"The Mariners suck, do you know that?"
The gaggle of 15-year-old boys eyes me warily as I approach the LL Gate, the brims of their green and gold caps tilted to flaunt an array of New Era stickers. Two of them are debating the merits of their fantasy football rosters while another two commiserate over the injustice of being served a "down low" when they specifically requested an "up top." I hope they're referring to high fives.
"I don't think she heard you," one of the boys stage-whispers to his friend. I am the only Mariners fan in a scraggly line of forty wrapped around the perimeter of the O.co Coliseum. It's days like these when I miss Safeco Field -- the foghorn signaling the opening of the gates, the smell of chili cheese fries wafting through the air, the mild buzz of M's fans around the concourse during batting practice.
I was born and raised in Seattle, but my interest in baseball didn't flourish until my college days in California. Coincidentally, I would turn to the popular San Francisco Giants in the summer of 2010, just as they embarked on their long-awaited march to a World Series championship. The obsession ran deep for two years. I spent every night glued to MLB TV and At-Bat. When I was at the ballpark, I used my iPhone to stream Giants games, checking the scoreboard over left field every five minutes in case I missed a key play. I donned orange and black when the Giants came to Seattle for a rare interleague series, joining the hordes who transformed Safeco Field into AT&T Park North.
I embraced my long-distance fandom until I got my first taste of Mariners baseball in 2012. I attended 43 games that season, from Phil Humber's perfecto to the tail end of Felix's perfect game. On my 22nd birthday, I sat through 18 innings of a bitter loss to the Orioles in late September, using what little energy I had left to yell at Eric Wedge for squandering John Jaso's one at-bat. I like to think that while the Giants introduced me to the wonder of baseball, weathering an entire season with the Mariners cemented my loyalty to the sport. I fell head over heels for this team -- and then I moved away.
The official attendance record tallies 11,236 fans tonight, but there can't be more than 500 seated in the bowl of the stadium. What the crowd lacks in numbers, it makes up for with sheer volume, heckling everything from Nick Punto's walk-up music ("Your Love" by The Outfield) to Robinson Cano's every at-bat.
"You're the worst, Seattle!" one particularly vocal group shouts from the upper deck. "Go back to inventing Starbucks!"
The relentless ruckus isn't what makes being a long-distance fan hard, though it certainly doesn't enhance the experience. For the most part, A's fans keep their distance, more invested in unsettling the opposing players than engaging visiting fans. Rather, it's the perpetual state of being a visiting fan that becomes wearying, whether returning strange looks from the Oakland faithful or becoming the lone, obnoxious fan who cheers Cano amidst chants of "Ov-er pa-id!"
Like the subset of A's diehards in Oakland, the community of Mariners fans in Seattle is small but tight-knit. Baseball is a communal sport, meant to be shared between friends and strangers with the same rooting interests at heart. Stripped of that support group, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the faith alive, especially for a team who has just called upon one Hector Noesi to salvage an extra-inning debacle. There's little doubt in my mind that supporting a failing team from miles away is considerably harder than cheering a team to the top of their division.
The Mariners lose, predictably. I bolt out of my seat before Kool & the Gang blasts over the sound system, missing a last-minute replay of Coco Crisp's walk-off home run. As I make my way to the train station, a fan in a Mariners cap approaches me, his hand outstretched for a limp high five.
"Don't feel bad," he tells me. "We're 3-1, we'll be okay."
As he walks away, I think that perhaps long-distance fandom isn't so unbearable after all. Even after a spoiled game, a Picassian strike zone, and multiple failed rallies, the small comfort of having shared the experience with another fan makes it tolerable, if not worthwhile. No matter how many losses I witness here (five and counting), I just can't quit the Mariners.