Monday, June 7, 2010

My Night With The Kid

Some of you might recall that I was planning on posting an entry about Ken Griffey Jr. in response to his retirement last week before it got obscured by the considerably wild story of Armando Galarraga's botched perfect game. While this did push Griffey's meek exit from Major League Baseball into the background for a few days, Junior will clearly be the more remembered part of baseball and American cultural history.

And so, in his honor, so to speak, I am posting an excerpt on my visit to the place that wouldn't exist without his heroics, Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. This is a peculiar entry in that I'm editing it from a much larger chapter that encompasses a wedding in Yellowstone National Park, my first visit to PacBell/SBC/AT&T Park in San Francisco, and two extremely long train rides, one from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and one from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. If it seems like I'm jumping right in the middle of the chapter, well, it's because I am, but this seemed fairly fitting to put up here in light of Griffey's announcement. It's also among my favorite experiences I've ever had in a stadium. Enjoy.

Originally written April 7, 2010

While I don’t make a point of judging the aesthetics of transit hubs, Portland’s train station is beautiful. It is a red-roofed low rise building with a large clock tower sprouting above it that features an adorably kitschy neon sign that says, “Go By Train”. That sign was added after World War II – the station itself has been open since 1896 – and the inside is entirely covered in marble in such a way that it reminded me of a junior version of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. As you walk out, you see a view of the city as well as the ubiquitous plant life that seems to be everywhere.

I had never been to Oregon before, but I could already tell Portland was one of the more pleasant locales I had seen. Over the next few days I’d find it had no shortage of character or culture. In many ways it reminded me of the East Village in New York City without the overbearing pretension. Of course, perhaps what made me think of New York were actually the numerous pedicabs outside the station trying to court my business.

I wouldn’t need them. Dave Reis was coming to pick me up and I was plenty excited about it. Dave and I hadn’t seen each other in about a year and a half – not so long by most standards, but when you’re still in that post-college phase it seems lengthy. We had some personality differences. I was a city person, he loved the outdoors and hated New York. I was a writer, he was an engineer. But beyond that, we had established a long friendship dating from the very first day of college. Dave was on that same outdoor hiking trip I did before my freshman. Before a 13-hour bus ride to northeast Minnesota, our group had dinner at the Evanston Chili’s and afterwards, while walking to Blomquist gym, he noticed I looked fairly uncomfortable and spoke his first words to me.

“Are you ok there, Dave?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m fine, I just have to pee really, really badly,” I responded.

“Oh that’s not good. But remember. You can’t lose it. You definitely can’t lose it.”

Like most discussions over bodily function, a beautiful relationship was hatched. Dave and I had been buddies ever since, if for no other reason than his easy going, level-headed personality is able to withstand my own neuroticism. That we both shared a fondness for beer and hockey only helped matters. Over the course of the next few days our personalities would, to the rest of the group, relate in a yin-yangish sort of way. A girl in our group, Rachel, would firmly establish the link shortly after we set off on the Superior Hiking Trail. Rachel and I wound up being among the closest of friends, but it didn’t start out that way. My sarcasm bothered her early, and she later told me about writing in her journal that, “the group has its asshole, and his name is Dave”. She was helping to set up the tarp one night and said, “Dave, put that stake in the ground.” When I asked which Dave she was referring to she said words that would paint the rest of college.

“You,” she said. “…Evil Dave.”

And so it was. I, among this group of people, would forever be Evil Dave. Rachel later told me she was impressed with the aplomb with which I reveled in the moniker; I just thought the irony was fun. But if there were two Daves in the group and one was Evil, clearly my counterpart needed his own designation, and Dave Reis would soon be Good Dave. Almost seven years later, the nicknames still stick.

Good Dave arrived about 10 minutes after my train came in, picked me up, and took me on a brief driving tour, before we headed to his apartment and starting testing out some of his home-brewed beer. Dave has been doing it since college, and it’s always been delicious. Sleep-deprived me was already somewhat tipsy by the time Dave’s fiancĂ©e Caitlin arrived at the apartment. Caitlin, too, is a friend of mine from Northwestern, but she was a bit disappointed, as she was hoping to see me with a beard. She had seen me wearing one in pictures on the internet months earlier, but by the time I arrived in Portland I was well shorn, much to her chagrin. Fortunately, she let it slide as the three of us went out to a pizzeria with outdoor picnic tables and beer with high alcohol content.

I was plenty comfortable here.

