From the minute that Julio Rodriguez was signed and most of us saw his glorious smile for the first time, baseball has been a wild and delightful ride. It wasn’t just J-Rod. For the first time in what felt like eons, we had a team, not a cluster of supporting members behind a single star. 

I blame it on Jesse Winker, as much as anybody. When he stormed out onto the field after the Angels had thrown a pitch at Julio’s head and then struck Jesse in the next inning, the resulting brawl made headlines. It was a team effort and that followed through for the rest of the season. J.P.Crawford, who went into the scrimmage with his fists swinging, said after his brief suspension that no matter what, he would always have his boys’ backs. Even Scott Servais was suspended, along with Julio. It was a weird baptism, but it worked. The Mariners proved that if you messed with one, you got them all and except for the occasional slump that besets every baseball team with the possible exception of the Astros, they played their hearts out, together. 

Usually I fall in love with a single player and I cheer him on, ignoring his teammates. This year, for the first ever, I loved all of them. I never knew which Mariner was going to make the deciding play that would give them the game, often at the last minute or in extra innings. They made baseball fun, as it was always meant to be, and when play-off fever raised its ugly little head, I didn’t care. This team showed me how to love the game and for me that was more than enough.

When the Mariners went into the postseason in 1995, I was in Thailand where baseball didn’t exist except for the rare day when there was no cricket match to put on the Bangkok Post’s sports page. In 2001, once again I was out of the country for almost the entire season. When I returned, September happened and whatever was happening in the ballpark felt irrelevant. So this year was my first intimate experience with the play-offs.

And it hurt. Whether they won or lost, my emotions were like violin strings, tuned to their highest pitch and easily snapped. The men who had been playing for the sheer joy of the game had become fighters, each one of them tested with every play, and I suddenly realized how young they all were.

The Astros rolled over them, but not easily. That single hit in the seventeenth inning made them the victors but the 1-0 final score proved their days are numbered. Next season they’ll face Mariners who have gone through the crucible of the play-offs and know what they have to do. 

But the game will have changed for them and for me. The photo of Julio after his final at bat, alone in the dugout, slumped over in misery, will haunt us all. He’ll never again play with the untarnished joy that was his hallmark this season and that makes me want to cry.

Later in the clubhouse, in response to a question about how he was after playing 18 innings, he replied, “I’m 21 years old.” That’s a warning to the Astros. The Mariners are a young team with many of them never before seeing a postseason. They battled their way through three games against a team who’s seen nine play-off years and now they know they can do this. The Astros may be masters of RoboBall but the Mariners will be back to challenge them, again and again. Next season will be much different.

The question is can I face that agony of the play-offs with my blood pressure unscathed? I have to–it’s baseball.