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Originally published July 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 12, 2009 at 12:36 PM

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Safeco Field still a gem after first decade

To listen to the Mariners talk, in fact, Safeco is just in its infancy. Though the ballpark's very existence, after the long, protracted political battle to get it built, is credited with keeping the franchise in Seattle, they perceive their new home will have more staying power than three Jamie Moyers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Open and shut

The Mariners' all-time win-loss record at Safeco Field (through July 10) with the roof open, closed and moved:

352-286

Roof open

61-51

Roof closed

40-22

Roof moved during the game*

(*since 2001)

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By its 10th birthday, the Kingdome had already been declared an eyesore, deemed obsolete, and scorned as a financial albatross for one of its two prime tenants, the Mariners.

By contrast, as Safeco Field nears its 10th birthday — which arrives on Wednesday with the Mariners in the midst of their All-Star break — it still has the full bloom of youth.

To listen to the Mariners talk, in fact, Safeco is just in its infancy. Though the ballpark's very existence, after the long, protracted political battle to get it built, is credited with keeping the franchise in Seattle, they perceive their new home will have more staying power than three Jamie Moyers.

"We look at what Wrigley Field is in Chicago, what Fenway means in Boston. We can see this being a 100-year facility," said Bart Waldman, the Mariners' executive vice president of legal and governmental affairs. "That's how we treat it. We hope to get to that iconic status."

That's a realistic goal, says Joan Enticknap, president of HomeStreet Bank and one of the driving forces behind Safeco as the original Public Facilities District chair. She remains a PFD board member — and a Mariners season-ticket holder.

"Look at Smith Tower, and all the other buildings that were built very well to start out," said Enticknap. "They stood the test of time. The whole throwaway era was unconscionable. I'm permanently obsessed with this concept: I want the park to last 100 years. We do a lot of work to ensure we never have another Kingdome."

Waldman's involvement in the Mariners' ballpark pursuit goes back to 1993, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to brainstorm ways to make the Kingdome feasible via lease concessions and facility improvement.

"We couldn't figure out anything that made economic sense for baseball," said Waldman.

It was at that point then-governor Gary Locke convened a task force that concluded the Mariners' long-term survival depended on building a new ballpark.

To get from that theoretical declaration to the sparkling $517 million facility with the newfangled retractable roof, an edifice that has been attended by more than 30 million baseball fans (and 54,097 wrestling fans for WrestleMania XIX) was hardly a day at the park.

In fact, as the headaches mounted, in the form of intense political opposition, numerous lawsuits trying to stop the project dead in its tracks, and the highly controversial $100 million cost overruns that everyone wanted someone else to pay, it was easy to despair that the stadium would never get built.

But get built it did, in record time, because, as Ken Johnsen, the former executive director of the PFD, in essence the landlords of Safeco Field, said bluntly, "This was too important to just say, 'Never mind, we're not going to do it.' "

And now, 10 years down the road, it's the perfect time for some reflection on the evolution, and revolution, of Safeco Field.

First of all, by all accounts, it has succeeded in its primary function, which was to save the Mariners for Seattle. They have gone from one of the most financially unstable teams in the majors to one that annually ranks in the top 10 in payroll, and now has the second-longest continuous ownership group in the American League.

"There wouldn't be any Seattle Mariners without Safeco Field," said team president Chuck Armstrong. "It has fulfilled all our expectations and projections — exceeded those. It has provided the financial stability we needed."

Armstrong added that Safeco Field "might be the most successful public-private partnership ever done."

The Mariners' ownership contributed $45 million initially to the project and then coughed up, reluctantly, about $98 million more to cover the cost overruns.

The bonds used to design and build Safeco Field are on pace to be retired early — seven years ahead of schedule for the $26 million used to build the parking garage (they are expected to be paid off this year), and four years early (in 2012) for the $310 million in ballpark bonds.

And Armstrong notes that once the Mariners' ownership group recoups its operating losses, a profit-sharing system goes into place in which 10 percent of subsequent earnings will go back to the public via the PFD.

On an aesthetic level, there are still critics who bemoan the fact it wasn't built in the North Lot of the Kingdome, or who maintain that the retractable roof was unnecessary.

Architect critic John Pastier said upon its opening that the retractable roof was "not only a superbly engineered waste of money" but also "a superbly engineered waste of space."

A decade later, he hasn't changed his advocacy for the North Kingdome location ("it's in the wrong place," he says of Safeco) nor his disdain for the roof, which he calls a "real wet blanket ... a beast. It's like a foreign object."

Yet the ambience, atmosphere, architecture, sightlines and sensibilities — the whole ballpark experience — is widely considered to be one of the best in baseball in survey after survey.

Certainly, it is revered by ballplayers (with the exception, perhaps, of right-handed power hitters).

