The Great American Baseball Trip came to an end in grand fashion. After the game in St. Louis, Rachel and I hopped on a plane (at 6:30am) to Seattle where we were met at the airport by my father and step-mother. We spent the day looking around at all the new things in Seattle's downtown core (I used to live in Seattle so things looked pretty familiar), before settling down to watch the Mariners take on the White Sox on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.
The time change screwed up my ability to sleep -- again -- and I was awake before 7:00am on game day. I made some phone calls, wrote some e-mails, and let Rachel (who was very tired) sleep late. My step-mother took Rachel out for lunch while I met some friends and went shopping for game things and Seattle souveneirs. We visited all of my old hang-outs, stopped for a Slurpie at my favorite 7-11, and visited all of the people who work at my dad's office. It's was a full day, and that was before I headed over to the Kingdome.
There isn't much that I can tell you about the Kingdome that is flattering. It is old, dirty, smelly, uncomfortable, and generally unpopular. Sure, for the folks in Seattle who are used to some crummy weather (I can say this being a former local), it's nice to find a park that is always 72 degrees and sunny. Sure, it's nice the park is the loudest most intimidating venue in all of sports -- with volume levels stretching WELL beyond the dangerous level during big games. But, it's far from an ideal place to watch a ballgame.
When it was built twenty-one years ago, nobody was sure the park could sustain the weight of its own cement roof. Since then, the stadium has had its share of problems -- leaks, falling roof tiles, pyro-technix displays that destroyed expensive portions of the astrotuf. . . should I go on. There is even a long, white convention area behind the stadium affectionately known as the "condome" that cost King County more than a million dollars to build.
The seats are uncomfortable -- particularly the metal bench seats that fill most of the upper levels. Speakers hang down from the celing and obstruct the view from the upper levels (for balls that are high in the air). The lights that stretch around the roof of the stadium cast a very artificial light onto the field. The dugouts, which are only temporary because of football, actually break into pieces so they can be rolled into the parking lot (where they spend the winter -- resulting in rust and grafitti on the sides of some benches). And, to top it all off, the councourses are too narrow and dark for the throngs of fans traversing them between innings.
Sure, changes have been made over the past few years to make it a nice baseball environment. A new right field wall with a fully manual out-of-town scoreboard was installed five years ago -- it is the second largest in baseball behind the "Green Monster". Advertisements have been added to the outfield walls adding some color to the park. The diamondvision was replaced a few years ago and provides some of the best replays in the game. And, the ownership has built a contender for only the second time in the team's history -- of course you never know what you are going to get with this club on any given night.
No matter what you think of the "dome", you can't help but notice the construction of the new baseball-only ballpark in the parking lot behind the stadium. Designed by MBBJ (the competetion to HOK), the new park will be the first park in history with a fully retractable roof (it is supposed to retract and then roll up within itself out of the site of fans). After several contentious years while the Mariners threatened to leave Seattle without financial support for the ballpark, everything was cleared up and construction began. The "dome" will be demolished after three more seasons as the Mariners move into the new ballpark.
Sometimes when a team is in a close pennant race, the management gets caught up in the action and forgets who helped get them there. That is the only explanation I can think of to explain the treatment I originally receieved from the Seattle Mariners. Dave Aust, the Director of Public Relations for the Mariners, was very negative about the trip including refusing to grant me access to the field for batting practice, or agreeing to meet with me prior to the game. When I spoke with him from a cellular phone during my travels to inquire if there was any way I could change his mind, I was essentially berated ( for which I hung up on him -- probably not the most mature reaction) and never spoke to him again). I was really dissapointed in my childhood favorites.
However, several people (including Seattle City Councilperson Martha Choe and White Sox Assistant General Manager Dan Evans) were nice enough to make phone calls to the Mariners on my behalf to help in setting up a meeting with the Mariners, and the club responded. Prior to the game, I toured the Kingdome facility with Kameron Durham, the Assistant Director of Stadium Operations, and learned all about the things that have been done to the ballpark since I had last visited. Mr. Durham acknowledged that the park was sub-standard -- spending a lot of time while we walked around answering radio calls for things to be fixed prior to the start of the game -- but told me the changes that have been made over the past few years make it one of the nicest domes in the game (oooh). We spent more than an hour together, visiting the clubhouses, field, luxury suites (including Seahwaks owner Paul Allen's area), press area (including play-by-play host Dave Niehaus -- the best in baseball), and concourses, and I learned a lot of things about the stadium that most fans couldn't learn. I'm glad things worked out.
