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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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March 25, 2008 9:25 AM

Figuring out the fans

Posted by Geoff Baker

OK, let's throw a rock at the proverbial hornets' nest and see what happens. The Mariners, by the way, are officially tied for first-place, a half-game up on the Oakland A's, who lost 6-5 to the Boston Red Sox in Japan this morning. Or, was that tomorrow afternoon? Can't figure this international dateline thing out.

Anyhow, some of you will be pleased with that result. Others, I'm not so sure. I'm now a full 18 months into my stint in Seattle and I'm having a hard time figuring out what drives M's fans. What got me thinking about this was a question from a media colleague last week. "So, what do you think of the fans in Seattle?'' he asked me. "Do they behave like fans in other cities?''

I wanted to tell him yes, but couldn't. That day, I'd already gotten a couple of the usual emails from M's fans chiding me for picking the team to win the division. Haven't stopped hearing about that one. Thing is, I wasn't hearing about it from fans of the A's, Angels or Rangers. I was getting blasted by M's fans. And I'm sorry, that just isn't standard practice in other cities.

In other places, the fans may be skeptical. Oh, yes, they can be. Yankees fans, Red Sox fans. Got to meet a bunch of them covering the AL East for nine seasons. Not to mention seven ALCS rounds and seven World Series. Met a whole bunch of fans in other cities who picked apart every minute detail about their teams, good and bad.

I'd expect no less.

Growing up in Montreal, I was a rabid fan of the Canadiens hockey team. And let me tell you, the Seattle sports experience -- while a little intense -- does not come close to matching the cult-like following of that club. Hockey games in Montreal are life and death, religious experiences. There are decades, even centuries of French-English politics behind some of the fandom, not to mention nationalistic fervor. But it's more than that, because English-speaking Quebecois also root just as passionately for a team that's managed to somehow transcend politics in the most politically-charged environment in North America.

But we Habs (the team's nickname) fans are tough. And demanding. I remember this poor guy, Bob Berry, who was fired as the team's coach a few months after the 1982-83 season. And that was after his team went 42-24-14 and finished with the fifth best record in the entire National Hockey League. The year before that, his club went 46-17-17 (only one fewer loss than the New York Islanders, in the middle of their four-cup dynasty) and had the league's third best record. Show me an NHL club that loses only 17 games in a season any more. Look it up, doesn't happen.

And yet, Berry was fired partway through the 1983-84 season. After two seasons that today would produce regular season conference champions each time. Why was he canned? His teams didn't win the Stanley Cup. Got bounced in the first-round of the playoffs. And that just didn't happen on our fans' watch. I was at a game in 1981-82 when the 17-loss Canadiens had a 14-game home unbeaten streak snapped by the Vancouver Canucks (a decent team that made the finals that year). Midway through the second period, the fans started booing Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson. Hey, he'd coughed up the puck in a one-goal game. We booed the team off the ice when it allowed an empty net goal and took a 4-2 loss.

Yes, we are a very tough and demanding lot. When the Habs began missing the playoffs (something unheard of when I was a kid growing up, all the way through college) we fans simply stopped buying tickets. That got management hopping. You could have filled an NFL stadium every night with Canadiens fans in the 1970s and 1980s, but not in the late-1990s. No playoffs, no ticket buys. And the team had just moved into a 21,000-seat arena. There were 3,000 or 4,000 empty seats on many nights and management knew that couldn't continue.

To their credit, management got the message. Check out the parade of coaches in Montreal since Berry was fired. There have been 10, including five in the past decade alone. Before Berry, you'd have to go back to 1936 to find the beginning of the list of the 10 prior coaches to head the team. Thing is, it wasn't entirely the team's fault, given the new economics of the game and the weak Canadian dollar. There just aren't any real sports dynasties around any more. And to their credit, Habs fans, perhaps some of the most knowlegeable fans in any sport in the world (check out how quickly they'll spot a missed offside call and get on a linesman at a game, usually before the poor offical realizes his mistake), have adpated with the times. They no longer expect a Stanley Cup every year (they've won only two since the 1978-79 season) but they do expect a competitive team.

