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SEATTLE — The night before they set out to make history, the Mariners general manager, his top lieutenant and the team’s manager sat inside an office. Their team had not played well lately, and yet, all of one win stood between them and the franchise’s first postseason berth in more than two decades.

Suddenly, their catcher, Cal Raleigh, walked in. The manager, Scott Servais, needed to deliver some less-than-ideal news.

“You’re not playing tomorrow,” Servais said.

Raleigh balked. On the night the Mariners might end the longest playoff drought in professional sports, they wanted him to sit? “You gotta let me finish this off,” he said.

That’s when assistant general manager Justin Hollander jumped in. “Let me mediate here,” he said. “Maybe you can come in as the game goes and finish it.”

Raleigh didn’t love the compromise, but he didn’t argue, either. He showed up at T-Mobile Park and went through his routine. He watched the Mariners take a 1–0 lead in the bottom of the first, watched the A’s tie the game in the top of the second and watched both teams play to a standstill until the bottom of the ninth. Hollander, watching from a suite above the field, wished that Servais had gone to Raleigh in the seventh. But Servais didn’t do that.

He turned to Raleigh in the ninth.

Hollander remained in the suite, high above the field. He stood next to Jerry Dipoto, his mentor, the GM and lead architect of a remarkable resurgence. Both looked down at the field, at Raleigh, at the moment that could change everything, upending two decades of tortured history, sending the Mariners to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Hollander said to Dipoto, “This is about as ‘Mariners’ as it gets.” Meaning fingernail-biting, tension-heightening, never-easy, especially not now.

“I’m betting on Cal for the win,” Dipoto said.

Down below, in front of 44,754 fans who were open to trading souls for one run of any sort, Raleigh let two balls pass. He swung and missed at a slider. He took another ball. A’s reliever Domingo Acevedo threw him two more sliders, and Raleigh missed one and fouled the other off. Then Acevedo went to the old slider well one too many times. The last pitch he threw hung low over the plate. Raleigh “went down and got it,” Hollander says, while watching the replay hours later inside the same office where they met with Raleigh the night before.

Raleigh launched the pitch toward the right-field stands. He leaned his body left, trying to ascertain the trajectory, trying to will it fair. The Mariners spilled out of their dugout, toward the infield. At that point, everyone knew. “Holy s---,.” Hollander says. “It hit the window [on the second level of the stands].”

The ball was fair and gone and, more importantly, the drought was over, right that very second, after something like a million seconds had passed by. Hollander says he leapt into Dipoto’s arm “like a 7-year-old.” Dipoto confirms this, adding, “He might have wrapped his legs around my waist.”

Sep 30, 2022; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh (29) reacts after hitting a walk-off solo-home run against the Oakland Athletics during the ninth inning at T-Mobile Park. Seattle defeated Oakland 2-1, clinching a wild card and ending a 21-year playoff drought.

Raleigh circled the bases as Seattle fans who waited two decades for this moment rose to their feet and roared. Fireworks exploded overhead. The bullpen pitchers sprinted toward the dog-pile of Mariners near the pitcher’s mound. The players joined in a circle, did the can-can dance, then piled atop each other, and it seemed fair to wonder, at that moment, whether a ballpark could spontaneously combust.

Raleigh found Hollander on the infield. “Hey, thanks for getting me worked into the lineup tonight,” he quipped.

That postseason drought, the thing that vexed and puzzled and embarrassed Seattle’s baseball team, ended Friday night. It ended with a blast and a boom, relief and exaltation, and more than a few tears falling down so many cheeks. It ended because of a faux-hawked hero, an architect who wore his “B”-level shoes in anticipation and an audacious plan put into place five years ago that’s not even close to a culmination.

Yes, the Mariners, the low-luck, high-loss franchise that spent the past two decades burning through managers, general managers and superstars, secured a wild card bid on Friday night. That might not seem like a lot. But here, after everything, it was.

Sep 30, 2022; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Mariners fans cheer following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth at T-Mobile Park.

In these parts, the drought became more than a drought, more than two decades of watching playoff baseball, more than a few thousand jokes lobbed at the franchise that best understood futility. The Mariners breathed life into the drought, making their inglorious streak into a character, one that was old enough to vote and mere weeks from being old enough to drink.

The Mariners last played a postseason baseball game in 2001, which feels like another lifetime, which is because, well, it is. Back in that long-ago October, the news was all hurricanes (Iris), Taliban (U.S. warplanes staging their first major assault in Kabul), presidential mishaps (the Supreme Court barred Bill Clinton), coverage of immigration detention centers, higher-than-usual interest in the Federal Reserve (they cut rates) and the-world-is-falling-apart scares (like anthrax). Time is indeed a flat circle. The Mariners’ drought was proof.