After dinner, we dropped Caitlin off at the airport – she was headed to a wedding in New York of all places – and Dave and I relaxed before I quickly passed out on their living room love seat. It was just as well. Dave and I had a three-hour drive to make in the morning. My first ever visit to Seattle – and Safeco Field, where the Mariners would be facing the Diamondbacks – was in the offing.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously noted in his “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” The Mariners’ home city of Seattle could just as easily claim that statement as it is widely known for its wet weather. On the day Dave and I arrived, however, the Emerald City was at the tail end of a 29-day dry run, it’s longest in more than two decades. Sure enough, the weather snapped back to normal just in time for my arrival. Dave and I battled rain on the drive on I-5 North, though, despite the wetness, was still one of the prettiest drives I’ve seen on a U.S. interstate.

The first things you see when approaching the city, are Safeco Field and Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, in front of the skyline. We headed straight through downtown in search of a hole in the wall named Red Mill Burgers. While I’m not sure that I can speak for Dave, I found navigating the city, despite the map we had, extremely confusing. Seattle seemed like a city where the planners decided to build it on a perfect grid, a la Manhattan, but instead they chose every mile or so to turn the grid on an angle of about 15 degrees.

And then they placed another grid on top of it.

It’s entirely possible Dave and I are inept with directions, but the two of us got lost at least two times before finally finding our way to the small spot in Interbay. The restaurant claims to sell the best burgers in Seattle and when you see that it is tiny, with chipping paint on the walls and tucked away on a small side street, you know they’re probably right. I was still on vacation so holding back wasn’t an option and in addition to the double bacon cheeseburger, fries and onion rings I also got a butterscotch caramel milkshake.

After coating our stomachs with enough grease to power a jeep, we hopped back in the car, found a lot near Safeco to park for $10 and walked from there to the Pike Place fish market. By then the rain had paused, so it was a fairly pleasant trip through the city, which lives up to its Emerald reputation. There is vegetation everywhere. Dave and I got to the market and drank a few beers while staring out at Elliott Bay on the Puget Sound and discussing what favors would be owed to Dave, an enormous Buffalo Sabres fan, on the chance I one day become Commissioner of the National Hockey League.

I don’t expect to ever pay those favors. My anticipated career arc is slightly different.

Dave and I made one more stop at another bar that boasted the “World’s Largest Collection of Bourbons”. I’m not much of a brown liquor man. I stuck with beer. I should note, however, that the walk from the Pike Place Market to Safeco Field is also filled with pretty buildings and nice foliage that lets a New Yorker feel like they’re not necessarily in a city.

Safeco’s exterior is covered in the type of brick that makes it almost appear like an industrial warehouse in a city’s old manufacturing center. We chose to enter through the home plate rotunda, which opens to a large staircase and what appears to be a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling that looks like a contemporary art presentation of a baseball deconstructed. Another nice touch is the marble compass in the team’s colors built into the floor at the top of the staircase.

On both sides of the chandelier that night were hanging photos of arguably the two greatest players in the franchise’s history, Ichiro Suzuki and, of course, Ken Griffey Jr. Without a World Series appearance – Seattle is the only team that has never moved with that claim to fame – it’s easy to forget just how good the Mariners were in the 1990s, or how many great players were on the roster. One could easily argue that Griffey and Randy Johnson were the best outfielder and pitcher of their era, but the team also featured stalwarts like Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, but had the misfortune of running into the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s almost every time. This includes the greatest team in Mariners history, which won 116 games in 2001 – an achievement noted among the team’s banners in the outfield – before running into the last gasp of the great Yankees in that year’s ALCS.

Of course, of all the players in Seattle’s history, Griffey’s place at the top stands alone. Few and far between are those players with whom a city feels a unique and powerful connection. Seattle and Griffey are inextricably linked. Ever since he came to the majors in 1989 he has been an icon in the Pacific Northwest, whether it be from his immense natural talent, his sweet swing or maybe just his smile. The Kid had a love of the game that seemed to ooze out of every pore.

From the moment the sport returned from the 1994 player strike, and for a few seasons before it, Griffey was baseball. And if for no reason other than his memorable slide home on Edgar Martinez’s double to top the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, he was Seattle. With the Mariners’ status in Seattle in flux at the time, Martinez’s game-winning RBI, known around these parts as “The Double”, may have saved the franchise by galvanizing tax-payer support behind what would become Safeco. That play is immortalized in an art piece by the stadium’s left field concourse.

What is most remarkable is that Griffey had left Seattle in 2000 for his hometown Cincinnati Reds in an elongated trade affair that also featured Griffey vetoing a deal to my Mets in exchange for Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and Armando Benitez. Dotel and Cedeno would instead be dealt to Houston for pitcher Mike Hampton, who after leading the Mets to the World Series the next season (where they almost faced Seattle before instead facing the Yankees) signed a free-agent deal with Colorado. The compensatory draft pick the Mets got for Hampton’s signing wound up becoming David Wright.

