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‘Dorktown’: The Seattle Mariners Doc for Anyone Seeking a Different Kind of ’90s Sports Magic

Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein's six-part series on the baseball team's rollercoaster history is a sublime look at what we expect from sports.

Dorktown Mariners

“Dorktown”

Over the last month, “The Last Dance” has become that rare and curious oddity: a piece of sports mythmaking that hops over the barriers around the sporting world and becomes a greater piece of cultural shorthand. It’s an impeccably organized look into a superstar, a franchise, and the series of steps that transformed a solidly popular American sports league into a global entertainment powerhouse.

But every phenomenon has a complement. In this case, it comes in the form of the latest miniseries of “Dorktown,” an ongoing video collection from SBNation multimedia stalwarts Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein. Thursday marked the finale of a six-chapter opus on the history of the Seattle Mariners, a baseball team that “Dorktown” argues has become a kind of an organizational Zelig in its 43-year history, present for the ascension of some of the game’s landmark figures and trends over that span.

These episodes of “Dorktown” move in roughly chronological order, tracing the origins of baseball in this corner of the Pacific Northwest through failed starts and the eventual arrival of the Mariners, who have had to fight for their continued existence on more than one occasion. Like “The Last Dance,” that forward momentum isn’t shaken by the occasional bouncing around to revisit past curiosities or foreshadow future developments. It’s a balance of looking at a city and a fanbase while considering the individual arcs of the giants on the field (and in one particular case, those who would become Giants on another field after being traded away.)

Like most of the flurry of SBNation-produced video output in recent years, “Dorktown” operates away from the talking-head process. You won’t hear exclusive chats with the superstar phenoms of the past like Ken Griffey, Jr. Managers like Lou Piniella don’t opine on being witnesses to history. There are no testimonials from supporting players like Joey Cora to give the kind of stories that didn’t make it into sports page headlines. Instead, Bois and Rubenstein narrate this thing themselves.

The incredible part is that there’s not much lost in that switch. If anything, giving a helicopter-eye view of how season after season unfolded lets these two inject far more personality and charm than a project that has to balance the egos of its participants. Want to take a deserved swipe at overpaid sluggers who flamed out? Go for it. Want to call out the inherent hypocrisies in a process that ties the fates of teams to fights over publicly funded stadiums? By all means. As with the underrated “30 for 30” gem “Winning Time,” “Dorktown” helps give an operatic feel to the roller coaster prospects of the Mariners because it’s informed by a certain kind of admiration, begrudging or otherwise, that someone can have for a team that isn’t “theirs.”

For years, Bois’ video style has helped power some of the most fascinating work anywhere on the internet. His long-running series “Chart Party” and “Pretty Good” dive into some of sports’ weirder anomalies — miraculous full-court shots, the art of never-before-seen NFL final scores, the popular decline of athletes named Bob. His “Breaking Madden” videos turned the search for video game glitches into explorations of the human psyche. And his masterwork, the metafictional “17776,” imagines not just the future of football, but questions what it means to be alive.

Here, that blend of deceptively simple, single-frame layouts and a flair for the fantastical gives this Mariners-centered journey a more mythological feel. Each of the six episodes play out across decades on a timeline grid, punctuated by simple green and red markers representing the team’s record in each year. Still images of Mariners legends tower over individual seasons, turning a handful of players into figures that aren’t just larger than life — they almost become larger than time itself.

Around half of this series’ runtime is devoted to the Mariners teams of the 1990s, a preposterous collection of talent that still never came all that close to bringing a championship to the city of Seattle. In a more traditional documentary covering this era, Griffey would be the star at the center, a magnet of media fascination that saw him become a brand in many of the ways that Michael Jordan did. There’d be frenetically edited montages of his greatness and that of the men around him in any given box score. This series isn’t without the occasional illuminating piece of video — the storybook 1995 American League Division Series bout with the dreaded New York Yankees has plenty of footage to help boost the drama of that playoff matchup. For the most part, though, “Dorktown” finds just as much storytelling juice in news clippings and a few well-timed pans across the hundreds of tiny additions to the timeline that stick around as things move forward.

To be sure, baseball is a sport that lends itself to the rhapsodic. With centuries of history to parse through and athletes who not only transcended sports but American culture, it can be easy to apply that same practice to players far less deserving. But the power of “Dorktown” is taking someone like hitting savant Edgar Martinez and making the case that he does earn that treatment.

GRIFFEY MARTINEZ Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. is congratulated by Edgar Martinez after hitting a two-run homer in the 8th inning against the Cleveland Indians in Seattle . The Indians won 7-4 in 10 innings INDIANS MARINERS, SEATTLE, USA

A crucial foundation for Bois and Rubenstein’s narration is making that case statistically. Even for those who normally find baseball’s fixation on numbers to be overblown, there’s an ease and art to how simply they represent both team-wide and individual achievements. At times, they’ll nod to the fact that some of these chart diversions come from some cherry-picked data. Regardless, there’s an immense satisfaction that comes from how “Dorktown” extolls the outlier, finding the joy in seeing how much better (or worse) someone is at what they do than literally everyone else.

Rather than make these players feel like interchangeable cogs in a sporting machine, those number-based appreciations end up being paired with real considerations of these players as people. That especially comes through in the chapter on Ichiro Suzuki, which effortlessly switches gears between explaining the impact of his on-field innovations and delivering rat-a-tat streams of newspaper anecdotes that show what he was like away from the clubhouse.

There’s also the ripple of irreverence that runs through some of the other “Dorktown” output, too. For all the celebration of the Mariners’ regular season juggernauts, there’s an appreciation of the lightning bolts of inexplicable baseballness that are rooted in futility instead. (Never has the phrase “goofus maloofus” been more artfully used or lovingly given.)

When adding all of this together, “Dorktown” does so with a few surprises up its sleeve. Some episodes turn the reveal of those season win-loss results into red-colored gut punches. In other cases, the postseason drama is all the more heightened by just how closely Bois zooms in on those pixelated green semicircles. The biggest twist of them all is that this is not a story about historic triumphs. For all the justified wistfulness for the Mariners teams of 1990s, they did not shape their league in the way the Bulls did. But “Dorktown” argues that, even in failure, they shaped it nonetheless. If the Mariners made a “Death Star,” as one chapter posits, well, Death Stars are meant to be exploded. The magic of sports is that the only thing more compelling than a dynasty is one that should have been.

There are some sports docs that thrive on bestowing accolades, on enshrining stars and squads into some unofficial pantheon that transcends official league Halls of Fames. “Dorktown” sure makes the case that, whatever the metric, there are Mariners legends and teams who belong there. And as soon as you start to graft a narrative onto a franchise or a game or a season or a player, the cracks will show in some way. So instead, Bois and Rubenstein embrace those imperfections. All it does is make the things we know for certain all the more special.

All episodes of “Dorktown” can be found here

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