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Mariners cancel FanFest in midst of rebuild

It’s under-the-radar but still disappointing.

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I was seven years old when the Mariners last made the playoffs, so as you can imagine, I don’t have a ton of memories from that season. I remember going to Opening Day, watching Ichiro pick up his first career hit. I remember seeing 35-year-old knuckleballer Steve Sparks shut down the Mariners on a Monday evening in August, scattering five hits across nine innings. And I remember going to All Star FanFest.

In the years since, I’ve been to FanFest probably 10 other times. It became a tradition with some family friends: We’d take a look at the autograph schedule and plan on which day to go, and we’d get there early and excitedly wait in line. I honed my Sporcle Friday skills at the trivia contest that would occur in a small room in the bowels of Safeco Field, as we’d stay in that room until we got called up to the front of the room to participate. (One year, I was eliminated because while naming players on the Mariners’ 2001 ALDS roster, I forgot that Carlos Guillen had tuberculosis and missed that series.)

In short, FanFest was a harbinger of better days ahead. And that’s why this news was such a disappointment.

Now, I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature, and I tend to naturally see the bright side in moves made by the Mariners, for better or for worse. But there’s no way to sugarcoat this: In the midst of a comprehensive rebuilding project — with a team that, per Jerry Dipoto, was “awful” and one that he “didn’t intend to be that bad” — the M’s have canceled perhaps their chief fan goodwill event.

The stated excuse above is that the field isn’t available, presumably because for the second consecutive year, T-Mobile Park is playing host to a corporate Christmas Instagram photo op. I must confess that I did actually attend Enchant on Saturday, and the event basically delivers exactly what you’d expect. The Christmas lights are quite impressive, walking around on the field level is pretty neat, and there are some neat booths set up in their Christmas market.

It isn’t, however, remotely connected to baseball.

Building fandom is about forging connections to a team through thick and thin; when a team is abjectly terrible, it’s the team’s responsibility to find new ways to engage fans. The M’s have historically been good at this, taking advantage of a highly creative marketing department to create lifelong bonds and bring people like me and you a little closer to the action. Buhner Buzz Cut nights got folks in for free to see a team that, at its outset, had just two winning seasons to its name. The King’s Court made undesirable seats for wretched teams an event, and cultivated a level of fan engagement and unity rarely seen at baseball games in the United States. That’s why canceling this year’s FanFest, on the flimsy excuse of not having the field available, is so deeply disappointing.

Sure, in recent years FanFest has featured a zip line over the field and chances to play catch in the outfield. But FanFest has been held in locations other than the stadium itself in the past, including the adjacent convention center back in 2001 (and other years). And while the field access helps make the event special, at its core the draw is the chance to meet Mariners legends and revel in the advent of another baseball season with fellow die-hards, or an opportunity for kids to meet their idols.

That excuse of a lack of field access also rings hollow given that Enchant has an explicitly deleterious effect on the field itself. I’m no horticulturist, but covering the field for well over a month without any sun or water feels like a bad way to treat a playing surface.

I don’t want to just blame this decision on the increased revenue that Enchant surely generates compared to FanFest. Perhaps that’s just because cynicism comes so unnaturally to me. But, well, it’s a bad look to miss the playoffs for two decades and cancel a fan goodwill event in Year Two of Rebuilding Project No. 3 (4?) just to make a quick buck, all while sitting out free agency in the interim.

As I type this, I’m looking at my Robinson Canó wine topper, my collection of Mariners bobbleheads, and a few of my dozen-plus M’s hats. I’m all in on this woebegone franchise. I’m the core audience they’re targeting for this event (minus the small children). Maybe that’s why this feels like a slap to the face, just wrapped up in a Christmas bow. Do better, Mariners. Do better.