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If you put a team in Safeco, they will come with no qualms
Special to The Seattle Times
The backlash against mediocrity — the threatened boycott of Mariners baseball — hasn't happened. The team can't lose enough games to keep the fans away from Safeco Field.
The M's will lose at least 90 games for a second year in a row, and yet will be out-drawn by only three teams in the American League: the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels.
Certainly they've gotten a late-season boost from rookie Felix Hernandez, who pitches today against Baltimore and could pitch twice in the final home series of the season, on a Tuesday against the Rangers and on a Sunday against the A's in what will be the last game of the season.
Hernandez may draw fans that a decade ago Randy Johnson didn't. When Seattle wasn't a baseball town.
A huge drop in attendance should have come this year, the year after losing 99 games and firing Bob Melvin coupled with the chilling sense in May that the team wasn't going to be in a pennant race.
Admittedly, attendance is down another 10 percent from the year before — and 20 percent since a peak in 2003 — but the Mariners are still one of the best draws in the game.
Their television ratings, also down, are still among the top four or five in baseball.
Is it Safeco Field? Is it that Seattle actually enjoys the game in general, surviving the aberration that was the Kingdome for a revival of the strong support the minor-league Rainiers enjoyed following World War II?
Or are we just kidding ourselves? Is the support perilously close to disappearing if the Mariners don't turn it around?
It is interesting that the Mariners — averaging 34,000 fans a game — draw more than the Chicago White Sox, for example, or even the Atlanta Braves, both of whom lead divisions.
Pittsburgh hasn't won; neither, really, has Colorado. But Arizona, which got a new park about the same time the Mariners did, won a World Series.
There is no question that Safeco Field has settled nicely into the Seattle landscape, that a day at the ballpark is something we enjoy around here, like a walk around Green Lake or a night in Belltown.
Crowds will dwindle into the 20,000s as the season ends, as the days diminish and the kids return to school, but the club will still average more than 33,000 and draw 2.7 million.
"We have a tremendously loyal fan base," said Howard Lincoln, the CEO, "and while we are gratified by that, we don't take it for granted."
Lincoln said he was "tremendously disappointed" in the results of this season, appreciated the frustration of fans, but also understands how important it has been to make Safeco Field a good place to spend the entertainment dollar.
"The park is pristine," he said. "We've worked hard to make it a clean, secure environment."
The Mariners may have mollified fans initially with last winter's big-bucks signings of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, making the kind of financial commitment necessary for improvement.
But money hasn't translated into success. General manager Bill Bavasi is trying to crawl out from under the trading of shortstop Carlos Guillen and the signing of Scott Spiezio, and the malaise of a team getting older and less productive.
They've thrown a truckload of rookies at the wall seeing if any would stick. In the process, they may well have established their shortstop-second base tandem of the future — Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez. Along those lines, the draft may have found them a catcher, rookie Jeff Clement.
But is Mike Morse an answer in left field, or for that matter, Jeremy Reed in center? Is there a DH in the house? Whatever happened to Bucky Jacobsen?
Does Jamie Moyer come back? Do Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro finally settle down? Can they add more pitching, using the money they'll no longer have to pay Bret Boone?
The Mariners need to be a more productive operation. They should be embarrassed that the Oakland A's consistently spend half as much for twice as much.
"It is safe to say," said Lincoln, "that we will maintain a high major-league payroll and give our team the best chance to win."
The highlight this year, of course, has been Hernandez, the 19-year-old phenom. Lincoln noted spikes in both television ratings and attendance when Hernandez pitches. As well as a more hopeful attitude among the fans.
"We're clearly heading in the direction of a younger, more athletic team," Lincoln said. "We're excited about that, and based on conversations with our fans, so are they."
So Seattle, the baseball town, is buying the Mariners time to figure out how to win. Who would have ever imagined that scenario?
Comments for Blaine Newnham can be sent to email@example.com.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company