Wednesday, September 25: it's the last week of the season, L'enfant is safe at home under maternal care, and my mom is in town, so we decide to go catch one last M's game before the weather turns. There is plenty of parking. We stroll down Occidental, and I mourn the vacancies along the street that mark the death of each sole proprietorship. We eat hot dogs on the curb. Then we cross the turnstyles. I buy a scorecard for a dollar, and we climb up to the front row of the upper deck, first base side. From our perch we have a great view of the playing field, feeling like seraphs watching children at play. We eat peanuts, letting the shells tumble beneath our seats, one of the purest childlike thrills of the responsible adult.
The crowd is sparse; four foul balls clank off empty plastic seats in the first inning alone. The air is colder than it should be, and the fans collectively huddle inwards, leaning down toward the action. Howard Lincoln is a week away from making his controversial comments on the quality and progress of the baseball that we have paid to watch, but with the game mathematically stripped of meaning, it's hard to think of much else. For me, at least, Safeco Field is performing a soliloquy.
Baseball is, by its nature, a repetitive thing: fifty-four-plus batters, hundreds of pitches, twenty-four base states, a hundred sixty-two games. On television, the focus is sharp and each of these feel like distinct iterations. At the field, especially at elevation, the game blurs into a single, ambling entity. So much of what goes on beyond the lens adds to this pace. Commercial Break Baseball is a collection of rituals, calcified on top of each other. The promotional first pitch precedes the ceremonial first pitch, which is followed by the less-glamorous actual first pitch. We guess which hat the ball is under. We sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and I sing the words "home team" instead of "Mariners" because those are the words to the song. Tom Hutyler never misses a cue or varies an inflection.
This is what makes in-person baseball what it is. It makes it comfortable. A baseball game is like a wedding: there are certain tasks and flourishes that have to show up. Even though no one is particularly enthusiastic about the rote elements, especially once one hits his or her mid-thirties, it would feel weird for them not to be there. The traditions in each case are important, despite or perhaps because of the fact that they are cliché: they are commonly known, and commonly held. They bring us together.
When Howard Lincoln talks about the baseball environment, this is not what he means. He means the restaurants and the bullpens and the rental Nintendo DSes that allow you to watch highlights from '95 during the game. The experience of watching baseball itself, once the ball is in play, is immutable and collective. And so instead of the ceremony, he's talking up the hors d'oeuvres and the cover band as the key elements of the wedding.
It's the top of the fifth inning. Iwakuma is in control, the M's have made a few threats but failed to carry any of them out. A young woman in the mists behind us, emboldened by the fearlessness of youth or, perhaps, forty dollars worth of Miller Lite, shouts:
"Swing batter batter swing batter batter SWING!"
It's such a strange phrase, I think, as I watch Justin Maxwell strike out. Where does it come from? You'd think that, in the majors, you'd hope that the other team would never swing. That would almost certainly be a losing strategy, wouldn't it? Why are you helping them optimize?
Success with Maxwell has fueled the woman's fire. "Swing batter batter batter swing batter SWING!" She's really getting her all into that last word now.
But it's not as though the chant is connected to professional baseball. No, it's the kind of chatter you hear on the patchy infields of elementary schools and Little League games. (swing batter batter) But even then, why are people so insistent about swinging? Do you want the game to end faster? (swing batter batter batter) Or are the fielders just tired of increasingly fascist three-true-outcomes game?
She keeps doing it. Over, and over, and over. A cry that would blend in perfectly among a crowd of forty thousand seems to echo among the mere ten thousand. (Strange, I think, that ten thousand people collected in one place seems like such a pittance.) After an inning she gets tired of it, and switches to "We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher," which she refines over the course of fifteen minutes. The people around us chuckle at first, then make eye contact with each other, then start to crane their necks cautiously around.
"We need a pitcher," she begins lustily.
"And we need new material," I call back, and the chanting ceases. Soon she disappears, likely heading down to the beer garden. Relieved smiles wash down on me.
She probably could have kept shouting forever, I thought. But then, is that so surprising? She's just a part of the baseball game, like the lighting of a unity candle. Everything about Safeco Field is like the grass: perfectly manicured, uniform. The presentation of each game is the same as the one before it: the same blooper reel with different players, the same hydroplane race, the same dance cam with the same dances.
The game advances. Zunino hits a couple of home runs, and the Mariners cruise to a rare and easy victory. The omnipresent Tom Hutyler thanks us for coming, and we hardy few file out into the night.
My mother is perfectly happy. It's her first game in a decade. She's exactly who the Mariners are appealing to: the kind of fan for whom the stadium itself is an experience, a cathedral to be wondered at, not actually prayed in. But a product designed to be so different and memorable to the outsider is, for the regular, designed to be the exact opposite: familiar to the point of being insensible. It's meant to feel like home.
Baseball mirrors our own sense of routine. It's not football, which exists for forty-eight hours a year; baseball is there, every day, plodding. Many games and some seasons are identical to each other, like birthdays after one's twenties. And yet we do our best to fight this sense of routine, to instill virtue and individuality into every moment, to bring them to life. We fight to keep ourselves awake, fight to appreciate the Hisashi Iwakumas and Jeff Fasseros who are too easily forgotten. It's all too easy for each of us to live our entire lives in luxury or in penury, mechanically, surviving only. Our struggle against this, for identity and purpose, is our greatest creative act.
So it's strange and sad to me that Safeco Field, for its safety and pleasantness, can only repeat itself game after game, like a wind-up nickelodeon. Certainly, an interesting and successful team can create its own drama and tension. But even heroes have long roads to travel on their quests, and great teams have to play in June. I suppose I just wish that the Safeco Experience, the potentially rich and hidden realm of commercial break baseball, weren't presented in the same fashion day after day. It's something that every minor-league team seems to understand, but never translates to the majors. Maybe it's just what happens when you grow up and have to start going to weddings.