History is funny.

Griffey’s history in Seattle is less funny than it is ironclad. Despite the messy divorce between Griffey and Seattle a decade earlier, Junior returned to the M’s in the twilight of his career for one last curtain call with the team he made his name with. From the moment you enter the city it is clear Seattle couldn’t be happier. Nearly every bar or restaurant we passed had a poster on its wall or a billboard on top with pictures of Griffey and messages along the lines of “Welcome Home, Junior”.

Griffey was no longer the same player. And the fans know it. They don’t expect the 40 home runs and 100 RBIs of yesteryear, nor the defensive greatness he put on display in centerfield at the Kingdome. But there is a magic in his swing, his smile and seeing him in navy and green that makes the Mariners feel like the Mariners again. Griffey and this city are massively in love with one another. And something about that is wonderful.

I had seen Griffey play before during his tour with Cincinnati, but I was excited about the chance to watch him in front of a city that not just worshipped him but appreciated him for the player he used to be. When Dave and I walked out to our seats along the left field line, however, I glanced up at the scoreboard and found that Griffey was not in the lineup that night. Griffey still caught the ceremonial pitch that night, but I would have to accept I wouldn’t be seeing him. Disappointed as I was, I would have to make do with the beauty of the stadium.

Safeco is a fascinating place. Beyond the clear sightlines there is the most notable feature of its retractable roof. In a city like Seattle, common sense dictates that there must be some sort of roof given the rain. Interestingly, however, an article on the sports blog noted two months after my visit that Seattle actually averages less precipitation during the months of baseball season than New York, Chicago and Cleveland, which all have roofless parks. Given that one might wonder if, what Seattle architecture critic John Pastier called “a 25-million-pound action toy” is really all that necessary. Regardless of what you might think, on our night at the park it apparently was. While the roof was open during batting practice, by the time Dave and I took our first swing around the park and returned to our seats it was covering the field.

I will say this, however. Safeco is the second retractable roof stadium I have been to and as retractable roof stadiums go, it is awesomely designed. The roof is not a fanning out structure as you’d find in Milwaukee or Arizona, but rather one rigid sheet that glides on tracks to cover the diamond or sits beyond right field over a railyard behind the stadium. But what is best about the roof is that when it rolls over, it doesn’t lock you indoors to feel like you’re watching baseball in a gym rather than a park. The roof actually sits above the building, leaving the space beyond the left field wall to remain open to the outdoors. Even if the roof is on, open air still blows through the building. Even when you’re inside, the elements are there, and you feel like you’re outside. As silly, or particular as it sounds, that makes the experience of being at the ballpark that much better.

Something else that made the experience better was my Brandon Morrow bobblehead doll. Morrow is a pretty unremarkable pitcher all told, but I make no secret of my love for free ballpark giveaways, and bobbleheads are the ultimate prize. What surprises me on occasion however is not that some people don’t care for them, Good Dave included, but that some people don’t even realize the value in having them. I don’t expect to sell any of mine, but I do remember one instance in college when my roommate, Sam, gave me a Ben Sheets bobble he was given in Milwaukee because he knew I’d have more interest in it than he would. When I told him he could have sold it at a profit he seemed unconvinced, but a quick glance on eBay showed them going for $25-50 apiece. As Dave and I decided to take a walk around the concourses, he opted not to take his bobblehead with him. When I warned him it might be gone when we returned to our seats he simply said, “If someone is going to steal that bobblehead, they clearly need it more than me.”
Famous last words.

Dave and I headed around the concourse behind the outfield where a mall of restaurants sits once you get past the bullpens, which you can peer into from the safety of a chainlink fence. Beyond centerfield is an open platform that can be rented out for catered events, as well as a number of children’s activity areas and a wood-paneled den where you can get your photo taken with Mariner Moose. I opted for the fairly pedestrian buffalo chicken fingers, but a number of good food options are available ranging from vegetarian to barbecue to Mexican to Chinese. While I didn’t eat there, my favorite stand, simply for its name, was the Thai Ginger booth titled “The Intentional Wok”.

Interestingly, the stands all had signs announcing that they accepted Canadian currency, something that was made clearer to me when I found the Mariners consider British Columbia part of their market – and probably with good reason. The Mariners have something of an unsung presence on the east coast as one of the great regional teams of the Majors, along with the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals or Braves. The Mariners might be the most remote team in the Majors, with no other franchise within hundreds of miles in all directions.

