People really hated the Kingdome.
They called it ugly. They said it was dilapidated. They compared it to a tomb.
I loved it. It’s where I fell in love with baseball and the Mariners. It felt like home, and I felt like I grew up there.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the last Mariners game at the Kingdome. It’s one of the most fun baseball games I’ve ever been to. I want to look back on the game and relive the magic of baseball in a building that was, perhaps, an acquired taste.
First, a little scene setting. It is late June in 1999. If You Had My Love by Jennifer Lopez is the number one song in America on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart (it replaced Livin’ La Vida Loca by Ricky Martin) and Big Daddy starring Adam Sandler was the top movie at the box office. Texas Governor George W. Bush had recently announced he was running for President. The Women’s World Cup hosted by the United States was underway. On June 27th, the United States would end group play with a 3-0 win over North Korea.
Baseball in 1999 was still reveling in the aftermath of the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run chase. The expectation from fans was for more home runs and more theatrics. Baseball pundits were ringing their hands over Kevin Brown’s record-setting signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the bundle of cash Randy Johnson took to sign with his home town Arizona Diamondbacks.
Speaking of the Big Unit, the Mariners began the 1999 season free from the huge distraction and weight that was the Randy Johnson Trade Watch of 1998. The Mariners jettisoned reliever Bobby Ayala early in 1999 after signing Jose Mesa to take over closing duties. The looming free agencies of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez provided plenty of fodder for sports radio hosts and sports columnists. The team didn’t really have to worry about those two yet. They wouldn’t be free agents until after the 2000 season. 1999 seemed like the right year to turn things around after a disastrous 1998.
Five major league stadiums were seeing their last run of baseball action in 1999. Candlestick Park (by then renamed 3Com Park), Tiger Stadium, County Stadium, and the Astrodome joined the Kingdome on the farewell circuit. The Mariners beat those other teams into opening their new stadiums though; they planned to move across the street mid-season.
The new Safeco Field would be everything the Kingdome wasn’t. It would flaunt its open air, green grass, blue skies, and city views. It was a modern retro ballpark in the style of the time. It featured a fancy retractable roof that wouldn’t randomly spew tiles and other detritus from time to time. The Mariner’s slogan for the season was “Ain’t Baseball Great?” The hitters complained about the spacious expanse of Safeco Field, especially in comparison to the friendly measurements in the Dome. Edgar Martinez worried about the heavy air. The pitchers grumbled that the fences had been moved in after the hitter’s complained; they were ready to relax whenever something was hit in the air. Whatever the stadium was and would be, it was almost ready.
All that was left to do was to say goodbye to the old home.
The Starting Lineups
Poulsbo native and Kirkland resident Aaron Sele would be getting the start for the Texas Rangers. He viewed the Kingdome as a mixed bag; he hated pitching in the hitter’s paradise, but he enjoyed playing in front of friends and family at the ballpark where he grew up watching baseball. He reminisced to reporters ahead of the game about taking the ferry across the Sound and buying tickets with his friends in the left-field bleachers and trying to sneak down into the 100-level seats. Any sense of nostalgia seemed lost as he commented, “Every pitcher in the American League is laughing right now because they’re tearing this thing down.”
I bought tickets for the Mariners Kingdome Finale the first day they went on sale. I took the money saved from babysitting gigs to the Bellevue Square Mariners Team Store and bought two tickets for $16 each.
I have only a single snapshot memory of my first baseball game. I was about 5 and it was during the summer when my older sister was visiting us. I don’t remember anything about the game itself, just sitting on a bench in the 300-level of the Kingdome between my dad my sister, eating pink cotton candy. I remember the lights shining on us, simultaneously too bright and jarring, but also dim and lackluster.
I like to think of my dad sitting there with two of his daughters (my younger sister would prove to be a more reluctant baseball fan), sharing with them the thing he loved most of all. It was the first of countless games I’d go to with him. My dad, the native Bostonian that he was, would often complain that the Kingdome wasn’t a real ballpark. Real baseball was played on grass. Real baseball was played in a baseball stadium.
Ah, but we went to so many games there. He’d talk about his baseball memories, and we’d discuss the current Mariners and the current game. He taught me to keep score so I could keep up his scorebook when he needed to run to the bathroom. Over the numerous innings and countless games my bond with him was forged.
I gave him those tickets for Father’s Day, placing them inside a homemade card.
