Seattle Baseball RunsThrough It

I think historical connections are interesting, and some are significant.  My connections with Seattle’s baseball history are hardly significant, and probably not very interesting to most people.  But there might be a few of my Seattle friends who will appreciate them; mostly, my children might enjoy them some day.

I am a third generation native of western Washington state, a rare breed even in my growing up years, before the mass migrations from California.  My paternal great-grandfather ran a donkey engine crew in the logging camps, and my great-grandmother was a camp cook.  My grandfather was a person of distinction in our community, having served as a state legislator, long time principle of the historic grade school, and president of the Savings and Loan.  My father worked at Boeing for more than thirty years as a non-college graduate engineer.  In some way, each was the last of a breed.  But that was the sense of historical connection I grew up with in my “homeland”.  And part of that historical connection included baseball.

For years and years the Rainiers were Seattle’s professional team, a minor league team.  Growing up we had a ball, obtained by Grandpa I’m guessing, autographed by a Rainiers team.  The only name of on it with any big league connections was Jo Jo White.  According to Wikipedia, in 1938

White was frustrated with his limited playing time (with the Detroit Tigers).  After “a drink or two” on a train ride late in the 1938 season, White “decided to attack” a brand new felt hat purchased by manager Del Baker. Baker finally found out that it was White who had deliberately ruined the hat, and White was traded to the Seattle Rainiers, whom he helped win the PCL (Pacific Coast League) pennant for both 1940 and 1941, for Fred Hutchinson in December 1938.

That makes that ball much older than I had ever dreamed a relic of the late ’30’s or early ’40’s.  I wish I knew where it was.

In 1965 the Rainiers became a farm team of the Los Angeles Angels, and were renamed the Seattle Angels.  The name change only lasted until 1968, the last year of a historic franchise dating back to the 1890’s.  That name has haunted me over the years because I know my dad took my brother and I to a game; most likely in ’68, the first year we both played in Little League.  But my mind has continued to associate the name “Angels” with that game, and I couldn’t figure out why; I knew the Los Angeles Angels were never a farm team, so why did “Angels” stick in my head?  I’d forgotten about the Seattle Angels.

The next year, of course, was the year of Seattle’s foray into the Major Leagues with the Seattle Pilots.  For the baseball impaired, the Pilots were a bust, and they decided they’d rather be Brewers in Milwaukee with Bud Selig and friends (Mr. Selig is the current reigning Commissioner of Major League Baseball).  Dad took my brother and I to the game on Tommy Harper Night.  He was as close as there was to a face for the franchise.  To quote Wikipedia again,

Harper was the first player to come to bat in Seattle Pilots history when he led off the top of the 1st against…the California Angels. In that inaugural at bat, he was also the first Pilots player to record a hit, doubling to left field, and then scoring the Pilots first run on a home run by Mike Hegan. Harper led the American League with a career-high 73 stolen bases—the most by an American Leaguer since Ty Cobb’s 96 in 1915 and a mark that still stands today as a Pilots/Brewers record. 

At that game we each received an 8 x11 card stock image of Harper in a plastic sleeve.  I kept it for years, but not long enough.  At some point I decided it was a meaningless memento, and out it went.  I can be such an idiot.

Dugdale Field, the original venue of Seattle professional baseball, burned down July 4, 1932.  In 1938 a new stadium was built on the same site by Emil Sick, owner of Seattle’s Rainier Brewery, who had just bought the team.  The stadium was named Sick’s Stadium, and the team was renamed the Rainiers, after the beer, not the mountain.  Sick’s was one of the primary reasons the Seattle Pilots went bust.  Even in the late ’60’s it would have been marginal for minor league baseball, so it was an embarrassment for a Major League team.  The stadium only seated 15,000 and the agreement with Major League Baseball was it would be upgraded to 25,000 seats.  It took two full months into the season before the work was finished, but it didn’t help.

… many of those seats had obstructed views. There were no field-level camera pits, so photographers had to set up their equipment atop the grandstand roof. The clubhouse facilities were second-class. Also, no upgrades were made to the stadium’s piping, resulting in almost nonexistent water pressure after the seventh inning, especially when crowds exceeded 10,000. This forced players to shower in their hotel rooms or at home after the game. The visiting team’s announcers couldn’t see any plays along third base or left field. The Pilots had to place a mirror in the press box, and the visiting announcers had to look into it and “refract” plays in those areas. (Wikipedia)

In 1971, the summer before eighth grade, I played in a Babe Ruth baseball regional all-star tournament at Sick’s Stadium.  We had no idea of its inadequacies for Major League baseball; for us, it was a field of dreams.  How many thirteen year olds can say, “Yeah, I’ve competed on a major league field”?  We won our first two games, and lost the next two, being no-hit in the final.  So, I’ve been part of a no-hitter in a major league park!  In none of those games a teammate hit a one-hop double off the left field wall.  That was as close as anyone came to hitting a home run out of the park, but I still think that was pretty impressive for a thirteen or fourteen year old.  My most memorable play came as a base runner taking a lead off first base.  The pitcher tossed over to the first baseman, and I turned to dive back to the bag – only I fell flat on my face; I was stunned dead meat, my hand stretching for the base a good three feet way.  My spikes had sunk all the way into the dirt, and so when I tried to pivot, my feet might as well have been sunk in cement.  When I got up, the first base coach was holding his sides, hee hawing at my expense.  “What’re ya doing Kittleman, digging a garden?” he managed to gasp.  Isn’t it wonderful the sort incidents our memories choose to retain?