"Everyone loves it," said Texas reliever Eddie Guardado, who spent two-plus seasons with the Mariners. "I'd say it ranks in most players' top three, and a lot of top ones. It's a beautiful park."

The Mariners were adamant from the beginning they needed a roof to ensure their large contingent of out-of-town fans that their trip would not be for naught. And the roof, designed with the concept of being an umbrella over the stadium — a carport rather than a garage was the common explanation — actually came in on budget at $67 million after being reduced from five to three sections.

"It was an amazing feat to get that done, and to do it in a way that doesn't just work well technically, but works well from a fan enjoyment standpoint," said Johnsen. "When you're in the park and the roof is closed, you still feel like you're outside. That amazed me."

Other attributes of Safeco are the dazzling view from various locales, and the way the park fosters mobility — fans can watch from various vantage points in the ballpark and not miss action while in the concourses.

"I often get up around the fifth or sixth inning, walk around the whole place on the 100 level all the way around, and just sort of purr, looking at all those happy people looking down on that field of dreams," said former University of Washington president William Gerberding, one of the original members of the PFD board. "Seattle got lucky with that park."

Branch Rickey once said famously that luck is the residue of design. The Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ was given the task of designing Safeco Field, though in the meeting to choose the architect, the Mariners cast the lone vote for HOK, the Kansas City powerhouse that had masterminded the highly praised Camden Yards.

"I think the M's finally came around," says Dennis Forsyth, the NBBJ architect who had the daunting position of project manager. "We weren't their choice, and we were always walking up hill. But they're proud of the field. Whenever I run into Chuck, I think he's happy."

At their pitch meeting to the PFD, NBBJ posted a sign that said, "Our goal is to create the best ballpark in the world."

Said Forsyth: "I think the PFD board had the same desire, and the Mariners had the same desire. That was the mission we were on — to make it fit into Pioneer Square and make it feel like it belonged in Seattle."

And to do it on an accelerated timetable that the Mariners deemed essential. The original goal was to have the ballpark ready for opening day in 1999, but that was reluctantly moved back to midseason. Still, of the five ballparks that were being built at the time — San Francisco, Houston, Milwaukee and Detroit, as well as Seattle — it was on the fastest track.

"Remember, we were losing, just pure cash losses, $20 million every year," said Waldman. "So every year's delay was another $20 million of loss. Beyond that, this thing had a certain momentum to it. You always worry, on the political side, about losing that momentum."

So it was a wild race against time that accentuated the stress that was already swirling. More than 3,250 workers representing about 29 construction trades built Safeco in a joint venture of Huber, Hunt and Nichols and Kiewit Construction. Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire designed and engineered the roof.

"We needed to build it as fast as any ballpark that size — faster," said the PFD's Johnsen. "I think in a lot of ways that drove the tension over the course of the project on a number of fronts. There was not a lot of time to say, 'Let's sit back and think about this.' "

"It was a crazy atmosphere," added Forsyth. "We had to really make every decision count. People were out there trying to stop it. It was just strange. We all put our heads down and got it done."

And they did so in a way that even some of its fiercest critics have grudgingly admitted is an artistic success. Chris Van Dyk, head of the watchdog group, "Citizens for More Important Things," which filed a lawsuit claiming the ballpark bonds were illegal that went all the way to the state Supreme Court before being shot down, remains disdainful of the public expenditure.

"We opposed it because we felt professional baseball had plenty of its own money to build its own bloody stadium, and the Kingdome was only 20 years old," he said. "Neither factor has changed.

"What they used to justify the wisdom of using a half-billion dollars which was desperately needed for other stuff was the economic development in the immediate area. The only economic development you see in the area is a strip club that they've been fighting."

Yet Van Dyk is a Mariners follower, and he acknowledged that he has recently taken in a game at Safeco Field. His evaluation?

"It's an incredible facility," he said. "Gosh, the fans love it."

On that one point alone, perhaps, he and the Mariners are in sync. Armstrong has noted that several times a week, he'll find himself admiring the place and reflecting on the arduous journey that got the team there.

"I tell people I have four children, three of whom are human," he said.

"Safeco Field is my fourth child. She's beautiful."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Lineup then and now
A comparison of the Mariners' starting lineup in the Safeco Field opener and in Saturday's game against the Rangers. The only player who carries over is Ken Griffey Jr., who was gone for nine seasons before returning.
1999 2009*
2B David Bell RF Ichiro
1B David Segui 1B Russell Branyan
CF Ken Griffey Jr. 2B Jose Lopez
SS Alex Rodriguez DH Ken Griffey Jr.
DH Edgar Martinez CF Franklin Gutierrez
RF Jay Buhner LF Ryan Langerhans
LF Butch Huskey C Rob Johnson
3B Russ Davis 3B Chris Woodward
C Dan Wilson SS Ronny Cedeno
P Jamie Moyer P Jarrod Washburn

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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