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The State of the Game

Safecopalooza, or What Has Four Scoreboards and Flies?
By Neil deMause

I no longer fear Disneyland, for I have been to Safeco Field.

My visit to the Seattle Mariners' new $500 million playpen (originally to be $400 million, but who can stop spending when you're having so much fun?) began innocently enough: a trip to Seattle and a planned excursion to a ball game. The lowly Mariners versus the lowlier Twins on a superfluous Friday night in late September. I hardly expected any fireworks. So when-BOOM! BOOM BOOM! BOOM!-I got them, bursting over the enormous SAFECO FIELD sign with the glowing neon clock-cum-M's logo in center field to mark the announcement of the home team lineup, it was a bit unexpected. Except that by then my bedazzlement nerves had all but shorted out entirely.

To get to Seattle's new baseball emporium, you drive (if you're stupid or from out of town, like us) or take one of Seattle's ubiquitous but circuitous bus lines to the downtown Pioneer Square area, and you walk. And walk. And walk-past the Kingdome, soon to be given a public implosion to make way for a new football stadium, past the half-finished exhibition hall that will replace the Kingdome for non-football uses, past a bustling row of street vendors selling two dollar bags of peanuts and "kettle corn," popcorn popped in a kettle the size of the dome.

Then you enter the ballpark and ascend into the maelstrom.

Finding one's seats at Safeco is like a trip to the mall to pick up a tube of toothpaste-it can be done, but only with self-imposed blinders and steely resolve. Booths and carts and stands with clever names like the Rolling Roof Cafe and the Intentional Wok are stacked up like jets over Sea-Tac Airport, selling every imaginable variety of inedible food and souvenirs ranging from "I Love Alex" T-shirts to bumper stickers honoring the Mariner Moose. Stairs and escalators ascend willy-nilly in every direction and no direction at all. If you're clever enough to find the "view" level (that's the "upper deck" for baseball old-timers), the section numbering scheme presents another obstacle: heading into the rightfield corner, here's 317, 315, 313, 311 (time to stop for some fried clams and get your bearings)-but wait! The numbers are even now, and rising again, and at last there is section 314, and we emerge into the ballpark.

At least, there's a ballpark in there somewhere. Wrapped around a near clone of Camden Yards (here the grandstand extends around the rightfield section instead of left, and in place of the brick warehouse, one gets a view of the doomed dome) is a profusion of scoreboards, message screens, Jumbotrons, and advertising signage the likes of which humankind has never before seen. Strips of message board ring the main grandstand along the front of the thirty-six-dollar club seats, revealing such vital information as the results of the inning's previous batters and the radar-detected speed of warm-up pitches. The center field bleachers rest atop an enormous rotating billboard, which changes every inning, while the scoreboard in left-center alternates between listing the out-of-town scores and running advertisements for the exquisitely named Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. Hovering over center field is an enormous video board sponsored by the web-broadcast company Real Networks-which promptly malfunctions, leaving a large square dark space occluding its crystal-clear replays and computer-generated animations for much of the game. For the ears, there are the latest stadium-friendly hits piped over high-fidelity speakers, punctuated by earthshaking blasts of steam whistle from passing Amtrak trains, echoing off the underside of the retractable roof. The full effect is like that of the progeny of a baseball stadium that's been mated with a pinball machine.

And it's a creature with a minimum-security prison in the heritage somewhere, as well, which becomes clear the first time I venture out to explore the park's interior. Climb one of the few staircases that link the upper and lower decks at Safeco, and you will pass two levels accessible only via narrow doors, with ushers posted as guards. These are the suite and club levels, off-limits to the general public. I peer in through the gun-slit window of one to catch a brief glimpse of a sign proclaiming it the Honus Wagner Suite and a clutch of well-dressed people who probably would have Honus Wagner thrown out on his duff if he showed up, fresh from flinging lumps of coal at railcars to strengthen his arm. Then I hurry on to the lower concourse-where, despite the team's promise that one can shop for stir-fried pepper steak and Jay Buhner inflatable bones without missing any of the game, I miss large swathes of the game, since the side open to the field is packed with standing-room fans who make it impossible to make out more than a patch or two of green.

Back up in the cheap seats, at least, we know how to make our own fun. Safeco, whether to prevent obstructed views or to force fans to plunge into the concessions concourses in order to move about, was designed without continuous pedestrian aisles in the seating sections, which means several innings of battling fellow fans who have decided that the shortest route from point A to point B leads across our laps. Our attention soon turns, however, to a pair of pubescent boys who have mounted two nearby stair landings and are attempting to lead the crowd in The Wave, the Kingdome-grown phenomenon that has spread like crabgrass to every outdoor and indoor sports facility in the country, if not the world. "One!" they cry. "Two! Three!"-and are pelted with peanut shells from all directions. Fortunately, we bought the big bags from the vendors outside.

All this, though, is merely prelude to the main attraction, which has been hovering over us the entire game. And when at last the contest on the field is over, it begins: The stupendous roof, all struts and beams and steel sheeting, begins to slide shut for our benefit. (And only for our benefit; after the stadium has been cleared, it will be opened again.)

Like a scene out of Independence Day, the sky begins to fill with gray metal, while out beyond left field, the gears and wheels that drive the huge mechanism churn majestically-Chaplin's Modern Times, this time-as the ballpark seals itself from assault by overhead elements. Like great sea beasts, the sectioned pieces of the great dome slide over one another, slowly, majestically blotting out the sky. Flashbulbs flash. The crowd goes wild. Everyone goes home happy.

Oh, yes, and there was a ballgame as well, which David Bell won for the Mariners with a tie-breaking home run in the bottom of the ninth. We cheered and cheered.

Extra innings, after all, would have meant a longer wait to see the roof.


NEIL deMAUSE (www.demause.net) is co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit (www.fieldofschemes.com). His favorite game of all time is the fifteen-inning contest between the Yanks and the Mariners in game two of the 1995 playoffs-even if the Yanks did go on to lose that series.

©2000 Neil deMause


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