The Seattle Kingdome opened in 1976, and the Mariners became the hometown baseball team in ‘77.  The “M’s” were a gift of sorts from Major League Baseball in return for dropping a breach of contract lawsuit filed against MLB for allowing the Pilots to move to Milwaukee.  While the Kingdome was merely adequate for baseball, it wasn’t the complete embarrassment that Sick’s Stadium was.  I’ve always thought that the Kingdome revealed a lot about the Seattle ethos at that time, especially compared to Safeco Field built in 1999.  The Dome was hard to describe as state of the art; it was, well, utilitarian.  I think it reflected the dwindling blue collar nature of Seattle with its docks, fishing terminals, Boeing shops, and outlying agricultural areas.  There was nothing beautiful about it inside or out, it was just a huge pile of multi-purpose concrete.  But that’s where the Mariners called home.  It will finally be paid for in 2016, sixteen years after its demolition.

The earliest Mariner’s game I can remember attending was probably in 1985.  I know there had to be others before then, but Gorman Thomas made this game memorable. He had been on a tear hitting home runs and he hit one out to left center that night.  I can remember my dad and I on our feet with the rest of the crowd.  I can remember shouting, “Wow!  He really is hot!”

A few years later, I remember being at a game where a young hard-throwing left handed pitcher with control problems was on the mound.  Randy Johnson struck out the side in the first inning; he struck out three more in the second, and did it again in the third.  Native Seattleites have a built in sense of fatality; they know that seven consecutive days of sunshine is too good to be true, and rain is inevitable at any moment.  So it was obvious that Randy’s pitching performance was too good to be true, and it was inevitable the “rain” would come.  He never made it out of the fourth, and lost the game.

Somewhere in that same era, I have a vivid memory of listening to the radio when the M’s achieved an important milestone.  This was early in my camp career, ’87, or maybe ’88.  I had taken 24 hours off from camp to go fishing with my fishing partner Dick “Admiral” Benbow.  I stayed overnight, sacked out on his living room floor.  It was late, but the Mariner’s game had been nip and tuck, and I had to hear the final innings.  In the bottom of the ninth back-up catcher Dave Valley came off the bench and delivered the winning hit.  Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus went crazy, as only he could, shouting, “and the Mariners win it!  For the first time in franchise history the Mariners are ten games over 500!!”   As I said earlier, Seattleites tend to be fatalistic, and I don’t think many fans expected it to last.  It didn’t.

1991 was the last year I ever lived in the Seattle area.  My wife and I packed up, went back east for grad-school, and I’ve never looked back.  The landscape and culture I had grown up with were no longer recognizable; the historical connections that I felt were my legacy had shattered into tiny shards.  Seattle baseball and I lost touch.  During that time my only memory of Mariner’s baseball and my final Kingdome connection came in 1996.  My wife and I took a group of Wyoming high school kids from our church on a mission project to the Puget Sound area.  For the most part, these kids had never traveled outside of Wyoming, so this was virtually a cross-cultural experience for them – the trip had to include a big league baseball game at the Dome!  I remember we sat in the nosebleed seats on the right field side.  One of the girls turned to me, awestruck, eyes big as a Starbuck’s saucer, and asked, “Is that REALLY Ken Griffey Jr. out there?”

Thanks to Microsoft and other high tech business, the culture of the Puget Sound area drastically changed through the ’80’s and ’90’s.  Basically, there was money!  Rough around the edges Seattle became sophisticated and caffeinated.  So when the Kingdome had out lived its usefulness after seventeen years, Seattle finally built a state of the art baseball venue, Safeco Field.  My first connection with Safeco came in 2001, its second full season.  I was in Seattle that April, and my good friend Brian treated me to a game against the Angels of Anaheim.  We sat in right field and I was impressed with how close to the game we felt.  Right field was patrolled that night by a newly acquired player from Japan, Ichiro.  This was at the very beginning, before we came to expect 200 hit seasons, and a .330 batting average; before the “Ichi-meter”, and before everyone could mimic his unique extend-the-arm and tug-the-sleeve mannerism at bat.  We won that game, but it was close.  My most vivid memory is with two outs in the ninth the next batter hit a towering shot to right field.  I swear it was headed right for me. Two thoughts went through my mind; “I’m going to get hit”, and, “there goes the game”.  Fortunately it only got to the warning track before Ichiro ran it down.  115 wins later that season the Mariners had won the most games ever in one season by an American League team, 116 wins against 46 loses. It just seems impossible now.  I feel fortunate to gotten to a game in that season, and to have seen Ichiro, a future Hall of famer, at the very beginning of his career.

In the past couple of years, with Brian’s help, I’ve become more connected with Seattle baseball than I’ve ever been.  We’ve gone to Spring Training in Peoria, Arizona the past two years, and I’ve made multiple trips to Seattle, which have always coincided with the M’s being in town.  With a month left in this season, I’m encouraged to see that the Mariners might actually be turning a corner.  But this summer I realized that for me, any improvements the team makes will be too little, too late.  ALS has numbered the wait-till-next-seasons that I have left to less than a hand full.  Unless they have an off the charts Cinderella season in the next two, maybe three years I will miss connecting to the greatest piece of Seattle baseball history – going to and winning the World Series.  I always thought that given enough time I would see it happen.  Now I know it is unlikely.  Yet, I’m still a fan.  My connections run too deep to give up.


1 thought on “Seattle Baseball RunsThrough It

  1. …and now a 6-pitcher no-hitter and perfect game in one season. My 22 year old son will talk about this to his son, and so on. The soundtrack to summer for so many of us true fans, win or lose.

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