Inning #1 – Baseball Theater
Freddy Garcia is starting for the Mariners. He was a piece of the Randy Johnson trade that was so widely panned. Freddy is making us coming around on that trade. It’s his first season pitching in the major leagues. Today, as we move past the Kingdome he is a piece of the future, complete with a beautiful curve ball.
The Rangers aren’t interested in a seamless transition though. Rusty Greer knocks a two-run home run in the top of the first inning. Freddy continues to struggle, but induces a bases loaded groundout to end his half of the inning without any further runs.
The Mariners are determined that this is their day. Brian Hunter leads off with a single and Alex Rodriguez follows with a walk. Ken Griffey Jr is stepping up to the plate.
I know I went to Mariners games before Ken Griffey Jr. I just don’t remember them. He was always the main draw, the face of the Mariners and of baseball. He lit up the drab Dome with his smile and his swing. But you know that, you’ve seen the highlights. You’ve seen the catches and the home runs, and that wild run around third base to score the winning run in the 1995 ALDS. He was the Kingdome.
As he steps into the batter’s box, camera flashes erupt. It’s like being inside a disco ball. It’s what it must have felt like to be there during the playoffs. There was a certain tension you’d feel inside the Kingdome when something was about to happen. It couldn’t evaporate into the atmosphere, it was trapped inside the concrete walls. This tension, this knowing. There was a buildup, until, finally, the action:
Like Rick Rizzs said, it was baseball theater.
Inning #2 – The Glimpse
Freddy Garcia walks two Rangers. He isn’t on, and he’s struggling with his control. Maybe it’s the largeness of this game. Maybe he’s just a rookie, still trying to figure it all out. The Texas Rangers are leading the American League West. They’re a playoff team with a ferocious lineup. Garcia isn’t having his best outing, but man, is he fighting. He gets out of the inning without allowing a run.
With two outs in the bottom of the inning, Dan Wilson reaches base on single, THEN STEALS SECOND BASE. Our veteran catcher, reliable in his lack of speed has gotten a bee in his bonnet and swiped a base. Maybe the same nerves that are affecting Garcia are getting to Wilson as well and he’s just taking his out on the base paths. Alas, he is left on base because the 1990s Mariners could get so close and just not get it done.
This inning gives us little glimpses of the fight in Garcia and the wild and crazy Dan Wilson behind the solid, steady Dan Wilson. Little glimpses before you know the whole story of how a game, a season, a career will work out.
My dad grew up outside of Boston and he’d tell me about how special it was to take the train into the city and go to Fenway Park with his father. He’d talk about the first glimpse of the field, the grass and the brightness of the sun enhancing the perfectly cut grass and pristine baselines. He always liked the way the field was perfect and crisp before the game began, just waiting for the story to unfold and the perfectness to be ruined by the business of playing baseball.
I hear so many stories like that from fans who grew up going to real, outdoor ballparks and the way that first glimpse of the field ignited an excitement. It wasn’t quite like that at the Kingdome and yet I’ve never felt like it was any less thrilling. The Kingdome has these massive ramps around its exterior. After you went in the gate, you began your ascent. We were in the 300-level most often, and therefore had the longest trek. Once you reached the top you’d enter the concourse. It wasn’t open like T-Mobile Park is; you had the go through tunnels to get out to the seats. As we’d walk through the concourse, I’d peak through those tunnels and catch a glimpse out into the vastness of the Kingdome.
I’d see the red-orange seats on the other side of the stadium. The distance and the lights made them look hazy. It dazzled me. It always felt like something big was going to happen.
Inning #3 – The Little Details
The Rangers don’t score this inning, but a runner does reach on an E-5 by John Mabry. E-5s (and 6s and 4s) have been common in the Kingdome the last few seasons. As much as I groan at them, they drive my dad crazy. He loved the fundamentals and the details. Over the years, mostly in the Kingdome, he has pointed out the little things to me that made me fall in love with baseball. He’d point out when the outfielders shifted position and the way the shortstop and second baseman communicated who would cover second. He loved to teach these things and discuss strategy. He’d explain things to any random fan sitting near us who asked questions. He always insisted that we get to the game during batting practice and watch a little bit from our seats so we could start getting good reads on fly balls. There was nothing worse, he thought and I concurred, than being those people who cheer for a popup to shortstop.
My dad loves Edgar Martinez because Edgar is so meticulous. He always talks about how Edgar doesn’t try to do too much with pitches. Instead of standing up there swinging for the fences, he goes for base hits. My dad loves base hits.
In the bottom of the third inning, Edgar hits double to centerfield to score Alex Rodriguez.
Edgar Martinez RBI doubles are the best kind of base hits.
