Jon Bois and the Mariners, From the Personal Perspective of a Clevelander

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Hi friends. Inspired by Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s incredible video series about the Seattle Mariners, I want to discuss a way that the Mariners altered the course of a World Series title, one that Jon and Alex are unlikely to include in their series.

As a preliminary matter: If you are interested in the narrative power of sports and the emotional attachments we make with them, you should be watching everything Jon Bois has ever made. (His videos are NFL/MLB heavy, but I believe they’re largely accessible to anybody who is interested in sports and numbers.) It’s hard for me to pick a single example, but this one gives you a good sense of where Jon’s come from. 

Jon’s always been a bit of an oddball, and these kinds of investigations have been balanced by all sorts of imaginative projects, most notably the astonishing Football in 17776, a multimedia speculative fiction series that transcends sports and traditional storytelling and really defies any kind of categorization.

His Seattle Mariners series with Alex Rubenstein is grander in scope than any sports video journalism has ever been (aside, of course, from Ken Burns’ baseball documentary series). At 2 hours and counting, it’s a tribute to an oddball franchise that seeks out the absurd and the connected, drawing beautiful parallels where nobody would think to look.

The last two parts of the series are going to be stunning, presumably split between the magical 2001 season and the subsequent decline. But one season I do not expect to get a ton of attention is the 2007 season. The Mariners went 88-74, but missed the playoffs by six games. An unremarkable season, right?

But in 2007, the Mariners, I believe, swung the World Series. Not between the Red Sox and the Rockies, as the Rockies were extremely swept that year. But away from the ALCS loser, my beloved team, the Cleveland Racial Slurs.

Let’s dive in.

The Mariners were set to play Cleveland in the second series of the season, a 4-game home-opening set at Jacobs Field from April 6 to April 9. Mike Hargrove, who managed the powerhouse Cleveland teams of the 1990s, was now managing the Mariners.

Hargrove was a beloved figure in Cleveland, having also played for the team in the 1980s. As a player, he’d been nicknamed “The Human Rain Delay” due to his deliberate nature in the batter’s box.

The temperature was in the 20s all day on April 6, 2007, but the game went forward. Cleveland had a 4-0 lead in the 5th, and Cleveland’s #4 pitcher, Paul Byrd, was working on a no-hitter.

But then it started snowing.

Baseball games can be called due to weather, but if there are at least five innings in, the game still counts. So if Byrd could retire the side in the 5th, Cleveland would escape with a win. And Byrd might have a shortened no-hitter.

Byrd got two outs, but he also walked the bases full. With Jose Lopez up and a 1-2 count, Byrd shook off catcher Kelly Shoppach’s sign, and Lopez called for time, claiming that he couldn’t see.

And at this point, Hargrove stepped out of the dugout to argue about the weather.

During the argument, the snow started to ramp up. The umpires made the call to delay the game for fifteen minutes and reassess at that time. Because of the unusual snow-producing qualities of the Great Lakes, it was difficult to predict what the snow would look like in short order.

But instead, the snow worsened. The game was called, one strike away from a completed game and a short no-hitter for Byrd. The entire series ended up getting snowed out, and Cleveland’s next home series, against the Angels, had to be moved to Miller Park in Milwaukee.

The games got made up one by one, along the way, with 3 games scheduled on mutual off days in Cleveland and one, out of necessity, played in Seattle with Cleveland as the home team, as part of a doubleheader during their September series.

Cleveland went 3-1 in these makeup games. So no harm, no foul, right? Well, sorta. If only three makeup games were needed instead of four, that Seattle doubleheader would not have happened. And that means that Jeremy Sowers would not have been called up for the night half of the doubleheader in Seattle.

Sowers actually pitched 5 good innings. But as a callup on a tight leash, Cleveland went to the bullpen to start the sixth. And of course, with the day leg pitchers unavailable, Cleveland had to rely on a shorter bench, mostly consisting of people who threw 20 pitches the previous night.

The bullpen blew a save, and Cleveland lost in 10.

But, one regular season game doesn’t mean anything, right? Well, in this case, losing this game meant that Cleveland finished in a tie with the Red Sox for the best record in baseball. The Red Sox won the tiebreaker due to better head-to-head record, and thus had home field advantage when the two teams ultimately met in the ALCS.

While it’s hard to quantify a general home-field advantage in baseball, two Cleveland players had large home/away splits that year: CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona (now Roberto Hernandez), the two 19-win pitchers who anchored the rotation that season. CC easily won the Cy Young that year for his efforts.

CC allowed just a .648 OPS in his 19 home starts, but a .731 OPS in his away starts. He was untouchable at home, but merely average on the road. Likewise, Fausto allowed only a .238 batting average against at home, but that jumped to .259 on the road.

These stats weren’t really noticed at the time, since their win-loss splits were basically even. But the underlying numbers were there, and they reared their head in the ALCS in a big way. Sabathia and Carmona were scheduled to start games 1, 2, 5, and 6, and losing home-field meant that 3 of these games (games 1, 2, and 5) were on the road.

In those three games, these stars got lit up. CC gave up 8 runs in Game 1, Fausto gave up 4 runs in 4 shaky innings in Game 2, and he gave up 7 runs in only 2 innings in Game 6. Contrast this with two good home starts in the ALDS against the Yankees, including Fausto’s famous Bug Game in ALDS Game 2: 9 innings, 1 run, 3 hits.

The Indians were so close in that ALCS, blowing a 3-1 lead. And while a series victory against Colorado would not have been assured, the Rockies, who were coming into the World Series on the highest of highs, got demolished by Boston, outscored 29-10 in the sweep.

Cleveland baseball history is littered with postseason heartbreak. 1954, 1995, 1997, 2016. But for me, a 16-year-old in Cleveland Heights living the most exciting sports year of his life (with a 10-6 Browns season and Lebron’s 48 at the Palace), 2007 will stick with me as a year where circumstance conspired against us putting it all together.

There were plenty of other what-ifs on that 2007 team. An April game against the Orioles was played under protest because the umpires added a Baltimore run three innings after it happened. And Cliff Lee, the next year’s Cy Young winner, was so bad that he was demoted to AAA and left off the postseason roster.

But when I think of that stacked 2007 team, and honestly any time it snows in April, I think of Mike Hargrove, the Human Rain Delay, standing in the snow and arguing with the umpires about whether Paul Byrd gets to throw one more pitch to perhaps finish the game.

Hargrove, by the way, resigned without warning midway through that 2007 Mariners season. He’s the only manager since 1900 to resign after a winning streak of 8 or more games. He provided no reason other than his “passion has begun to fade.”

Hargrove still lives in the Cleveland area today.

Is this story a stretch? Yes. Can it still be one that I feel and believe deeply, even if almost nobody else does? Absolutely. We get out of sports what we put in, and what we put in is so tied up on our own experiences that what we take away must be different. It’s a mirror, to some extent.

But it’s a mirror that still reflects a shared experience. We understand each other through the narratives we value and through the perspectives we provide. And what is sports? A tangled little pile of narratives, with different ones that may catch my eye as a Cleveland sports fan, rooting for teams with two of the five longest championship droughts.

I’m in no way implying that my Mariners story is an important part of their overall narrative, nor is it necessarily an important part of any narrative, other than mine. But as sports fandom is just a longterm emotional bet you make (perhaps without knowing it), the personal is as worthwhile to explore as the collective.

And it just goes to show how rich those narratives can be, how there’s always more behind the story you know. As Jon once said at the conclusion of a 94-minute meditation on a single name:

“If there’s a lesson, it’s that. There are no dull stories. People are full of wonder. No matter how you study our history, you will always, always find it.”

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