Another lifetime? The Mariners can sympathize. They tied the Major League Baseball record in 2001 with 116 regular-season wins. They figured they’d be back. They’d make another run. Certainly, nobody believed they wouldn’t return to the postseason until 2022!

Adding to the angst was how and with whom they kept the drought alive. Seattle lost more games than it won (at a .480 clip) from 2002 to ’21. But they were stretches of something resembling elite baseball. There was an MVP (Ichiro) and a Cy Young winner (Félix Hernández) smack in their primes. There were big-value trades (Robinson Canó), franchise stalwarts (Kyle Seager) and many stars (Edwin Díaz, Nelson Cruz, Adrián Beltré). But there wasn’t a single postseason appearance.

The franchise won 93 games in 2002 and 93 games in ‘03. But what felt like a small dip from an aging roster before a rebuild and another run was actually the apex of the last 20 seasons before this one. In ‘16, three games out felt like a triumph. Last season, one game out felt like the start of something new.

Regardless, in 2001, Shrek debuted at the box office and Blockbuster still held the movie world in a headlock. But as both faded, the Mariners persisted. The best thing that could be said was this: at least they were consistent.

And yet—AND YET—on the 7,649th day since their last playoff game, after every other MLB team, every NFL team, every NHL team and every NBA team last made a postseason appearance, after the Patriots won six championships and Tom Brady won seven, after the Cubs won the freaking World Series and so did two kinds of Sox (White, Red), the Mariners strangled the drought until it died. To call that merciful doesn’t do it justice. Merciful would have been 10 years. Or 15.

Those poor Mariners fans. Their team wouldn’t exist if not for a lawsuit, if the city and state hadn’t sued the American League when, in 1969, Seattle’s first team, the Pilots, bolted for Milwaukee after just one season. Eight years later, the Mariners were born, and even that didn’t go very smoothly. Their new logo—a trident pointed toward the dirt—was also a sign from Greek mythology. What did it mean? Bad luck! Related or not, Seattle’s first winning season came in ’91.

And then, after everything, after the departure of so many stars, after pigs flew and hell froze over, 21 seasons winnowed down to one glorious night. Friday night. The Mariners were already selling playoff tickets. They could see The End and a beginning.

Sep 30, 2022; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suarez (front row, left), second baseman Adam Frazier (front row, middle) and center fielder Julio Rodriguez (front row, right) celebrate in the clubhouse following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth at T-Mobile Park.

As he whittled away the final hours before the first pitch, Servais took a walk around the stadium. He stopped in the upper deck, above Edgar’s Cantina, named for the Mariners legendary designated hitter and current hitting consultant, Edgar Martínez. He’s not sure why, as he tells this story in his office in a quiet moment deep into a night of celebration, but his eyes landed on the team’s postseason banners. It’s disgusting that the last one is from ’01, he thought to himself. Today’s the day it ends.

Around the same time, Dipoto was heading to the ballpark. Having lived through a few champagne celebrations earlier in his career, he wore a pair of Auburn-brand shoes, because he knew that he could wash them. He also spied something significant: a bottle of 2001 Spring Mountain red wine. The year was too perfect, so he grabbed the bottle and an opener and hoped he needed both that night.

The die-hards, the bandwagon types, the families and the curious all arrived hours before first pitch. They packed the bars on Occidental Avenue and sold out every store in sight. They knew that history might happen, and they wanted to remember every detail; wanted to preserve the memory; and wanted, more than anything, for the Mariners to win.

Most knew at least the basics of the previous 12 months: the mid-November trade for Adam Frazier … the splashy late November signing of reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray … the March deal that netted Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez … the June swap for Carlos Santana … the here-we-go July trade for starter Luis Castillo, and the emergence of a young star as bright as any in baseball in Julio Rodríguez.

Dipoto, while retrieving the bottle of wine from his office hours later, says he was certain way back in spring training that the Mariners would end their drought this year. He knew the day the Mariners cemented the trade for Winker and Suárez.

As SI reported last week, Rodríguez would have made the postseason roster had the Mariners advanced last year. Instead, another season ended the way the previous 19 had ended, on the final day before the playoffs. Still, they entered spring training certain that they had upgraded, both with rookies (Rodríguez and George Kirby) and with veterans (Suárez, Winker, Frazier and Santana all made All Star teams in previous seasons). Combine that with a stingy bullpen, strong defense, years of good drafts and high-level development—and this grand Mariners rebuild that started in late 2018 with the trading of Robinson Canó’s albatross of a contract to the Mets, seemed poised to at least take another step.