Inning #4 – When the Spectacular Happens
I know everyone in 2019 is tired of hearing about 1995. We were all tired of it in 1999 too. I think the tiredness then came from the frustration of slipping out of playoff contention so soon after fighting so hard to get there. Those were some spectacular teams the Mariners had in the mid-90s. Even the non-playoff games had their incredible moments, some I was lucky enough to see for myself at the Kingdome. There’s too many to list so it’s fitting that one of my favorites happened in the last game.
With two on and two out Juan Gonzalez hit a home run to centerfield…except he didn’t because of Ken Griffey Jr:
We were sitting in the 300-level in left field. I remember watching Junior’s arm go over the fence and bring that back. It felt like time had slowed down when Gonzalez hit the ball. It floated and floated and floated. Then, Griffey jumps, reaches out his arm and just like that, it’s on the right side of the fence again.
Spectacular plays by Griffey are almost expected. The dramatic home run in the first inning? The game-saving catching in the fourth inning? It’s just what he did.
I think about how much Seattle loved Ken Griffey Jr. Kids wanted to be him, showing up a little league games with backwards caps and huge smiles, playing backyard baseball and practicing diving, leaping catches. Griffey’s heroics did become a little less impactful as they became de rigeur. Then, he unleashes them at exactly the right moment.
Manager Lou Piniella told the press after the game, “He’s a big-game player. What can I tell you? And today he stole the show.” Perfectly sums it up.
In the bottom of the inning, Brian Hunter reached base on a weak ground ball single, then advanced to second on a throwing error that would score David Bell. The Mariners lead the Rangers 5-2 and that’s where the score would stay.
Inning #5 – Little Rebellions
In his last inning of work, Freddy Garcia allows two runners to reach base, but doesn’t allow a run. He’s fighting. He might have some grit in him. In the bottom of the inning, Griffey reaches with a leadoff walk, then steals second with two outs and advances to third on the catcher’s throwing error. Butch Huskey strikes out to end the inning.
The Kingdome is full today and all 55,530 fans are into every single pitch. The Dome wasn’t always full; it was mostly empty for most of the time it hosted baseball. The 300-level had these long benches that stretched up to the back wall. Most games, it was wide open space.
If you’ve ever complained about an usher at Safeco Field/T-Mobile Park know that they come by their ways honestly. An enduring image of the Kingdome for me, was the sight of ushers chasing after kids running through the empty seats and up to the back wall. The kids would be herded back to their parents and the usher would repeat the pointless exercise the whole game through.
It’s a common practice in baseball to move down to the better seats as the game wears on, figuring nobody will care. Sometimes they cared. Although I was not the type to court trouble as a kid, I have been asked to leave many good (EMPTY!!) seats at the Kingdome. In fact, the very act of walking around the main concourse on the 100-level would result in rebukes from the ushers there.
The Kingdome was a chance to brush up against authority. It gave us kids who grew up in safe neighborhoods a chance to say we were sticking it to the man.
Inning #6 - Ritual
Frankie Rodriguez came in to the replace Freddy Garcia. Rodriguez has been claimed off waiver earlier in the season by the Mariners, who were perpetually in search of bullpen help. Rodriguez had his struggles to be sure. Today, he was on and pitched a 1-2-3 inning with a little help from home plate umpire Brian O’Nora, who ejected Texas shortstop Royce Clayton and manager Johnny Oates for arguing a call.
Aaron Sele answers with a 1-2-3 inning of his own, making the sixth inning the first time in the game either team went down without getting on base.
1-2-3 innings have always felt comforting to me. I like pitchers and I like to see them succeed at the business of moving the game along. It takes away the chaos to deal with the batters in an orderly manner. It feels ritualistic.
I went to many games growing up. We often went as a family or on outings with my brother’s little league teams. We’d get tickets through school, and often when the Red Sox were in town. By the time I hit high school I was fully obsessed with baseball. I wanted to go all the time. I argued for season tickets since we watched or listened to all the games anyway. I couldn’t get enough of live baseball.
My parents wouldn’t fully indulge my baseball wishes and get season tickets, but my dad was happy for the excuse to go to games often with me. He had a blue book bag that we would pack up before hopping into his old Toyota Tercel and heading into the city. He would make hotdogs and wrap them in foil for us to bring (buying food outside of our house was a huge treat that didn’t happen often). He would refill old stadium souvenir cups with Diet Pepsi (in those days you could bring in outside beverages as long as they didn’t have a lid that screwed on). He would pack his scorebook and mechanical pencils, and a portable radio. I’d bring my binoculars and sometimes a cheap old camera that took terrible pictures.
