Sunday, September 2, 2007

Game #27: The Pacific Northwest

For a true planes, trains, and automobiles trip, I needed to drop in one flight to my roadtrip. So, in order to ensure I got a chance to end my trip in the SF Bay Area, I took a quick side-trip from Southern California up to Seattle and back to catch the Mariners game.

Safeco feels like an illustration of what a well done park can do for a city. Everywhere you looked in Seattle, there were signs and banners and references to the team, and throughout the town you could hear people talking about them. While not quite to the extent of the great East Coast franchises in Boston and New York, for a team with almost zero notable history (the M’s have never been to a world series, and instead proudly fly banners highlighting the years in which they made it as far as the ALCS) it was quite impressive

For the real experience, it’d be appropriate to visit each of the roofed ballparks twice – once with the roof open, once closed, as these two experiences typically provide two completely different impressions of a ballpark. And yet, Seattle seems to have done a good job making this not nearly as relevant a consideration. The massive roof structure sits far above the field, and is an impressive piece of engineering even in the open setting, literally shifted over to cover part of the parking lot when not in use for the field. However, when closed, the roof in Seattle apparently does far less to create an indoor stadium in the manner of Milwaukee, Arizona, and Houston, but rather functions somewhat as an umbrella, keeping the rain off the field and the fans while letting outside air continue to circulate through the stadium, thus maintaining an outdoor feel. The luxury of a balmy climate, in which rain, not heat or cold, is the only concern.

The park itself has got a close and intimate feel, with seats close to the action and a sense of immediacy. This is true throughout, including on the concourses, which provide plenty of standing room and a clear sight onto the field. The construction, heavy on green steel and a Pacific Northwest blue-green palette, does a great job of combining the size of the building with the intimacy of a small park. Meanwhile, the architects found a way to include seats in several places in home run territory where other parks might have given up. Where appropriate, this was a great way to make sure that balls hit out of the park would find their way into the hands of waiting fans, rather than disappearing into the no-souvenir-zone gullies recently seen in Anaheim, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

The local train lines, of which there are many, seem to run almost directly under the right field wall, and trains apparently make a point of sounding their whistles as they pass by the park. These trains are loud and clear, and the thunder of their passing can be felt throughout the entire park.

The bullpens were another great and unique feature. While their position, behind the left field wall, partially hid them from view from the field, pretty much every other vantage point was available. Fans could walk right up beside the bullpens, and watch pitchers warm up from behind a screen a few feet away, or even peek into the bullpens through small portholes at the bullpens’ end. This made for very popular pre-game entertainment, including a large group of Japanese girls very disappointed that Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima was not helping Mariners’ pitcher Jeff Weaver warm up.

This group of Japanese girls were not alone; there were a LOT of Japanese fans around in general, drawn, perhaps, due to the presence of players such as Ichiro and Johjima, due to the exposure of the Mariners in Japan thanks to their Japanese ownership, and perhaps due simply to proximity. That led to a number of signs being posted in both Japanese and English, as per the following posting of the Code of Conduct:

This Japanese connection also ties into the classic Safeco trademark food: The Ichiroll sushi combo. While sushi is now available at a couple of other parks (Detroit for sure, San Francisco on the club level, apparently), it was the introduction of sushi in Seattle that first drew newspaper headlines.

There was one other demographic factor noted that day in a local paper: Apparently, Seattle has the highest percentage of female fans in Major League Baseball, a fact that caused the columnist’s friend to state, regarding Safeco field: “This is, like, the Pottery Barn of baseball stadiums”

The game itself was, as has seemed so often true lately, a home-team loss. The Mariners, after tearing up the league lately, including beating up on opponents twice already during my trip, had closed the gap with the division-leading Angels to the point where this series could have given them the division lead. However, these three days were a painful recalibration for the M’s, as they were swept, and soundly, by the Angels, who well and truly illustrated who the best team in the division is.

The game I attended started promisingly for the Mariners, as they put up five runs in the bottom of the first and chased the starting pitcher, all before the second out was recorded. But slowly and surely, the Angels chipped away at the lead, while the Angel bullpen did a masterful job, eventually securing a 10-6 victory and helping to send Seattle into a tailspin.

Elsewhere in Seattle…

Beer - The Pacific Northwest is known for its brewpubs, so I made a point of hitting up three of them. Of the ones I tried, Elysian was the best, for their own brews, the atmosphere, and for an impressive collection of guest beers including Rodenbach Grand Cru, Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Westmalle Tripple, and Delirium Tremens. Heck, the beer selection at the ballpark was also great, with a wide variety of microbrews available on tap.

Coffee – Seattle’s also known for its coffee, of course, and along with the original Starbucks, I spent a fair bit of the next afternoon touring a series of local coffee shops.

Pike Place Market – Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in town is the Pike Place Market, itself best known for its flying fish. Or, well, for the large fish stand at which the employees famously throw fish to one another upon making a customer sale. This was fantastically entertaining, as was the market as a whole, though I do feel a bit sorry for the employees. The famous stand is mobbed with people, all day long, though few, if any, have any intention to actually buy any fish. Most people spend their time standing and waiting for someone else to buy one, generating as it does the grand theatre of large fish flying silvery and floppily through the air. Still, great fun.

Space Needle – Seattle’s greatest landmark is the (now fairly dated) Space Needle, which stands only about half as tall as the CN tower in Toronto. That said, the scenery in and around Seattle is fantastic, and makes a ride up to the Space Needle’s observation deck well worthwhile. Free tours at the top included pointing out the location of the houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle, and the location where Frasier’s condo would be, were the building that were there only 6-7 stories taller.

REI – Finally, the outdoorsy spirit that imbues Seattle finds its heart at the original REI store, itself a great piece of Northwest architecture.


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