Enjoy that title, Seattle -- Mariners still have lots of questions

Tuesday February 4th, 2014

The Mariners are hoping Robinson Cano can continue hitting as well at his new home ballpark as he did as a visitor there, when his .309 average at Safeco Field matched his overall career mark.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Take heart, Padres and Indians fans.

Hang in there, Royals fans.

You're off the hook, Mariners -- for now.

Let the Seattle Seahawks be your inspiration.

The fourth-longest championship drought in major American sports ended Sunday night. With their 43-8 blowout of Denver in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks brought Seattle its first championship since the SuperSonics won the 1979 NBA Finals, a time so long ago that there were no personal computers on the market, and since then the population of the Seattle metropolitan region has grown 68 percent, to 4.2 million people.

With Seattle finally getting a title, Kansas City moves up to fourth among championship-starved cities with teams in at least two of the "big four" pro sports (football, baseball, basketball and hockey). Kansas City has not had a championship team since the Royals won the 1985 World Series. The top spots still belong to San Diego (last title: 1963 AFL championship), Cleveland (1964 NFL championship) and Buffalo (1965 AFL championship). Take a look at this updated list for pro sports in America:

Longest Championship Droughts
CityYearsLast Title
1. San Diego511963 AFL
2. Cleveland501964 AFL
3. Buffalo491965 AFL
4. Kansas City291985 World Series
5. Oakland251989 World Series
6. Cincinnati241990 World Series
7. Minneapolis231991 World Series
8. Washington, D.C.221992 Super Bowl

Clevelanders can argue that they actually have suffered the most, if not the longest. (One note about this list: Milwaukee gets credit for its neighbor, Green Bay, winning the Super Bowl in 2010.) If you count the number of seasons without a championship among the big four sports, no city comes close to the volume of suffering amassed in Cleveland, which has fielded teams in all of the big four sports, including the NHL's Barons from 1976-78.

Most Combined Seasons Without A Championship
CityYearsBig 4 Sports Teams
1. Cleveland1434
2. San Diego1063
3. Buffalo1013
4. Minneapolis854
5. Washington, D.C.754
6. Oakland703
7. Kansas City582
8. Cincinnati482

The Super Bowl re-affirmed two truths. The first is that offense does not win championships. None of the seven highest-scoring teams in NFL history, as ranked by points per game, won the Super Bowl: in order, the 2013 Broncos, 2007 Patriots, 2011 Packers, 2012 Patriots, 1998 Vikings, 2011 Patriots and 2000 Rams. Only one of the five highest-scoring MLB teams, as ranked by runs per game, won the World Series. (The 1936 Yankees won the World Series; the 1930 and 1931 Yankees, 1950 Red Sox and 1930 Cardinals did not.)

The other truth is that Peyton Manning is at his best when conditions are perfect: when he has the cooperation of a home crowd and/or indoor football to maximize his superior skills at changing snap counts and plays. The most important play of the Super Bowl may have been the first: when center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball into the end zone for a safety because he couldn't hear an audibilizing Manning over the loud crowd. After that mistake, Manning went to a silent count, picking up his foot when he wanted Ramirez to snap the ball -- a simplified system that makes it easier for the defense to get off the ball quickly, which aided Seattle in its goal to move Manning off his spot. Manning was just 2-for-9 on the few times he tried to throw deep. He didn't have time or comfort.

Manning fell to 11-12 in his career in postseason games. His record breaks down to 6-4 in home games indoors and 5-8 when he doesn't have those ideal conditions. Further, he is 2-5 in playoff games when the temperature at kickoff is below 50 degrees. It was 49 degrees at kickoff Sunday, but Manning, in relatively benign weather, oddly chose to wear two gloves. Not even a true diva, national anthem singer Renee Fleming, wore gloves on the field that night.

The Seahawks were just too good for Manning and the Broncos. Once upon a time, the Mariners looked to be the team that would break Seattle's championship drought. From 1995-98 the Mariners fielded teams with Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez. From 2000-03 they averaged 98 wins per year, including a record-tying 116 wins in 2001. But the team never reached a World Series, nevermind won one.

Those days, when Seattle was a baseball town more than a football or soccer town, seem long gone. Over the last decade (2004-13), only the Pirates and Royals have played worse baseball than the Mariners, who have averaged 90 losses per season and haven't sniffed the postseason. They have lost half their paid customers since 2002, falling from first in the league in attendance (3.54 million) to 11th (1.76 million).

To bring back baseball in Seattle, the Mariners are spending lavishly. In the past 12 months they handed out two of the 12 richest contracts in baseball history: $140 million over seven years to pitcher Felix Hernandez and $240 million over 10 years to second baseman Robinson Cano. The obvious risks involve investing over such a long period for a pitcher and buying the decline years of a middle infielder, but such is the need for relevance in Seattle that the risks are calculated ones.

There also is another risk with Cano, in addition to paying him until he's 40: he now he has to hit at Safeco Field, where slugging percentages go to die. Rodriguez, in his young days when he had his sights on being the all-time home run leader, used to grouse that Safeco Field was a "$500 million refrigerator." It wasn't just that the park was spacious; it also was that the ball didn't carry in the cool, wet air.

Time after time the Mariners have signed big hitters just on the other side of 30 just like Cano -- and time after time they stopped hitting the way they did before Safeco. To measure this trend, look at prominent hitters the Mariners have brought in since Safeco Field opened. Take their career slugging percentage at the time they joined Seattle and compare it to their career slugging percentage at Safeco Field before and after joining the Mariners. In every case but one the hitter was worse at Safeco than before he became a Mariner.

Jeff Cirillo31.459.271-.188
Chone Figgins31.388.280-.108
Jack Cust32.452.353-.099
Michael Morse31.492.406-.086
Jose Vidro32.459.374-.085
Richie Sexson30.528.457-.071
Milton Bradley32.450.384-.066
Adrian Beltre25.463.412-.051
Mike Cameron27.413.373-.040
Miguel Olivo32.427.396-.031
Robinson Cano31.504.487-.017
Jose Guillen31.445.439-.006
Kendrys Morales30.491.496+.005

Cano is one of the best pure hitters in the game; that fact shouldn't change. But it's probable that exchanging Yankee Stadium for Safeco Field as his home park will cause his home runs and slugging percentage to go down.

Since 2000, its first full season, here is how Safeco Field has ranked among the 30 major league parks in slugging percentage: 28, 29, 23, 28, 25, 27, 25, 20, 22, 26, 30, 28, 30, 17. (The park did play slightly fairer last year because the fences were brought in.) Measured by its effect on home runs, rather than raw numbers, Safeco Field in the past decade has ranked 21, 29, 13, 29, 24, 20, 16, 18, 26, 14.

What is most likely to define the near future of the Mariners is how young players such as Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Tijuan Walker and James Paxton develop. Seattle has the makings of a contender if two or three of them become true impact players.

Meanwhile, just as happened to Albert Pujols with the Angels, Cano will be under pressure to produce immediately. The contract and his new team's decade of decline is pressure enough, but the ballpark could be another factor.

At least he is entering a market in which sports fans at long last have a championship to celebrate. The glow from the Super Bowl win should last a while. San Diego and Cleveland can only dream such happiness will find them soon. The wait in Seattle has been so long that nobody minds one bit that to end the drought the Seahawks needed a minor leaguer from the rival Texas Rangers, Russell Wilson, to lead them.

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