But it’s never that easy, is it? Not with Seattle’s baseball team. Not when two decades of bottled emotion, of players and managers and everyone else insisting that the drought didn’t matter, that it didn’t weigh on them, was unleashed late Friday. Then, it was obvious, from the reporters who wore ponchos into the clubhouse to the players who donned goggles to shield their eyes to the cigar smoke that wafted in the air. There were drinks stations set up; a clear tarp, laid down. Bottles of team-issued vino—clinched, the bottle read—were shaken and poured over so many heads. The remnants began pooling on the floor, turning the clubhouse into Lake Corona, from the beers that players clutched.

“We’re not done,” Servais said, while also acknowledging that “nothing will ever top this for me. Nothing is more gratifying.” He started to say something else but several players dumped alcoholic beverages on him.

Dipoto stood on the edges, clutching a bottle of vino, his arms perpetually opened, his hair gloriously wet, his smile all but etched onto his face. “We came all this way together,” he mused. “From the ground up to here.”

Per tradition, he gathered in the back of the clubhouse with several coaches and executives. All held miniature gold trophies—maybe two inches high—and someone grabbed a bottle of Fireball whiskey and filled them to the brim.

“Let’s f---ing party,” Servais boomed. But first, he grabbed Dipoto, his longtime friend, and Manny Acta, his bench coach. This trio had all been in Seattle together since 2016, with Dipoto arriving a year earlier. They had lived through everything, all the criticism, the playoff-less seasons, all of it.

“We made it,” Servais told them. “We survived.”

“We worked every f---ing step,” Dipoto said.

Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez celebrates on the field after the team’s baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 2-1 to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

Even this season, this month, this week. Mariners baseball is never easy, not even when history is made.

Seattle would not make the playoffs. In June, when they fell 10 games under .500, that was certain.

The M’s would certainly make the playoffs. In July, when the All Star break interrupted a 14-game winning streak, that was certain.

Seattle baseball fans should have learned something a long time ago, though. With the Mariners and the playoffs, nothing is certain. That record-winning, 116-victory squad? Lost in the ALCS. The 1995 legends? Also lost in the ALCS. The M’s, in fact, have only played postseason baseball in four of their 46 seasons. They have competed in seven postseason series (winning only three).

So please, forgive the locals as September days flew off the calendar and the echoes of seasons’ past grew louder and louder with each twist. The Mariners were losing again, having dropped 11 of 18 before Wednesday’s contest; their star center fielder landed back on the injured list and even though the oddsmakers still like their drought-terminating chances, something just felt … off. Maybe it was the energy with Rodríguez sidelined. Or missing Suárez’s bat, when an injury kept him out as well. Maybe the Mariners had truly overachieved this season, and this slide marked nothing more than a regression to the mean. Maybe it was ghosts. That upside-down trident. Life.

That’s the thing about these Mariners, though. They’re not those Mariners, the teams that failed an ace in Hernández, watched Canó age rapidly, or played above their ceiling simply to reach a similar position. This group is loose. Relaxed. Unbothered. Nowhere near its ceiling. Nobody, Ty France says, “makes more of us than us.” So, yes, the line of drought inquiries grew tiresome. But the drought itself didn’t faze them; talking about it presented little more than annoyance.

Internally, where it mattered, the M’s oozed confidence. Now is the time, they told each other. End the drought, they said. In recent weeks, they started to say those things in public. But they had already been saying them for weeks.

Flash forward. Wednesday night. The Mariners were home but scuttling, having been shut out by the Rangers the night before. Servais told his players to come late to the ballpark anyway. He wanted to shake them from a routine that wasn’t working anymore. He knew Suárez was returning after 10 days on the injured list. Plus, it couldn’t get much worse.

This strategy did more than work. It changed the tenor of how the Mariners played baseball. Everyone involved insists that the mood in the clubhouse never turned, that the vibe never weakened, that the loosest team in MLB remained that way while another promising season teetered on the edge of the worst possible collapse.

The Mariners won that Wednesday, denting the notion that batting practice matters. The Orioles, their chief competition for a wild card slot, lost, and that dwindled Seattle’s magic number to three games with eight to play.

Doubt lingered, given the team and the circumstances. Look at the numbers. They’re in! For sure! This is the Mariners. They’ll collapse! For sure!

