The Postmodern Mariners

The Mariners’ hot start to the 2019 season was, seemingly, just an illusion. (via Keith Allison)

If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.” – Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism (25)

Baseball, I would argue, is a fundamentally modern game.

By modern I don’t mean “new,” or “not old,” but rather something like what your English professor meant in those 9 a.m. classes you slept through: a cultural artifact that is fundamentally of and about the moment from which it emerged. “Modernism,” as many have argued, is an artistic, literary, philosophical, and aesthetic movement emerging sometime around the mid-19th century and lasting until about the mid-1960s, or so. In this way, “modernist” literature might narrate the rise of urban industrial cities around the turn of the century, and modernist painting and cinema might be all about dealing with an individual’s inner trauma following the horror of the two World Wars. The argument would say that almost all the cultural production of a given moment shares things in common by dint of being from the same period in time: from art to geopolitics, from culture to the economy.

If baseball is “modern,” then, it is because it came of age during this very same period, still negotiates the urban/rural divide of the late American 19th century, and so deeply narrates and remembers its own history in sepia-tinged photos of the greats with unbeatable records who came before. Baseball has a history, and in a sense is about history: the Yankees don’t have to put New Era branding on their century-old pinstripes, Fenway’s bricks have been unmoved since the era of Empires, Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated by all each season. Using Baseball Reference’s Oracle tool, one could even find out how many players share friend-of-a-friend stories between Christy Mathewson and Bartolo Colón (spoiler alert: only four!)

The problem with this, of course, is that it is no longer 1865, 1927, or even 1989, and baseball is still going and going and going. In the mid-1980s, cultural theorists began asking if we might be entering a period after that of the “modern,” or at the very least, if our collective cultural imaginary might be operating under a new set of rules distinctly different than that of “modernism.” There are few widespread agreements as to what the “rules” of the “postmodern” might entail, but many theorists agree the postmodern is defined by artworks that endlessly copy and reference other artworks, or blur the line between “high” and “low” art. Postmodern thought might be skeptical of big grand narratives or concepts like absolute truth, and have a difficult time conceiving of actual history in the era of hyper-networked, globalized digital economies.

If this is indeed the case, the questions it raises for baseball might initially appear to be merely aesthetic. If the period of “modernity” ended sometime in the mid 1960s, then is every team in the expansion era fundamentally a “postmodern” franchise? Take the Mets, for instance, who are commonly known to wear orange and blue as symbolic nods to entice fans of historical clubs like the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Can one say the Mets actually contain the history of New York baseball? Or is this branding something like the utilization of history for entirely ahistorical ends, a cynical marketing ploy that threatens to forget what actually came before, and who sent them to California?

One could also point to the Tampa Bay Rays’ throwback uniforms for the 2014 major league season. When newer expansion teams host throwback nights, often the choice to make up for a lack of actual, ancestral club lineage is to choose a Negro League team from the area to honor, or a minor-league team that called the city home before the big leagues moved in. But for the Rays’ 17th year of existence, they chose to invent an entirely aestheticized imagined history: what the Rays might have been wearing had they been around in 1982.

Instead of following earlier baseball’s fundamentally modern impulse to remember the actual game, true greats who played on that very same outfield grass upon which today’s players roam, these uniforms embrace the problem of a lack of “real” history with the creative solution to abolish it altogether. As we will come to discover, this turn to a fundamentally post-modern aesthetic has been theorized by many cultural critics as an aesthetic turn mirroring broader changes in the global economy or political order roughly occurring from the late 1960s-early 1990s—the birth of “our” modern world, if you will. That the Rays didn’t exist in the 1960s here seems of little importance.

The Pianist and Satchel Paige
A pianist finds inspiration in games from his childhood.

The Rays are one of postmodern baseball’s quintessential teams: at times playing in a simulated ballpark set right next to Disney World, wearing a simulated aesthetic past in a world that seems to have a harder and harder time connecting to its real history, with the then-third-lowest payroll in all of baseball, echoing broader moves to defund once supposedly “rigid” economic plans through the language of efficiency and innovation. What happens, then, when the forms of the postmodern graduate out into the rest of the game, into teams with deeper histories? If it is true that postmodernism is the “cultural logic” of our particular economic period in the history of the world, why might we be surprised to see it move from uniform aesthetics to roster-building logics, from the payroll of the A’s to the marketing tactics of the Rays, and beyond?

