It’s All About Telling a Story

Saturday night in Seattle and I’m back at Safeco. I kind of wish I could call it something other than that. I could just say, “the ballpark.” That’s better than some insurance company’s name.

Anyway, I’m at the ballpark, sitting in the upper deck and munching on a chicken katsu plate from Uwajimaya (yes, bring your own food in and avoid the stadium price-gouging), and the place is packed. Unlike the previous game I went to, the Mariners fans are louder than the Red Sox fans. It’s Father’s Day Weekend, the Solstice festival (with thousands of nude, bodypainted bicyclists parading through Fremont) is happening. Grill smoke is in the air, everywhere. Seattle summer is in full, dazzling swing.

And I’d already been sunburned earlier in the day at the nude bike parade, and now the sun creeps over the stadium awning and I’m in full blast, and no way. So I stand behind stands behind home plate for the last three innings. It was a shutout, with another unknown (LeBlanc) keeping the Sox to two hits in 8 2/3rds. Diaz came in for the ninth and closed the whole thing down to the loudest sound I’d ever heard in the ballpark.

I’d never been happier to see the Sox lose, too. I’ve rooted for them plenty—every time I went to Fenway except for the two Mets games here. 2004? I was crazy for them. 2007? Sure, why not? But once, well, basically all Boston sports began winning everything and the region’s fans (who were already ornery, some of which who are infamously racist) truly became the worst in sports.

I say “became” because, when I was a kid in southeastern Connecticut and southern RI, Sox fans didn’t have anywhere near the glitzy swagger of the Yankees to trophy around. The Yankees (or, to them, pretty every New York sports team) were the evil empire. I believed this, too, as a young, jilted Mets fan who, frankly, learned a great deal about grief and loss in the 2000 World Series, and learned exactly how to hate a bandwagon, showboating fanbase along with Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins fans.

That is until, in high school, I was accosted by a drunk, staggering Patriots fan in the parking lot of Gilette Stadium who jabbed his finger at me (I was wearing a Jets jersey, from when I still rooted for the Jets with my dad, and I’ve since sworn them off just out of sheer embarrassment) and said, “I bet yer a fuckin’ Yankees fan, too!”

I was like, dude, I like the Sox. I hate the Yankees. I’m a fucking Mets fan. Not all New Yorkers are the same, you know?

And from then on, mostly regarding the Patriots, I’ve generally hated their fans. And a lot of Red Sox fans. I don’t follow basketball or hockey, but I can imagine hating Celtics and Bruins fans, too.

I’m throwing a whole lot of my friends under the bus when I say that I hate Boston/New England sports fans, but so be it. Push!

Honestly—and I noted this in my last post, and maybe it’s just regional differences of temperament because, as an East Coast guy, I miss the ornery, crass, and otherwise unlikable yet completely lovable social traits of the Northeast and the Northwest tries way harder to be polite than is possible for me to achieve—nobody likes bandwagon fans, fans that brag or boast, fans that put others down, fans that hurl racist pejoratives at players of color, or fans that light cars on fire and riot when their team wins a championship.

And I’m not saying that even, perhaps, 90% of current New England sports fans are bandwagon fans, or exhibit any of the above behavior. Nearly all of my friends who root for these teams have done so since childhood, when the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 and the Patriots were just another shitty NFL expansion team. They are all dignified sports fans who appreciate the fun and entertainment of it, who love their teams, but who also have a great deal of respect for other teams, even their rivals.

So, when the Sox made a go of it, considering the story behind them (perpetual underdogs) and the fanbase (beaten-down fans of perpetual underdogs), I couldn’t help but root for them. I loved it, too. I watched games with friends who had been waiting for this their whole lives, and whose parents, even grandparents, had also been waiting. People were shaking the ashes of their dead relatives at their TV screens before games, or refusing to shave or shower, or any of the other strange superstitions that sports fans believe in. There were so many emotions at play, and when Boston went down 3 games to zip against the Yankees, and then came back, and then went on to win the World Series, I wanted to hear the Dropkick Murphys on repeat just as much as anyone did. Hell, I even called my local radio station to request it—and my request was fulfilled.

