In 2011, the baseball season wound down, and Ichiro, for the first time in his 11 years in the MLB, failed to reach 200 hits. Over an hour’s drive away from then-SafeCo Field, Matt King remembers coming to a realization.
“I was like, ‘Wow, he’s had this incredible career, and he’s only seen the playoffs once,’” said King, who lives in Napavine. "And then you start thinking about it, and it’s like, Felix hasn’t ever been, Griffey came back and retired and we’d only been back a couple times since he left. It just started to lit like, ‘Wow, it’s really been that long.’”
The Mariners’ playoff drought had been that long — and in retrospect, had yet to hit its halfway point. Through 21 years, 10 managers, and a stadium name change, Seattle’s absence from the playoffs grew in length, and fans’ desperation for October baseball grew itself.
And in Lewis County — outside of the Seattle area but in solid Mariners country — the fans looked to the north, only to watch their team fail year after year.
Until, suddenly, they didn’t.
King was 4 years old in 2001, the last time Seattle made the playoffs, old enough to still be haunted by the memory of Alfonso Soriano in the ALCS. Fellow Napavine resident Marc Navarrete was 10. Winlock’s Anthony Nusbaum was 6. Over two decades later, they got to see their team finally put together the season they’d dreamed of to reach the playoffs.
“To me it was exciting,” said Navarette, who was wrapping up a year’s stay in Peoria, Ariz., when the regular season came to a close. “They were right there the whole time. It was just a game-by-game, day-by-day sort of thing. I’m not going to say I got my hopes up, but I just let them do their thing.”
Naverrete admitted to a tear or two of happiness when Cal Raleigh hit a walkoff home run to clinch the Mariners their spot. Now deep into the playoff run — after a wild card sweep in Toronto, and two games into the ALDS against Houston — all three are seeing that Seattle’s success up north has led to an increased interest back home in Lewis County.
“Just having co-workers at my job, I told them, ‘Welcome to the bandwagon,’ because all of a sudden they want to talk baseball with me because they know I’m the huge baseball guy,” Nusbaum said.
King took a slightly different view of it, welcoming the oft-derided idea of the bandwagon.
“People like to throw around, ‘Oh, you weren’t a fan when they were bad,’” he said. “For me, this is exactly what I want, I want everyone to be Mariners fans, everyone focusing on the Mariners. It’s been extremely awesome to watch that happen.”
Saturday, Seattle will host its first playoff game since Oct. 18, 2001. Despite T-Mobile Park selling out and prices skyrocketing for a chance to watch something that hasn’t happened in King County since before the Harry Potter movies came out, a fair few Lewis County fans will be making the trip north. The group includes King, who ponied up the money to go with his family after promising to himself nearly a decade ago that when Seattle saw playoff baseball again, he’d be there.
He and the other 48,000 fans in attendance will be hoping for some October magic; the Mariners currently trail the Astros 2-0 in the best-of-five series, after two tough losses in Houston. To advance, they’d need to win Saturday, then again Monday, then go back to Texas and win one more.
But even if the playoff run falls short, the one thing about a 21-year drought is that just having a run in the first place is the biggest of wins.
“The monkey’s off the back now, now it’s time to show the world that it’s not a fluke,” Nusbaum said. “Like the Astros — as much as I hate them — have, I want playoffs to be the norm.”