The guy at the top of the Mariners' dugout was relaying hand signals like he was directing jets down a busy airport tarmac. When the outfielders didn't respond exactly to his liking, the coach, Andy Van Slyke, dog-whistled a piercing blast. The center fielder, a likable, fast, skinny kid named James Jones, finally took a few steps back.
There. That's where I want you, Van Slyke indicated with his big paw, then set about re-positioning shortstop, Brad Miller, to take a step closer to second base.
The Seattle Mariners may be coached by Lloyd McClendon -- a calm, no-nonsense professional who deserves credit for ably exceeding the low expectations of the Mariners fan base -- but Van Slyke is the animated field general you see inning-by-inning helping to coax the best angle on every play on a team no one thought would be able to hang around at .500 -- or better. Watching Van Slyke orchestrate the Mariners' alignment on defense, or coach first base on offense, and throw candy into the crowd behind the dugout between innings, I found myself oddly reconnecting to a sport that had, for some years, lost its intimacy, its vibrancy, a reason to really care.
As a former sports writer, I had long grown disenchanted with the over-bearing, bloated and blaring world of professional sports. The stadium subsidies at taxpayer expense; the use and regulation of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs; the bandboxes built for home runs ... for a while, baseball seemed like an endless loop of Alex Rodriguez bloopers playing on a Jumbotron over a Diamondbacks stadium swimming pool filled with 9.75 bottles of Lite beer. I never found Albert Pujols very charming, nor had any sense why Mike Trout was worthy of my undying respect, even though I know he's got the coveted five tools, or at least four.
It had been years since I had any bandwidth to devote to watching Major League Baseball, or any pro league, for that matter. Given the dollars and lack of sense that accompanies the economics and out-sized role sports can play in a world gone mad, it was indulgent, I thought, to "waste" time quibbling over trades, batting averages or whether by spending $240 million for Robinson Cano, the Mariners were copping to paying too much for a marquee player when, in fact, they needed to build out a farm system and allocate resources for a more balanced team.
Now, though, after really realizing that "my guys" were in charge of teams like the Mariners, I figure who the hell cares?
Part of that change of heart comes from seeing Van Slyke, the Gold Glove outfielder from the Pittsburgh Pirates, installed in the Mariners coaching squad alongside the likes of former Mets third baseman Howard Johnson. These guys are my age, or thereabouts, and have caused a new rise of sports sentimentalism in me based almost entirely on the premise that since we have already gone through the 1980s and 90s together, it's like old-home week to see these familiar faces -- or names -- populating the sidelines as coaches. So we ought to go through the first part of the 21st century together, too. It's why the loss of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn to cancer today was such a blow. Who was a better ambassador? Who better to teach the players at San Diego State?
I know they're not playing the games, and I know that no matter how great Van Slyke was, there is very little he is going to be able to do to get Brad Miller's batting average to get up over .200. Still, the presence of these MLB stars and stalwarts now in charge of a new generation of players does help breed a level of comfort, of familiarity, of relationship to an organization that has failed to give a whiff of deep baseball competency since the departure of manager Lou Piniella and general manager Pat Gillick.
Likewise, it's not a bad indication of my willingness to accept my own advancing age to feel more warmly towards the team, simply because the coaches were great players that I spent so much time watching back before I fell out of step with the game.
I don't know if I would be as eager to see the Mariners play if they weren't being guided by ballplayers who I considered to be some of my personal favorites. HoJo was part of the Mets' 1986 World Series winning team. Van Slyke was one of the most consistently outstanding outfielders to ever play when he was with the Pirates. Even when he beat the Mets with a throw or a hit, there was respect for a player with that much skill, that much passion and drive.
To me, the Mariners have unwittingly given a generation of middle aged baseball fans reasons to cheer. I'm happy the team is hanging around in the American League West. I'm more happy to see some key players from my generation are out there, gesticulating and whistling, showing the kids how it's done.
I used to write politics, news and sports for newspapers in cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. Now I take a lot of Instagram photos, check Facebook, swim, read about T$$$p and cook dinner for people I really like. New York native, living in Port Washington and Greenfield Center (that's near Saratoga Springs FYI).