"Man, it is really messed up down there." Manuye, my freshly retained Seattle cabbie, tried to warn me off a ride to Safeco Field. "Every day with a game--crazy." He shook his head. I got in anyway, preferring a traffic snarl to the gathering rainclouds.
As it turned out, Manuye whipped the "M's rush," as NPR's traffic update called it as we headed south. With All Things Considered turned down to a murmur and an unkind word for anyone stone-stupid enough to get in our way, Manuye delivered me to the heart of Mariners Mania. He waved a dismissive hand at the thousands of fans tsunami-ing toward the park across South Atlantic Street, and bid me good luck.
Call me a sucker, but I couldn't manage anything like Manuye's cynicism during my visit to Seattle two weeks ago. These are heady times in Marinerland. By the time you read this, Safeco will have hosted the All-Star Game, the American League side jammed with eight Mariners. Seattle finished the first half with a lead in the AL West not even the '01 Blazers could blow. Safeco is sold out deep into summer.
Closer to home, The Oregonian covers the M's as Portland's hometown team. Though no precise stats are available, there are those--Lynn Lashbrook, lead crusader of the Oregon Baseball Campaign, is one--who believe that the Portland metro area supplies between 10 and 15 percent of Safeco crowds.
"Our campaign has definitely experienced a tremendous boost from the Mariners' success," says Lashbrook of OBC's indefatigable (though unsuccessful) effort to pry a ballpark subsidy out of the Oregon Legislature. "People are starting to realize that Portland really could get a team and it could be very competitive. Remember, Portland has the same population now that Seattle had in 1990."
And, of course, there's the Ichiro factor. The slap-hitting leadoff man signed from Japan's Orix Blue Wave has emerged as the most magnificent mononym to hit American sports since Pele played for the Cosmos. Azumano, a Portland travel agency, scored the coup of the year when it secured official rights to market Mariners getaways in Japan; the company will bring thousands of Japanese fans across the Pacific this year. Despite the anemic show the M's put on in a loss to the Oakland Athletics the night I saw them, Japanese signs and flags bloomed throughout the stands every time Ichiro came to the plate. Japanese reporters filled half the press box. (Ichiro, that night, couldn't hit a ball out of the infield, though he did beat out a grounder...to the pitcher...for a single.)
The Mariners are sexy, cosmopolitan and sleek. It only took about 130 years, but major-league ball has finally conquered the Pacific Northwest--all the more remarkable given that, if MLB "contraction" had been bandied 15 or 20 years ago, the M's would have been first in line to drink the Kool-Aid. In 1983, the Mariners' average home attendance was a pathetic 10,044 per game. They'll nearly quintuple that this year.
It goes to show that if you give a city a winning team and slick ballpark, They Will Come. It may also go to show that most of the current hordes of instant Mariners diehards are fair-weather bandwagoneers of the lowest sort. There are those who wonder what will happen when this year's "SoDo Mojo," inevitably, goes drier than the Klamath Basin.
"It is frustrating, in a way," says John Reeves, a hardcore from Auburn, Wash., who runs one of the best Seattle fan websites and may be the only person on Earth who can fairly claim to bleed Mariner blue. Reeves remembers '83, when the M's drew 3,630 to a game against Kansas City one night in September--he remembers, because he was there. "It's fun," Reeves admits, "but when the tide turns against us, will we be down to 20,000 fans a game?"
Fans who want MLB in PDX should take note. I do believe we'll get a team eventually, but the Mariners' current roll in the clover makes a poor model to emulate. It can't all be IchiMania and weekenders from Osaka. If baseball is going to work, in Portland or anywhere, there must be thousands of fans willing to pay to watch their boys get 10-runned by the Brewers. The question for Portland is, are those thousands out there?
Seattle, when it gets a moment of sobriety, might ask itself the same thing.
CORRECTION: So my friend Travis looks at me Friday night and says, "Hey, man. Read your column about how Maurice Cheeks is the Blazers' first black coach." By this point, I know what's coming. I don't say anything. "You ever hear," he continues, "of Lenny Wilkins? Lenny Wilkins, Hall of Famer? Lenny Wilkins, former Blazers coach? Lenny Wilkins, who is black?" I have now, Trav, I have now.
Wilkins served as the Blazers' player/coach between 1974 and 1976, before going on to win an NBA title as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics; he now coaches the Toronto Raptors.
Thus, my statement in last week's Go! Fight! Win!, to the effect that new Blazers coach Cheeks was the first African-American at the franchise's helm, was mistaken. I apologize for this egregious error. Thanks to the dozens of readers who wrote, called or dropped by WW's offices to point out the mistake.