I had a Sox hat. I still have it. I’ve worn it for two great games at Fenway: when David Ortiz hit his last home run, and when the Red Sox had a wild extra-innings walk off the following summer. I high fived fans on my walk to Back Bay Station. It didn’t matter, either, because the Mets are always there for me, my childhood team, my father’s favorite, my favorite.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t root for other teams, and even root against those other teams from time to time.

Like rooting for the Mariners. I mean, there’s another story. Seventeen years without a playoff berth. The 116-win season that was drowned in the champagne of yet another Yankees postseason series win. The home of Griffey and Ichiro. A team of has-beens, unknowns, fading stars, and distant relations. The team of the place that, at least for a while, I am calling home.

The only catch is that I can’t root against the Mets. Any other team? Fair game. For or against, doesn’t matter. As long as some fan ethics are upheld—like, generally not rooting for unlikable players, teams, or hopping on blatant bandwagons—I’m a fan of the game overall, and it is mine to explore and enjoy as I will.

So, when standing in between two sets of families and kids—one Sox fans, the other, Mariners—in the concourse behind home plate for the last three outs on Saturday night, I looked at one family as already spoiled by repeated victories (Sox), and the other as deserving of a good win. Honestly, what really matters is that everyone has a good time and enjoys the game, because it’s just a game, it’s leisure for us, it’s not personal, and we have no control over anything that happens other than what crappy food we eat or how much we dress up in expensive, useless, but meaningful sports garb like custom jerseys and fitted caps and color-matching shoes. (I’m guilty of this, I get how stupidly materialistic it is, but it’s fun.)

But when Mookie Betts struck out and the Mariners fans, the tens of thousands of them, already standing, their gazes locked on home plate, silently hopeful, then loudly hopeful, cheering on their pitcher, suddenly burst forth with a fucking chorus of victory screams and chants and cheers, I let out a shout and clapped hard for a few seconds and, finally, saw that ballpark at its fullest, loudest, brightest, and happiest moment of this season.

Then, wanting nothing more with a crowd of 50,000 baseball fans on a holiday weekend, I ducked straight for the exit and made fast for the train station before everyone else. But I’ll be back because there’s a story there that’s being told, and told well.

Rooting for the Home Team

I don’t want to write about a losing team. At least for a while.

The Mets had a fabulous start. Unstoppable, practically, until we were stopped, and haven’t started again, and now we’re at least 10 games out of first place. We’ll see how this thing goes, or doesn’t.

But in the meantime, I’ve gone to six Mariners games. They’ve all been fun, and I’ve eaten everything in the park; local double-smoked sausage and caramelized onion sandwiches (hot dogs?), fresh fish and chips, the famous garlic fries, and even crispy fried chili-lime grasshoppers from the taco stand out in left field.

When I told my brother this, he immediately asked, “What fucking major league ballpark has grasshoppers for a stadium snack?”

Safeco Field does, and honestly, they’re delicious. That lime tartness, that chili zing, really complements the crunch. As does a nice cold pale ale.

I’ve only seen one win here; a walk-off home run in the Seattle rain. While they were trying to close the roof. I knew that the umpires weren’t going to stop something already in motion. Why would they stop now? Why delay when the retractable roof is rolling slowly back over the field?

Good thing they didn’t, because Mitch Haniger blasted a no-doubt shot into the left-field bleachers. In the pouring rain, while the roof was only halfway closed.

And I still wonder why Mariners fans leave early.

They left early the night that Paxton, the southpaw ace, struck out sixteen batters while I sat behind home plate in awe. The night that Ichiro had his last at-bat, his last “I-chi-ro!” chant at Safeco, his last strikeout. I chanted with the fans, even with my Mets hat on. I had to. Who knows when, ever again, I’d see Ichiro up at bat for Seattle in the bottom of the ninth with a man on base? Even some of these young Mariners fans are not old enough to have seen Ichiro when he was a rookie in Seattle. Maybe they missed out on the meaning of it.

Maybe they’ve simply resigned to losing since the M’s haven’t made it to the playoffs in 17 years.