The M’s aren’t shy about their ownership of the region, which can be seen along the left field concourse at the Mariners Hall of Fame and Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest. It’s an incredibly comprehensive museum, with artifacts by the dozen not just of Mariners history, but of Seattle baseball history dating back to the early 20th century when clubs competed in the city for the League Trophy, the 1904 edition of which is on display. Items from the Spokane Chiefs and the old Seattle Pilots also dot the concourse, which is so chock full that you get the impression it’s what the Yankees’ museum at their new stadium should have been.

The exhibits captures how the city’s relationship with the sport has evolved through time. More impressively, the entire thing is laid out along the walls of a hall way. It is a notable example of maximizing the space in a ballpark. The Hall of Fame itself has plaques for each of its inductees beneath television screens that play loops of their career highlights. The TV for Edgar Martinez, predictably, was showing the Double as I walked by. The museum capped off a tour that, when taking the aesthetics, the sightlines, the structural ingenuity, the food, and the activities around the park into account, showed that this is a fine, fine place to watch a ball game.

Dave and I returned to our seats for the National Anthem to find that, sure enough, his bobblehead was nowhere to be found. Despite my warnings, Dave was shocked, albeit not heartbroken, that his trinket was gone. The crowd was mostly pleasant, though one girl, who couldn’t have been older than 16, did her best to irritate the rest of the section by screaming shrilly at the top of her lungs. Good Dave is not a violent man, but he admitted to me afterwards that he, “wanted to rip the nose ring right out of her face.”

The game itself was a tight one, with Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn giving up a mere three hits in seven innings, but still trailing, 3-0, when he left. Seattle For most of the game, it appeared the night would be most memorable for a brutal collision between Endy Chavez and Yuniesky Betancort in left field when Betancort failed to hear Chavez call him off on a fifth-inning pop fly. Chavez had always had a place in my heart following his dramatic catch for the Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, and watching him writhe in the grass with a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee was rough. Much to my surprise, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu opted not to plug Griffey in for the injured Chavez, instead putting Wladimir Balentien in left.

I had been amused earlier in the night when Russell Branyan was up and the jumbotron announced his favorite TV show was Matlock, convincing me Branyan might be the only non-septuagenarian to be a fan. Regardless, Branyan showed he wasn’t to be trifled with when he belted a solo home run off Scott Schoeneweis to pull the Mariners within two. Schoeneweis was quickly pulled for Tony Pena who promptly gave up a single to Adrian Beltre, which brought up Balentien as the potential tying run.

And then it happened. Wakamatsu made a change, and the Kid appeared out of the dugout. As it turned out, I would see Griffey after all as he brought his aging body, not nearly as svelte as it once was, up to the plate to pinch hit. The reaction from the crowd was a predictably enormous ovation. What made Griffey’s connection to his crowd so special was that, not only did they still love him for quite possibly saving the team despite leaving the city shortly afterwards, but in the appreciation you got the sense they understood his deteriorated ability, accepting him for the player he was in his prime and the player he is now. In 1996, this was the moment when the crowd wouldn’t simply hope, but would expect Griffey to deliver. Today wasn’t the same. Mariners fans knew he was limited, but they were simply glad to have their true love back, and they responded accordingly as he stepped into the box.

No one in the building had sat down yet when he launched the first pitch he saw into the right field bleachers to tie the game. An absolute no-doubter from the moment it left his bat.

There are moments in sports where regardless of what side you’re on, you simply have to feel lucky to witness. This was a man and a city showering each other with praise. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I saw culture and crowd symbolize a moment as chants of U!-S!-A! rained down from 56,000 people at once in the stands of Shea Stadium. Nothing will ever make the hair on my neck raise in quite the same way again, but this moment, when, for possibly the last time, Griffey made the “House That Junior Built” rock was the only goosebump-worthy scene I had ever taken in at a sporting event that came close. In sports there are moments and then there are Moments.

This was a Moment.

The rest of the game seemed almost unnecessary, but a single by Chris Woodward followed by a Rob Johnson triple would give Seattle the eventual winning run. After David Aardsma, a man who holds the distinction of having the very first name alphabetically in Major League history, shut down the Diamondbacks to seal the victory, Dave and I walked back to the car still in awe. We almost didn’t realize we had a three-hour drive back to Portland. I would have another full day left in the Rose City, which Dave and I spent taking advantage of a strong beer scene and eating elk burgers, but my trip had been made. Without a place where our lives and our homes connect with the teams we cheer for and the athletes we’ve grown up watching, there is no reason to pay attention to sports.

These are the moments we watch sports for. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that watching 27,000 people rejoice like that, sports-centric or no, is a moment we live for.

No comments:

Post a Comment