The History of the Seattle Mariners is exactly what is says it is and more: Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein delve into the deep history of a remarkable team.
I’m not really a huge fan of baseball, which surprisingly comes as no great problem watching Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s new documentary series, The History of the Seattle Mariners, because it’s not really about baseball at all. Sure, over the course of its nearly four-hour running time it dives deep into the team’s 43-year history: the players, games and stories that make it, in the directors’ opinion, ‘the most interesting team in the history of the MLB.’ Note that distinction, ‘interesting’, not ‘best’. They sure do.
Instead, the series concerns itself far more with the nature of fandom. Its central question barely concerns the existence of the Seattle Mariners, they simply are. Through changes of logo and uniform and stadium and roster, their existence is both fluid and solid. They are always who they are. Even when their existence seems to be in question, the documentary never tries to create artificial tension over the results of games played decades ago, it exists as retrospective, as overview, a contemporary view on a still unfolding saga.
The form reflects this. There are no interviews, no previously unseen footage — indeed the only archival tapes there are at all are of excerpted plays from old games, presented to us less for their awe and immediacy, and more to illustrate the points being made by the film’s real backdrop. Bois, credited for all the series’ animation, has created a digital visual timeline, over which the camera flits like an excited child as pictures, graphs, old newspaper clippings and all other assortments of mixed media appear to illustrate whatever point the narration is in the progress of explaining.
You can feel the delight in its unveilings, the gradual creep back when something big’s about to appear, the way it will painstakingly scroll across a season’s worth of wins and losses, teasing you with how the lines dart. It is in this that the series is at its most exciting. It is not an official history; it is the people’s history. It is a universe as glimpsed from the outside. A story told by someone allowed to exist alongside events, without ever quite being a part of them.
It’s overwhelming really, and quite intentionally so — blurring the line between the personal, the local and the global. Even when you think the analysis has reached its furthest extent, the documentarians peel back another layer of context. What’s the saying, ‘To create an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe?’ This does just that, it creates its own aesthetic universe and places the Mariners at its centre. It delights in the essential and the frivolous alike because to do any less would be to reduce it.
As a documentarian, Bois is one that has frustrated me in the past. He sets his sights high, hoping to make grand statements about life and feelings and humanity, but his work has often felt like it lacked the specificity to properly tie his artistic intent to the subject material. Maybe he has at last found a large enough canvas on which to paint, but despite the undeniable size of the project, I think its success is also due to a subtle shift in scope. He is not trying to articulate a feeling, here, he is trying to encapture it.
I know who I’m writing for here, film nerds on the whole generally aren’t huge sports fans. I’m sure not, but for a moment watching this I could almost see myself getting there. That’s some sort of triumph in my books.
The History of the Seattle Mariners is currently available to stream on YouTube.