How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz

We got it all wrong, but not in the way you might think.

The Seattle Mariners sit nine games out of first place. The season that was supposed to see the Mariners break their seemingly forever playoff drought never materialized. The team was hampered by a sputtering offense when the pitching was good and a beleaguered King and almost unwatchable bullpen once the hitters started hitting.

For the Detroit Tigers, things are even worse. The expectations for Detroit might not have been quite as lofty coming into the year, but very few observers would have predicted on Opening Day that this club would sit 19 games out of first place on Sept. 9 or that Dave Dombrowski would be running the Red Sox. There is missing the playoffs, and then there is whatever the Tigers are doing.

In the midst of these disappointing seasons, there have been two very bright spots: Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera are having themselves a year. Cruz is hitting .310/.380/.587 with 39 home runs, 169 wRC+. If he reaches 40 home runs this year, he’ll be just the second Mariner in the Safeco era to do so since Alex Rodriguez in 2000. I was skeptical about the Cruz signing. Not for Year 4 of the contract. For this year. As a Mariners fan, I have never been happier to be wrong. Meanwhile, despite spending 35 games on the DL, Cabrera is well-positioned to win another batting title. He’s hitting .351/.450/.567, 177 wRC+. If a casual observer were to see only these guys’ at-bats, she might well think their teams were destined to meet in the ALCS.

And yet, there is a sense among some fans that their respective clubs are wasting their seasons. That the Mariners and Tigers ought to have made better use of two remarkable performances.

It’s an understandable reaction. We were supposed to be a lot better than this, and these offensive flashes are a potent reminder of what might have been but wasn’t.

But I think that frustration fundamentally misunderstands something about baseball: Every year is futile.

That’s the thing about sports. If winning is your measure of success, but for that one team, every season is an exercise in futility, a slow admission that teams don’t measure up. What fans and loyalists and commentators are really quibbling over is the marking of time. How do we measure our relevance? How long does that last? We have a little longer. We aren’t out of it yet. We still have a run in us. Yet eventually we are unable to deny that our year is done, and it realistically often comes well before the math actually confirms that we’ve been eliminated from contention.

Celebrating the years that Cruz and Cabrera are having isn’t simply a matter of giving their fans something to cling to in the lean times, although there is an awful lot to be said for that. When 2004 Ichiro Suzuki won the batting title for a .389 Mariners team, it was really the only thing that went right that year. But I remember less that he was a batting champion on a losing team and more that he had a record-breaking 262 hits. It isn’t about dwelling on the .389 record or that Willie Bloomquist was the Mariners’ Opening Day third baseman. Rather, embracing those years is about embracing what baseball mostly is.

Baseball breathes. As a game, it lends itself to an appreciation for small moments that build to something larger, something prettier. It can be beautiful. It’s a matter of rhythm, of the ebbs and flows of the game. There is time for a cold beer and conversation. You can quibble over stats and the state of the bullpen. If you’re like me, you can sing along to walk-up songs and hope your companions don’t find you deeply strange. Those ebbs and flows are (hopefully) punctuated by moments of frenzied excitement. String enough of those moments together, and you get a World Series. Or at least, so I’m told. I wouldn’t know, personally.

As fans, it is easy to be resentful when you see the great efforts of a Cruz or a Cabrera amount to little more than meaningless September baseball. We yearn for those great moments to become great moments not just for our team but also for Baseball writ large.

But the thing is, every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure. We want the baseball to matter every day, but even when it doesn’t, the Cruzes and Cabreras (or the Harpers and the Vottos) are still great. That doesn’t change just because those guys are extreme outliers relative to the crummy performances of their clubs as a whole, or because their clubs are confronted with their failures earlier than others. Sure, they’re well out of it. But it’s likely that we’re just in on the secret earlier than everyone else. You’re about to be out of it, too, Cubs. Cardinals. Astros. Pirates. (This does not seem to apply to the Blue Jays, who might never lose ever again.)

It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful. I want Miguel to win the batting title. I look forward to cheering Cruz’s 40th home run because it’s pretty cool that any baseball player can do that. And maybe it’s even better that it’s a player on a middling franchise who can deliver that type of performance. We weren’t everything we were supposed to be this year, but we still played some meaningful baseball. Not because we won a lot of games. But because, like Ichiro before him, Nelson Cruz rose above the morass of a losing team to hit the hell out of the baseball. Baseball might be futile, but for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay. They make the every day of baseball palatable. They let us breathe.

Meg Rowley is a writer for Lookout Landing. Follow her on Twitter @megrowler.