Amid the hellscape of 2020, a vision from the past: A precocious Mariners center fielder, bounding toward the fence in left-center, leaping a few feet in the air, and snatching a ball from the insatiable maw of Seattle baseball misery. The year’s latest calamity clouded this act of home-run robbery—a wildfire-sparked haze hovered in T-Mobile Park. But it didn’t quell the comparisons between Kyle Lewis’s catch this past September and a similar wall-scaling by Ken Griffey Jr. 30 years earlier in New York. The internet was ablaze.
The Mariners did their part to stoke the viral moment, posting videos of the Hall of Famer’s immortalized grab at Yankee Stadium and Lewis’s fresh snag side by side. The mash-up didn’t require a voice-over for continuity: Longtime broadcaster Rick Rizzs was on the call for both plays. Though the announcer could see the resemblance between them, it’s what happened next that clinched the comparison for him. Just like Junior, the 25-year-old Lewis raised his arm and ball high above his head as he ran back toward the infield, equal parts euphoric and incredulous as he screamed “let’s go!” into the ashen air.
Rizzs grew up with that same enthusiasm for the game on the South Side of Chicago, playing in a sandlot behind his childhood home. Professional baseball, however, has long shunned the celebratory; pump your fist after a homer and the pitcher’s liable to plunk you in the ribs next time. But Rizzs thinks baseball’s finally loosening up. “We’re letting the kids play,” he says, alluding to Major League Baseball’s slogan of the moment.
The timing couldn’t be more auspicious for the perpetually moribund Mariners. While Lewis’s catch capped a Rookie of the Year campaign that has all of baseball abuzz, our local squad boasts a handful of other top prospects. In 2020 Baseball America ranked the club’s minor-league system third among 30 MLB franchises. This coveted batch of talent could position the M’s at the forefront of MLB’s next-gen evolution and, just maybe, deliver the franchise’s first playoff berth in two decades.
Historically the team’s futility has landed it top draft picks but little promise. In 2018, the Mariners finished last in those same Baseball America farm system rankings. The organization moved into the top three behind the rise of two outfielders, Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, and the first-round selections of three college pitchers—Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock. Other up-and-comers, such as hurler Justus Sheffield, assumed prominent roles in the big leagues last year.
General manager Jerry Dipoto’s youth movement doesn’t guarantee a breakthrough; fragile arms and desperate trades for more established players can sink a baseball rebuild before it’s ever off the ground (as can, perhaps, offensive remarks from a team CEO). And even if this new group of Mariners can become perennial playoff contenders, the team must compete for attention in a crowded Seattle sports marketplace that adds the NHL’s Kraken this year. “They’re going to have to work really hard to be culturally relevant,” says Dan Lobring, the vice president of marketing communications at sports marketing firm Revolution.
Winning would help. Kate Preusser, editor in chief of Mariners blog Lookout Landing, sees plenty of engagement on posts about minor leagues and rookies; it’s still nothing compared to when the organization is in the playoff hunt. “No one expects the Mariners to win,” she says. “And I think we’re really on the precipice of seeing that beginning to change. It’s going to be exciting.”