to come. Seattle has only one Top 100 prospect (outfielder Kyle Lewis, MLB No. 71) and he's still recovering from knee surgery. This is it; it only gets harder from here.
It is why you find the Mariners, totally understandably, still looking longingly at Ohtani. The international sensation coming to Seattle would have been the thunderbolt of hope the city has been so eager for, a talent and excitement injection a beleaguered fan base more than deserved. Imagine him in the Mariners' rotation; imagine him not on the Halos, the division and Wild-Card rival; imagine what could have been.
Instead, the Mariners must trudge on, one more panting gasp to end "The Drought." So forgive them if they snarl at your Ohtani love and, yes, maybe even take a little solace in his misfortune. Last night, after Seattle lost and Ohtani had to leave his much-hyped start against Boston with those blister problems, the folks from Lookout Landing couldn't help themselves.
At the end of their recap of the loss, the Mariners bloggers noted what had gone down in Southern California: "If you're unable to sit still right now and you're looking for some schadenfreude," they wrote, "Shohei Ohtani had to leave the Angels game in the third inning due to a blister, and Jose Pujols was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. I don't want to wish ill on anyone, but if Ohtani's blister issue continues to plague him, it will certainly raise questions about the long-term viability of playing both ways at the MLB level."
Ohtani's injury puts a frown on the face of any baseball fan. But Seattle fans, alas, might garner a grim, gritted grin. Cut them some slack; they've been through a lot. For us, Ohtani represents hope. For Mariners fans, it's not quite the same.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.