It hurts me to say that the food at the Kingdome is the worst in baseball. But, I guess when the health department gives the provider more than 100 health warnings only two years ago, you can't hope for much. The regular fare is not very good -- some hot dogs, popcorn (which was apparently popped fresh at the beginning of the HOMESTAND) and a whole slew of packaged goods. There are a lot of temporary food stands including a chinese food area, deli sandwich cart, nachos stand, and several "real" ice cream stands, but nothing that seems worth the cost (to your pocketbook or stomach). And, the best food treat in the park -- the Ezell's Fried Chicken stand -- was removed after last season.
Most of the people brought food into the park -- including my father who stopped on the way to get enough grinders (from one of several local places -- all great), and chose only to buy beverages from the concession areas. The hot dogs, as described by one of our friends who came all the way from Toronto for the game, were "not good at all", and after a bad experience at a previous game, my father wouldn't allow anyone to purchase the popcorn. The pretzel was very doughy -- and seemed to be letting off some type of liquid (as if it were sweating). The salt was tasty but too much was applied and the yellow mustard made me so ill I thought I was going to pass out. Thank goodness we decided to bring Red Vines and Cracker Jack's for everyone to munch on during the game.
I have been going to games at the Kingdome for more than fifteen years. I was at the game with the lowest attendance in the team's history, the first playoff game in team history, and was even there when football history was made. In that time, I have seen the crowd shift from one of the quietest in the game -- without much to cheer for on the field -- to the loudest most intimidating group of fans in all of sports. The decibel level reaches dangerous levels when the park fills up (holding nearly 60,000 when they really pack 'em in) and the deafening noise scares any visiting club.
But, the fans in the Kingdome are not the smartest in the league. They yell and scream at any ball that comes off of a Mariner bat -- whether it is a homerun or pop out into foul territory. They get excited every time the pitch count reaches two strikes, but lose patience for the pitcher when he gives up more than one hit a game. And, they aren't really sure what to do when Manager Lou Pinella come out to argue balls and strikes with the umpires. Still, I wouldn't pass up the loudest fans in the world for the smartest ones -- especially if the Mariners keep winning when they scream.
Joining me at the game were all the friends and family members from life in Seattle. My step-mother (Jane) had called more than a hundred people including friends from high school, co-workers from politics, and neighbors to arrange for a large group to come to the park. I would name each one individually, but there were more than sixty different folks who stopped by to say hello and watch the game. Almost everyone was already a huge Mariners fan -- and only one or two weren't actually baseball fans (who were there just to support the trip), but everyone had a wonderful time and were treated to one heck of a blowout.
The Mariners broke out first, scoring runs the National League way by combinding doubles and triples with timely walks and aggressive baserunning. After taking an 8-1 lead, Jay Buhner broke out of a ten game slump and blasted a three run-homerun to left field. That is all the Mariners pitchers would need (not bad, only a ten run lead needed for the M's pitchers) as starter Jamie Moyer went seven strong innings and reliever Bob Wells shut the door. The win lifted the Mariners into a tie for first place in the AL West with the Anaheim Angels but served as a emotianal boost for a team that has blown more games than any other team in baseball this season. Fans could be heard saying "it's that type of game that will win us the world series" as they walked out -- an indication that the team, and the fans, may finally be ready for a run a the title.
As my friends gathered their belongins and left the stadium, I realized that the Great American Baseball Trip had come to an end. Not a bad ending to a trip which took me all over the country and treated me to some of the best baseball a fan could ask for -- but an ending nonetheless. As we walked away from the Kingdome -- the stadium where I grew up and learned to be a baseball fan -- I started to realize how much I had learned and what a great experience my whole summer had been. I can only hope that everyone who followed along had as good a time as I did.
Look, The Great American Baseball Trip finally made it to the bigtime -- the Diamondvision.