Of course, I want to be clear that I’m not necessarily bemoaning a loss of some “authentic” history here, either in baseball or in the broader culture we might call “postmodern,” although I will admit it really would be nice to be able to go to my local cinema and choose something besides Spider-Man 14 these days, though. Postmodernism, to one of the term’s supposed founders Fredric Jameson, is both a period that reflects changes in the economy in art as well as something like a celebration of play, pastiche, and an abandonment of history. Sure, we can have nostalgia, but our nostalgia is something like a nostalgia for the “present”: throwback uniforms make us imagine what the 1940s must have been like while they are worn by Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, who were born in 1994.

All of this, Jameson would argue, echoes the very same cultural logic as the economy itself: for just as new flows of finance began to emerge across the world during the third wave of globalization, art and culture began to follow suit with the logics of innovation, disruption, and transformation. Take, for instance, my least favorite uniforms in all of baseball (and yes, that includes the Diamondbacks roadkill-splattered Star Trek uniforms, which were sold by the league with the startup marketing language of “Cutting Edge”).

These uniforms were unveiled by the Seattle Mariners in 2015, with this perfectly postmodern twitter banner reading “Where the Past Meets the Present” (which past?). The cream-colored jersey serves as an analogue to the Rays’ invented history-as-simulated-image: everyone knows the Giants look old-timey in their cream uniforms and, hey, that’s probably what they wore in the 1910s, nevermind that the Mariners are 40 years old! But most troubling is the return of the club’s 1980’s blue-and-gold aesthetic, figured here (top) in their original, historical font and typeface, “re”-produced in the club’s Sunday alternate uniforms (mid) with the same font and typeface as every other Mariners uniform since the last rebrand in the early 1990s (bottom):





In a sense, these uniforms are quintessential embodiments of Jameson’s postmodern evacuation of history from the aesthetic, or at the very least, are perfect examples of what happens when history becomes an aesthetic—blue, gold, and cream—to be interchanged amongst other aesthetic forms (that bizarre font and typeface) that have their own, different history. The Mariners’ Sunday alternate cream uniforms—missing the player’s name on the back like the old times—want to give you the feeling of history with none of the actual thing itself. By successfully merging the old and the new, they destroy the old’s ability to actually mark itself in time. That odd dichotomy between the 1992 teal font tinted to 1986 and worn in 2019, however, need not merely be an aesthetic choice gone awry. It is instead the cultural logic of baseball’s late turn, the victory of corporate synergy abolishing the real past to the dustbin of inefficient, expensive history in favor of flexible flows of cheap labor and rosters designed by algorithms.

No longer is history something back then. It’s an image to be worn today, suggesting that all there ever has been is innovation, and all there ever will be is the same. And it’s not just the uniforms, either.

If Jameson is right in that these broader aesthetic changes mirror material economic changes, this story is about much more than uniforms and typefaces. Let’s stick with the Seattle Mariners, in what follows.

On December 3, 2018, the Seattle Mariners traded their quarter-of-a-billion-dollar franchise cornerstone, Robinson Canó, to the New York Mets. A month earlier, Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto took to the media in order to dispel rumors the Mariners were looking to “teardown” in the offseason following a bleak late-season fall from playoff eligibility. Analysts argued the Mariners either had to add just enough to their aging roster to compete with the best the AL had to offer–which would have increased payroll–or realize the dream was over. Not to Dipoto, however. Fans of the saddest playoff-starved club in the league were instead reassured their team was just far “too talented” to spend years chasing number one picks as the only way to break out of their long October slumber. This is what made the roster blowup all the more confusing. The Canó trade—alongside the shipping off of anyone else not bolted down to the hull of the ship in the weeks following his comments—seemed to expose Dipoto’s comments for the media spin they appeared to be.

But then something strange happened. First, Dipoto seemed to paradoxically embrace the reality of the Mariners’ changed circumstances alongside his now anachronistic November comments following the trade. Like any public-facing executive operating in our so-called “post-truth” mediascape, Dipoto ostensibly realized the truth was whatever he was saying now, which might sound different, but is the same thing he was saying then, you see, because what happened is actually what he meant all along.

