City Connected

How Jarred Kelenic Connects with Seattle

We’re all just salmon swimming upstream, when you think about it.

By Eric Nusbaum

Last week, the Mariners unveiled their new City Connect uniforms with a short video on social media. The theme of the uniforms is “past presents future.” But the video really leans hard on nostalgia. In a reference to the brief life of the Seattle Pilots, the video calls out the “trailblazers who swam upstream to the short voyage of our first major league team and the five decades of SoDo memories to follow.”

Say what you will about the uniforms themselves, but I think this bit of marketing does present a surprisingly clear ethos for Seattle sports fandom. This is a city that for all its wealth and influence still, for some reason, conceives of itself as an underdog—or to mix the animal metaphors and call back to that video—a salmon swimming upstream. Nowhere does this manifest more than in our treatment of local sports teams and athletes.

And right now, no player embodies the particular glory of swimming upstream like outfielder Jarred Kelenic. After struggling for two years with the weight of massive expectations (and doing so in a determinedly ungraceful, painful-to-watch kind of way that has elicited strong feelings of both sympathy and disdain among Mariners fans), Kelenic seems to have figured it out. He may not sustain this run as one of the very best hitters in the sport, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s good now.

This outcome was not preordained. As Mariners fans know very well, plenty of highly touted prospects like Kelenic simply fade away. The 23-year-old seems to have avoided this fate by adjusting his swing, seeking the guidance of a sports psychologist, and embracing failure as an inevitable part of the baseball experience. Ken Rosenthal detailed these changes in a recent profile of Kelenic for The Athletic. Quite simply, Kelenic has learned to really accentuate the positive.

“One thing I worked extremely hard on with him and with my family and everybody was that in baseball, when there is that much negativity and that much failure, the times that you succeed, in your mind you need to exaggerate it just to outweigh the negativity,” Kelenic said of his work with the sports psychologist.

Seattle fans know all about exaggerating their own successes to outweigh negativity. That’s what we’re doing every time we replay the Edgar Martinez double highlight from 1995. That’s what we’re doing when we give the Mariners a standing ovation after losing the first home playoff game in a generation in heartbreaking fashion.

The arrival of the Mariners was in itself an upstream swim. After the Seattle Pilots played a single season here in 1969, they bolted for Milwaukee and rechristened themselves the Brewers. Seattle, King County, and Washington state then joined forces to sue the American League, presenting a complex case that essentially amounted to “we got screwed.” The lawsuit lingered in the court system until the league finally granted Seattle a new team.

The power of positive moments to reframe the struggles that came before them is the power that makes Kelenic’s blossoming so emotionally resonant. This is a place that, for all its tech power and money, was built on industries that demanded (and exploited) physical labor. It’s still a place that wants to celebrate that labor as part of its identity. We want to believe in the dignity of hard work and want to believe that, in time, it is rewarded; that you can draw a straight line from the Seattle of a century ago to the Seattle of today.  Now that he’s successful, Kelenic’s rough start in the majors feels like the opening chapter to a fable: the past that presents his future.

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