That’s a sad story, and so is this: Ichiro retired the next day. That was his last at-bat. And I remember watching him walk back into the dugout for the last time.

That’s why you don’t leave early.

And yet. Seventeen fucking years! Seriously. That’s gotta hurt. Even the Mets make the playoffs periodically to assert the fact that yes, they can win, sometimes. And I’ve seen five losses in Safeco and one win, yet the Mariners are 44-25. (The Mets are almost inverse at 28-37.) I get why, after so many years of loss, that you’d want to bail early and not see the inexorable final out, the bright but sad flash of “Thank you for attending!” on the big screen instead of something more positive, like, “Mariners win!”

You’d want to hit the light rail station before the masses so you’re not packed into a train so full of beery, peanut-dusted bros wearing jerseys and caps of the team that just swept your team—say, Red Sox fans. You wouldn’t want to be in that train car. (I’ve been there, and it’s hot, sweaty, smells bad, and feels terrible.) You’d want to just go home because the traffic is going to suck and you have to work in the morning, and you had a few too many beers and spent too much money on junk food, and you have heartburn and a headache, and there’s just no point.

But, maybe, this year there is?

Who knows, too early to say, don’t jinx anything, that kind of sports superstition. That reluctance to emotionally attach yourself to the victories and losses of what, really, amounts to no more than a brand name. The Seattle Mariners, just like the New York Mets, are a regional brand. And it’s a brand that Seattlites, likely, trust in many fun, pained, and strained ways.

I bought a Mariners hat. I wore it to a game this week with my coworkers, a company outing. I had a blast rooting for the home team with a bunch of M’s fans. I loved talking with baseball-inclined coworkers about the game, or about the food, or, really, anything, since baseball lends itself to socializing with its natural breaks, its moments of calm.

But when Haniger won the game, my boss and I slapped double high fives and danced in the rain while the stadium speakers blasted a victory drumbeat and the fans—only a half-stadium’s worth, but decent—roared. And my coworkers who left early, who waited for their train, heard it, and were sad to have missed it. Some even assumed that, in the seventh inning, when the Mariners were down by one run, it was over. And they left!

It wasn’t over, and in baseball, that’s the chance the game allows its teams, its players, and its spectators to enjoy. It’s not over until the final out, and if you are patient, you might see something legendary happen, especially if the odds are clearly not in your team’s favor.

I even got to go to Safeco for a momentous occasion that had nothing to do with the Mariners, but with history—I got to see Albert Pujols, who I forgot still played the game, hit his 3,000th hit. It was on his third at-bat of the night. Everyone knew it could happen, and then, after a short bloop to right field, he did it, and his team ran on to the field to celebrate with him. The game stopped for ten minutes, and nobody cared, because we were watching the 32nd player ever to have made it to 3,000 in 130-odd years of statistics.

Last night, I watched the Mariners attempt a comeback against the Red Sox. I stood in the center field bleachers with a couple of Sox-fan friends of mine (but, clearly, the good kind of Red Sox fans) and while they were nervous when Kimbrel walked the first two batters, I was hopeful. And this isn’t even my team. The crowd started chanting “Let’s go Mariners!” without the assistance of the big screen or PA system. And it kept going, all the way until that final out, when the “Thank you for attending!” message came on the screen and fans shuffled themselves out toward the train station, a few Boston bros shouting shrilly and dumb, joyful but boasting in a solemn place with, perhaps, some of the most downtrodden fans in sports.

But I’m going back. I’m going to wear that Mariners hat. (And I give myself a pass since this is the AL.) Last night was the first night I’d heard those fans start up a chant on their own, and kept it going. They weren’t sad, but hopeful. This is not a bandwagon team. This is the home team, a team of unknowns (Haniger) and older brothers (Kyle Seager) and aging aces (Felix Hernandez) and upcoming flamethrowers (Paxton) and legends (Ichiro, who still takes batting practice with the team).

This is a team that deserves a shot at the playoffs, and I want to see them do it. And as I finish this one off tonight, the Mariners just beat the Red Sox, and hearing Safeco roar over the radio’s smooth static is a pretty sweet sound.