And if management doesn't give them one, they vote with their feet and with their lungs, especially on talk radio. Montreal is a four-newspaper town and the city hits full panic mode if the team loses three or four in a row (used to be two losses in a row would get them calling for a coach's head, but they've mellowed, as I said).

So, sorry. As tough as some Seattle fans can be, it's a different universe altogether.

And yet, here's the thing. I don't know any Montreal Canadiens fan who would chide a local newspaper columnist, or television personality, for picking that club to do well.

Sure, they might be skeptical. Phone conversations between myself and my buddy James back in Canada usually involve the team. He'll say something like "Wow, the Habs have a five-game win streak'' and I'll counter with "Yeah, but they won twice by shootout and can't seem to win by more than a goal at home.''

Back when Patrick Roy was enjoying a Hall of Fame career, I hated him as a fan because he'd give up goals from the blue line too often. So, we'd sit there analyzing the team's chances and I'd be listing Roy as the No. 1 impediment to a title. Thing is, I'm still convinced I was right.

But we still wanted the team to win. And if legendary hockey writer Red Fisher, still covering the team in his late 80s, picked them as division, conference or cup favorites, we might respectfully disagree, but we'd never get angry at him. Even if some no-nothing columnist from Toronto (true Montreal fans, even those now living in Toronto, hate everything about that city, its teams, restaurants, shopping carts...etc.) picked the Habs to win, we'd be fine with it. Happy to have finally converted one of them over from the dark side. Even if we didn't truly believe it.

What we wouldn't accept is some Toronto ignoramus picking our team not to win. Or, even worse, picking the god-awful Toronto Maple Leafs to finish ahead of the Habs. That's when we'd fire off our letters to the editor, emails, dispatch a few hit-men, and all that.

But not here. In Seattle, it seems, Mariners fans get angry when the local media stiff tells them their team might actually have a chance of doing well. That's a different bird. One I am quite unfamilliar with. I have no clue about its psychology.

Is it a fear of failure, perhaps?

If so, I don't understand that either. True, the M's were pretty bad from 1977 to 1994, but they have actually made the playoffs in baseball (much tougher to do than in any other sport) four times. Talk to a former Montreal Expos fan about suffering. That team made one post-season, in 1981, during their entire existence. Had its best season ever, in 1994, ripped away by the players' strike.

The M's haven't made the playoffs since 2001? Boo-hoo. Cry me a river. My Expos team hasn't made it since 1981 and never will ever again!

Cubs fans haven't had a championship in their entire lifetimes. Even the ones approaching their 100th birthday! Do you think they fire off angry letters to columnists picking them to make the playoffs?

Hey, this isn't about me not being able to handle your letters. I can handle those, handle having my picks questioned, handle being called a waterboy (good morning J.J.), or anything else you want to throw my way. I just don't understand it.

Is this about wanting to be right? Do some fans want so badly to be validated in their belief the Erik Bedard trade was wrong, that they're willing to sacrifice the next few seasons (silently rooting for the other teams) just to be proven right? Maybe that's it.

I don't know. All I know is, since I picked the M's to win the division, not one fan of another team has emailed me to question my beliefs. Only M's fans have. And not politely. They usually start with some vitriolic opening line like: "This team is a bunch of frauds and there's no way...''

Again, if you want to worry about the offense, go ahead. Hey, I'm a little worried about it myself. You want to worry about the bullpen, or John McLaren's managerial acumen, or whether Jose Lopez can hit, or Bedard can pitch, fine. That's what all sports fans do.

It's just that some of you (and please, I'm not including Adam from our comments thread in this group so don't jump all over him), seem to want your team to fail. I love dissenting opinion and a critical eye. But what I'm seeing from more and more M's fans is something entirely different.

Anyone want to take a stab at it? Anyone want to educate this naive rube? Go for it. I'm all ears.


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