My affection for the Seattle Mariners began in the 259th minute of Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS. That’s when Edgar Martinez doubled off of Jack McDowell to score Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr. The pair of runs secured an extra innings win, 6-5, and a series victory over the hated Yankees. The enemy of my enemy is a friend.
Nearly thirteen years after that rousing playoff victory, the Mariners have moved from the Kingdome to Safeco Field. The names on the backs of the uniforms have likewise changed. Nevertheless, the city of Seattle hasn’t forgotten its history, nor has it forgotten its heroes. A visit to one of baseball’s best ballparks, located on the corner of First Avenue and Edgar Martinez Drive, supports both points.
During our recent vacation, my wife and I toured Safeco on a sunny and therefore atypical day in the Emerald City. Later that evening we attended the Mariners’ Interleague game against the visiting San Diego Padres. The nice weather allowed us to enjoy an open-air environment throughout the day and evening at the ballpark that features baseball’s only “retractable umbrella” (an opening above the left-field bleachers when the roof is closed keeps the stadium from ever truly being a dome).
Our tour began alongside the home team’s dugout, just a drag bunt away from the very Kentucky bluegrass that has been in place since the park opened on July 15, 1999. Even the grass has stories at Safeco.
Because of its shine on one side, the bluegrass can produce the alternating pattern that’s a staple at all Major League parks. However, groundskeepers in Seattle have to know more than just how to create patterns in the grass. During the Jay Buhner years the right-field blades were to remain higher than the rest of the grass in order to protect Buhner’s knees, left tender from so many years playing on the Kingdome’s Astroturf.
After taking in the amazing field-level views and sitting in the home team’s dugout, we proceeded through the stadium’s innards. Few people actually have the opportunity to view the Mariners’ enormous clubhouse, and things were no different on this spring day.
The regularity with which Seattle players appear in the clubhouse on game days and non-game days alike prevents all but a handful of visitors from seeing the luxurious accommodations. Blame Edgar Martinez, who still has a locker at the ballpark and pays regular visits to his old battleground. Or if you’d prefer, point a finger at Ichiro, whose unparalleled work ethic brings him to the park frequently enough that the M’s could justifiably charge him rent.
Should you run in to Ichiro, having a conversation with him might not be as difficult as you’d imagine; Ichiro reportedly speaks great English. However, baseball’s record holder for hits in a single season decided to do interviews exclusively in Japanese after being misquoted in the U.S. press.
Other stops on the Safeco tour included: the umpires’ room, which (perhaps) ironically features Braille on the outside door marker; MLB’s second-largest press box, an expansive enclosed area, randomly dotted with damage from screaming foul balls, where approximately 30 Japanese beat reporters cover Ichiro’s every move; the owner’s box; and the team’s hangout for big spenders, the Diamond Club, with its extensive collection of rare baseball memorabilia.
Among the memorabilia in the Diamond Club are an autographed team portrait of the 1927 New York Yankees; a rare photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig fishing together (the pair later had a falling out, rumored to have resulted from Ruth’s comments and/or actions toward Gehrig’s wife); and Babe Ruth’s contract with the Yankees. The Yankees’ owner at the time predicted that no baseball player would ever earn more than Ruth’s $80,000. Little did he know that several decades later A-Rod would walk by that very contract as a member of the Mariners, and perhaps have a laugh.
Jim, an affable tour guide with a storyteller’s manner, brought the trip through Safeco to life with an historian’s knowledge of the game and a demonstrable passion for the home team. The experience wasn’t complete, however, until we did what the team’s majority owner, Minoru Arakawa, has yet to do – attend a Mariners home game. Arakawa, the former president of Nintendo, will make his first visit to Safeco, traveling by boat rather than plane due to his fear of flying, should Seattle ever appear in the World Series.
Regular season visitors to Safeco can find one of the most family friendly and fan-friendly environments in all of baseball. To some, such a statement would suggest a less-than-passionate fan base, a description that clearly doesn’t apply to Mariner loyalists.
Substantial lines formed outside of Safeco as many as four hours before the 7:05 p.m. start on this evening, which happened to be J.J. Putz Bobblehead Night. From inside the stadium during the game, to the streets of Seattle afterward, to the hotel’s valet stand at the end of the evening, local residents were roundly interested in the game’s outcome. These Mariner fans could perhaps best be described as invested without being impolite.
The team makes it easy for fans to remain engaged during games with a centerfield scoreboard that continually lists the team lineups, provides more detailed information about the current batter, and offers the proper scoring after each play is completed. Meanwhile, additional scoreboards throughout the park provide running summaries of plays, pitch speed and type, and batting information for the current inning (i.e. what each batter has done).
Our seats in the left-field bleachers kept us from viewing Safeco’s out-of-town scoreboard. However, the Mariners’ West Coast location takes the pressure out of scoreboard watching since most Major League games are either finished or near completion by the time Seattle starts playing. The team broadcasted the final innings of one such game, the A’s and Braves match-up, during batting practice.
Jim, our friendly guide, explained during the stadium tour earlier in the day that Safeco combines elements from the best of baseball’s other ballparks, mentioning Camden Yards by name as part of that conversation. Rejecting the word “steal” as a descriptor, Jim alternately explained that Safeco “borrows the best features from other stadiums and improves upon them.”
Safeco clearly features a mix of such ballpark gems as Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, and Wrigley. The stadium immediately ranks in the highest grouping of my own personal favorites list, running neck-and-neck with Pac-Bell/AT&T Park and, of course, Camden Yards. Gazing down the left-field line with my eyes set toward home plate, I absorbed the crowd’s anticipatory energy and connected with the rising sense of enthusiasm that permeated these truly friendly confines. Wistfully, I recalled better days in our own home park.
Seattle is one baseball town that’s easy to love. This time around it didn’t take a victory over the Yankees to make that point.