The Mariners weren’t “rebuilding” as much as they were taking a momentary pause in their linear development towards their inevitable World Series victory…how could you call that a “teardown?” In this sense, the Mariners weren’t rebuilding because the Mariners were never—and could never—be “built” in the first place, a kind of postmodern logic set to hyperdrive: the club’s journey in 2019 is the same journey they had been on in 2014, 2009, 1995, and you can tell, because they’ve been wearing the same uniforms all along. The 2018 Mariners were not a team with a core built by Jack Zduriencik in the early 2010s, they were just The Mariners, who for nearly two decades had been just one innovation away from finally pulling it all off.

And because everything else these days makes you feel like the computer program is malfunctioning, this rebuilding team won 13 of their first 15 games to kick off the 2019 season. It was an illusion, we all told ourselves, but an illusion that was fun. Like an Avengers movies, or maybe one of those bendy carnival mirrors that make your neck look all stretched-out like a wet noodle. But something about it wasn’t quite right. It was fun: learning a new set of names and personalities to adopt as your own is one of professional team sports’ most rewarding cultural experiences, one which Mariners fans can say they have gone through numerous times over the past two decades.

But in the same way that postmodernism itself is now, arguably historical—emerging as it did in the art world between the late 1960s and early 1990s—the period of eternally being one spot out of the playoffs, one piece away from contention, one small rebuild away from the World Series, is starting to get pretty dang old itself. How, then, might one be sold on the experience of something like a perpetual present—the almost-there Seattle Mariners—when the team’s almost-there playoff drought is old enough to purchase a lottery ticket? If proper history accounts for the past two decades and says the Mariners must both completely rebuild and buck the economizing trends of salary reduction in order to truly compete, how might fans respond to a narrative that says it’s always already two years away, next time they’ll get it, because they have the newest innovative idea, stuck in a feedback loop of algorithmic eternity?

Watching those first games of 2019 felt as if history had gone askew after the experience of those barely-competitive teams of the mid-2010s, time somehow set out of joint. It’s not just that Robinson Canó was nowhere to be found, someone new behind the plate with a different-shaped helmet every half inning. It’s that what I was watching on my television had so fundamentally changed despite being, I was told, functionally the same thing it had always been. There’s a version of this where I pretend it will actually happen once the Mariners actually get new, truly new uniforms. But this, of course is the logic of the postmodern playing out: the desire for the truly new can never be satiated. If there even is a “new,” it paradoxically emerges in a perpetual present where nothing can really actually be new anymore. So we’re instead stuck watching images of images, signs of signs get shuffled around to produce the same thing they’ve been set to do for the past forty years.

And so on I watched. It’s not just that there were new faces wearing familiar uniforms—that happens every year. It was that I realized then, actually realized that I was looking at essentially the very same uniforms worn by Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in the mid-90s—another planet in every way imaginable. I was looking at these uniforms and I realized they were emblematizing the future of the rebuilding ballclub, which wasn’t actually rebuilding. No, the team was not rebuilding because they still have Ken Griffey Jr.

How could they be, if the “past” never really left, and has yet to even happen in the first place?


Matt is a PhD student at Brown University, studying Modern Culture and Media, where he works on cinema, history, and political theory. His work formerly appeared at SB Nation's Lookout Landing. He currently writes at Short Relief for Baseball Prospectus.
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Jamie
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Jamie

“Matt is a PhD student, studying Modern Culture and Media”
I never would’ve guessed!

danconley
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Member

I feel like this story was written for me only. Thank you.

3cardmonty
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3cardmonty

You perfectly described why those cream-colored uniforms bother me. The whole thing where there’s no name on the back, if you’re the Yankees or Red Sox you can get away with that because it’s been like that for 100 years or whatever. If you’re the Seattle Mariners trying to get away with that you’re just putting on airs and pretending to have a different, deeper history than your real history (which consists only of comprehensive failure and disappointment). You’re essentially a fake team pretending to be a real team.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

Go the whole nine yards and get rid of the numbers too! Not just a rebuild but total deconstruction.

njguy73
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njguy73

I guess the old trident-in-star logo would have been beyond the pale.