A universal issue when starting to follow a sports team is getting up to speed with where they are now, let alone catching up on their entire history. Some major league baseball teams are well over a century old, and even the oddball Seattle Mariners are just four years away from turning fifty. That’s the predicament I faced when trying to delve into this franchise at the conclusion of the 2021 season when they came within just two wins of their first postseason appearance in twenty years.
The team was a blast to watch with their “fun differential” and chaos ball, but aside from Ichiro, King Felix and the current roster, I was a novice who wanted a proper crash course. I’m sure that there are other videos on youtube that do this job, but the thumbnail image of the Dorktown documentary is what got me to click on something with a nearly 4 hour runtime: a giant, teal-tinted graph. Instead of a single player’s face or a shot of Safeco Field, an immensely detailed, interactive chart serves as the foundation for what narrators Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein call “the most fascinating team on Earth.”
While most sports documentaries rely heavily on interviews with past players, this mini-series puts an emphasis on statistics and stories you don’t normally get, and that’s why Dorktown’s format is a perfect fit for the Mariners. What makes it work is its sense of style, where the people talking about it have empathy and respect for their subject matter, but without the reverence that can blind them to a franchise’s obvious shortcomings (and a sense of humor that can make even the most sport-averse viewer regularly crack a smile). Which is apt, as in their words “The Seattle Mariners are eminently lovable, profoundly human, and stunningly, outrageously weird.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that the only team to never appear in a single world series can’t possibly be noteworthy, but the Mariners are a franchise that feels like it refuses to be normal on purpose. Being the sole baseball team responsible for representing the entire pacific northwest, a solid theory is that this MLB “moon colony” is so remote that normalcy can’t physically reach it. The Mariners boast narratives and feats that frequently sound not just too good or nonsensical to be true, but the sheer number of jaw-dropping and laugh out loud moments feels unreal. Whereas most sports teams can often feel like inanimate institutions, Dorktown makes the Ms come across as though they’re somehow a living being that goes through unpredictable ups and downs like any normal person does.
Their first 14 years of existence never saw them finish with a winning season, instead witnessing plenty of pranks, rule-breaking shenanigans, and acts of athletic incompetence, until 1995 when the team had to play for its life in order to avoid being sold and moved to another city. Against all odds however (and thanks to the Ms lucking into four hall of fame caliber players at the same time with Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez) they achieved their first ever postseason appearance, resulting in a playoff series so unlikely and inspiring you’re left wondering why no one has tried to make a movie out of it. Despite a short lived era of near-dominance during the remainder of the decade, and starting out the 2000s on a record tying 116 win season, they immediately kicked off a “historically long run of ineptitude” where they missed the playoffs for over two decades straight. This centerstone drought however is also where the documentary stands its ground to make a key point: “does this look incomplete to you?”
Despite going over 40 years without ever reaching the mountaintop, the Mariners have a history worth recognizing, and one that can make you reconsider what a team “means.” Those 116 wins are still a record, Felix Hernandez’s perfect game is as of writing the last one ever thrown in major league baseball, and Ichiro Suzuki paved the way for future Japanese position players to cross over into the MLB. Without him, Shohei Ohtani might not be where he is now. Appreciating them requires you to leave your expectations at the door, to let go of a pain that would break most fanbases, and in doing so sets you free to “celebrate a team for what it is, and not for what it could be.” When an identity is built on something besides wins and losses, you can see a team for what it truly is: the men on the field, what they’ve gone through in order to get there in the first place, and the stories they’ve authored either through blunders so astounding they achieve immortality via gut-busting gifs, or careers so amazing that they’re rewarded with a plaque in Cooperstown. “The Mariners aren’t competitors, they’re protagonists.”
When you’re finished watching this video, you might find yourself asking “where’s part 7?”, and there we come back to the purpose of the series: you’re all caught up now. You get to watch part 7 unfold in real time, and just two years after this series was released, the Mariners finally ended their playoff drought, closing the chapter on one of their infamously defining aspects.
But then we also have come back to a question Dorktown asked: “will they always be like this?” Will the Ms always be weird and human in a way few teams are, even now when they look like possible contenders? It’s a little early to tell, although we can glean some lessons and oddities from the current team. The 2019 Mariners did something no iteration before them really tried: for the first time in their history, they fully rebuilt, starting from the ground up instead of trying to plug holes like they always did. While rebuilding is painful, these Mariners made it far from boring as the 2021 team managed to outdo some previous iterations by posting a 90 win season in spite of a run differential of negative 50, making them the most clutch team in modern baseball history. In 2021 and 2022, they led the majors in one-run wins, something no other team had done in back-to-back seasons since the 1890s (that’s not a typo by the way). And halfway through the 2022 season, this team started doing something no other baseball team ever does: after each victory, every infield player gathered together for a victory dance.
While this might look disrespectful to longtime baseball viewers, the Ms are keenly aware that victory is never guaranteed, and each one should be cherished. You never know when the music will stop, so you might as well dance while you can. Just as a normal person can’t undo past mistakes, the 20 year drought can’t be erased, but flop eras can always come to an end. Maybe a new era of just missing the mark again and again commences, and yet so could a dynasty where it all finally goes right for once. Maybe now, at long last, the eternal challenge will be rewarded.