More proof: of this team, its mettle and its make-up arrived on Thursday, in a game that was taut, wild and extra—both in innings and significance. The Mariners trailed, 9–8, in the bottom of the 11th. Dylan Moore slapped a single, which moved the automatic runner, Jarred Kelenic, to third. Servais tabbed Luis Torrens to pinch hit, and he sailed a single to right field, scoring Kelenic, as Moore moved to second.

Next up: J.P. Crawford, a Mariners staple for all but one season of the latest, truest rebuild, who arrived from Philadelphia in 2019. He tried to bunt Moore to third and failed. He tried again. Also failed. But Moore didn’t need a bunt! He stole third, and, when Crawford soon sent a stinging line drive down the third-base line that ricocheted off an infielder’s glove, Moore scored. Oh, baseball gods, Crawford thought to himself. Finally. Thank you.

Remember: Rodríguez was on the injured list. Suárez had just returned. But Kelenic smashed two home runs. Mitch Haniger, a centerpiece of this rebuild, matched him. Marco Gonzales, the staff ace not too long ago, gave Seattle five solid innings. This was exactly what Dipoto had envisioned. Not for the end point. Not to slay the drought. But for how they’ll get where they really want to go, whether next year, the year after that, or this one.

Servais couldn’t help but think back to all the drought questions lobbed his way, week after week, for the past seven years. Did he know the Mariners held the longest postseason absence streak in professional sports? Haha! He woke up every morning with that understanding. He thought about the history on his drive into the ballpark. “We will end the drought tomorrow,” he promised.

“But,” he added, “the goal is winning the World Series.”

First thing’s first. The Orioles also lost on Thursday. The Mariners magic number was down to one. One Seattle win. One Baltimore loss. It couldn’t be. It had to be.

Servais sighs late Friday night. “It’s so hard to win,” he says to family and friends inside his office. He says this after he won. Perhaps he will be heartened, though, by another relevant development.

When SI asked Rodríguez if he would return to the lineup Monday night, when he is eligible to come off the IL, he didn’t run away, and he didn’t duck the question. “Probably,” he said.

Sep 30, 2022; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais (9) celebrates in the clubhouse following a 2-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics to clinch a wild card playoff berth at T-Mobile Park.

Inside Servais’s office, command central, nearly two hours after the drought officially ended, Dipoto broke the cork on his celebratory bottle of champagne. He found a way to open it—metaphor, anyone?—then poured that ’01 Spring Mountain into plastic cups. (Amateur review: smooth and wasted on a sports writer.)

These men who stand at the center of the Mariners’ transformation had basically grown up in the minor leagues together, while trying to become managers and executives and scouts. They’d often done exactly this at the kitchen table late at night in their two-bedroom apartment. Down a bottle and discuss the day’s events. They certainly never pictured this.

It’s no different now. It’s totally different now. Now, their families are inside the office, and the 90s hip hop hits blaring from the clubhouse speakers are sadly considered “old school.” They cannot believe how many fans stayed—and for how long. They cannot believe the sounds they heard, sounds long forgotten in this ballpark—the roar of a packed house, the simmering tension of a close game with high stakes, the crack of Raleigh’s bat, the fireworks exploding.

One fan had approached the GM during the on-field celebration. “Mr. Dipoto, thank you,” he gushed. “I’ve waited for this my whole entire life. Thank you. Thanks again.” The GM had found his own family, and he wrapped them tight, crying so forcefully that the vein in his forehead protuded.

For years, these old friends had dismissed the drought, which was understandable, even necessary. But in these moments, on this night, their actions all but screamed how heavy it was to carry and how much it meant the night it lifted, because of Raleigh and Rodríguez, Suárez and Haniger and the rest. It was for the woman in the elevator who told Dipoto she was angry with him after he traded Canó before the 2019 season. For the fans who never left. For the fans who returned. For a city that was once a baseball town and may, soon, be again.

The goal remained unchanged: World Series title or bust. But on this night, when two decades of angst, two decades of bad decisions and bad bounces and bad play, finally ended, the celebration needed to commence. This wasn’t a small thing. Not by a long shot. But as the revelry continued in Servais’s office, Dipoto turned to the small crowd of friends and family with a reminder that the work is never done when the pinnacle is now closer to within reach.

“I can’t believe we have a day game tomorrow,” he said, as he raised his glass of that ’01 Spring Mountain to his lips. Victory had never tasted that exquisite. And maybe that’s because nothing makes a general manager more thirsty than a drought.

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