FAN SUPPORT FOR SEGURA COULD BE SIGNALING A SEA CHANGE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — That shortstop Jean Segura is heading to the All-Star Game simply underscores the pent-up desire by fans here in the Pacific Northwest to believe — really believe — the Mariners are a legitimate postseason contender.  

   I don’t know about you, but I didn’t think Segura had much of a chance to make the American League squad when the five-player Final Vote ballot was announced last Sunday by Major League Baseball.

   The other candidates were Boston outfielder Andrew Benintendi, New York outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, Los Angeles shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Minnesota outfielder Eddie Rosario.

   I figured the winner would be either Benintendi or Stanton. (How was Segura going to beat the Boston/New York axis?) Judging from his reaction at failing to gain selection prior to the Final Vote process, it seems he felt the same way.

   “I mean, it’s ridiculous,” Segura said. “I don’t make that decision. I feel disappointed. For me, I will just continue to do my job and play for Seattle and push this beautiful team and this beautiful city to the playoffs.”

   I also have to admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised at Segura’s omission.

   Heck, I don’t think he gets sufficient credit here in the Pacific Northwest. He’s been the Mariners’ best player this season but often gets overshadowed by Mitch Haniger, Nelson Cruz, Dee Gordon and even Kyle Seager and Ryon Healy.

   How was Segura going to win an international vote?

   Sure, I expected the Mariners to back him with a strong organizational push. All clubs do that these days to varying degrees — although with the Mariners, that’s no small thing.

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   Whatever their on-field failings over the last four decades, the Mariners excel in marketing and public relations. That their commercials have long been viewed as the industry standard is just one example.

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   So, yes, I expected Kevin Martinez, the club’s senior vice president for marketing and communications, to have his team operating at full throttle. And they didn’t disappoint. Their campaign was creative and non-stop.

   I also expected Segura’s teammates to beat the drum. And they did — only then they took it to a higher level. Teammates not only wore T-shirts in a unified display of support but also cut social-media clips and offered autographed items.

   When I saw Felix Hernandez standing outside Safeco Field and waving a placard at passing motorists, that’s a step beyond. So, too, was the Mariners’ decision to open Safeco to fans to allow them to cast votes on the field.

   “Just a tremendous job by our fans in really coming out in force for Jean,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “I was down on the field around lunch time (Wednesday) and thought it was the most remarkable fan support I’ve ever seen.”

   Exactly. Even if the push by the club was remarkable, none of that matters if fans don’t buy into the effort.

   Boy, did they buy in.

   Result: Segura is heading to the All-Star Game next Tuesday at National Park in Washington, D.C., along with three teammates: Haniger, Cruz and closer Edwin Diaz.

   “It just feels amazing,” Segura said after learning of his election. “It feels special. You come from another country and you see how the people support you around the world, it makes it even more special.”

   It is special, but I’ve seen this before.

   I spent 32 years at The Kansas City Star, much of it covering the Royals as they and their fans endured the sort of hopeless, helpless despair that few franchises in any sport ever experience for a prolonged period…before magic struck.

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   Yes, it was worse in Kansas City. With the Mariners, I’d argue it was always a matter of whether ownership/management could only pull their collective head out of their shorts. They had the resources to succeed.

   The Royals’ problem, for so long, was bad management on top of no resources.

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   Anyway, the point here isn’t really to compare fan-base pain but rather to identify milestones in a franchise turnaround.

   In Kansas City, that happened at some point in 2013 when the Royals, after some growing pains with a young collection of players, finally began to click. A year later, they won a pennant. Two years later, they won the World Series.

   It’s not a complete parallel. I get that.

   The Royals did it with homegrown players, while the Mariners are doing it with a lot of trade acquisitions and signings. Even so, the Mariners’ roster is loaded with players in their 20s who are under contract for multiple years.

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   Identifying similarities is not meant to forecast ultimate success. Pittsburgh had a recent renaissance that roughly paralleled what happened in Kansas City, but the Pirates hit road blocks in wild-card losses.

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   Even so, Segura unexpectedly winning the Final Vote represents a notable similarity. One of the key moments in the Kansas City turnaround was seeing fans take over the All-Star balloting process.

   The first stirrings in Kansas City occurred in 2011 when outfielder Alex Gordon, out of nowhere, finished third in the Final Vote balloting. Soon thereafter, the Royals took ballot-stuffing to extreme lengths.

   Within a few years later, it appeared the American League’s starting unit might consist of Mike Trout and eight Royals. (A late surge of ballots prevented that from happening.)

   This isn’t to suggest ballot-stuffing is the goal here. But fans buying into the process — believing — is a critical step in a franchise’s rise. The support that enabled Segura to win the Final Vote is a small (but definite) step in that direction.

   The fans here are ready, so ready, for the Mariners to be good.