Every time it was exciting to drive across the I-90 bridge and take the 4th Avenue exit. There was a little parking lot down 4th, next to James Street. I remember it cost $5 to park there for a 5 minute walk to the Dome.
We had our game day routine down. He could get home from work and we’d start getting ready and we’d be out the door in no time. So much of baseball’s appeal is in the mundane. I miss those days of getting ready to go to the Kingdome with my dad.
Inning #7 - Freedom
Rodriguez gets another 1-2-3 inning, setting down the heart of the Rangers order: Rusty Greer, Juan Gonzalez, and noted Mariners killer Rafael Palmeiro.
We sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the last time in the Dome. So many times my dad would sing, “Root, root, root for the Red Sox”, partly because he wanted me to be a Red Sox fan and partly to antagonize me. Today, he sings, “Root, root, root for the Mariners” because by now, he has truly become a Mariners fan.
Despite a triple, two walks, and a second stolen base from Ken Griffey Jr, the Mariners do not score in Aaron Sele’s final inning of work. Oh, but this inning was full of excitement.
Edgar Martinez was up to bat with two outs. His plate appearance was rudely and hilariously interrupted by a thong- and sneakers-wearing streaker. The streaker ran into the outfield carrying a sign that read, “Goodbye, Kingdome”. He slid to his knees as the police closed in on him.
Edgar couldn’t quite compete with the streaker, but he tried. When he was called out on strikes to end the inning, he objected enough that Brian O’Nora made his third ejection of the game and tossed him.
The streaker ran through the field with abandon. The crowd loved it. I could relate. A little. While I have never streaked on a baseball field myself, the Kingdome gave me a sense of freedom. When my baseball fandom morphed into obsession as high school got under way I talked about the Mariners. A lot. I wouldn’t shut up about them. I recounted plays and incidents from the previous night’s game every morning at school. When friends came over the idly hang out in the summer, I insisted we have a game or Sports Center or Baseball Tonight on tv. I felt like I could never get enough baseball and I never wanted to miss a moment.
My enthusiasm didn’t fully transfer to my friends, but I got them into the Mariners and going to games. While my dad loved going to games with me, he wasn’t all that interested in going with a gaggle of teenage girls. So, we’d go by ourselves. We’d save up money from babysitting and after school jobs to buy tickets. We’d make signs. We’d hang out down by the dugouts and pester the players during batting practice. We’d hang out after the game and try to get autographs as the players were leaving. It felt magical, especially in the time before any of us were old enough to have drivers licenses, to be at a game in a huge arena and to be free of our parents.
Inning 8 – Bring on the noise, bring down the house
The much beloved Charles Gipson replaces Butch Huskey in right field. Rodriguez allows one hit, but not runs. Danny Patterson replaces Aaron Sele in the bottom of the 8th. After Alex Rodriguez reaches base on what would have been the third out, Patterson is replaced by Mike Venafro as Ken Griffey Jr. steps up to the plate with the bases loaded.
Junior would strikeout swing, and after the game, Butch Huskey recounted that moment, joking “If Junior had been able to hit the grand slam these fans would have brought this Kingdome down a bit earlier than folks were planning.”
That’s just it, all those people who said the Kingdome was a terrible place for baseball, who couldn’t understand how anyone could want to be there for a baseball game.
They must have forgotten what it felt like to be inside, enveloped in screaming fans, living and dying by each pitch. They must have forgotten the way the sound vibrated inside your head, the way it bounced off the walls and reverberated through your bones. It was pure, joyful hysteria.
It was the best place to watch baseball because when it got loud like that, you weren’t just watching baseball. You were part of baseball.
Inning #9 – The End of the Road
Jose Mesa comes in to close the game. He walks the first batter, then gets a double play. Walks the third batter, then induces a flyball from Rusty Greer to end the last game at the Kingdome.
The Kingdome felt electric as the gamed ended with a Mariners win. It wasn’t always like that, of course. There were more dark, barren, echoey years than years filled with fanatics. It played host to more atrocious baseball than good baseball. It was the sort of thing that some people may find depressing, like rainy Seattle winters and ineffective bullpens.
The Kingdome was where I fell in love with baseball. It’s where I developed a lifelong bond with the Mariners, a team that has never been perfect and rarely good and yet I love them with all my heart. It was the same in their first home. Sure, it was dark and the design was uninspiring. But it was a refuge from the sun and the heat of summer, from the real world I was struggling to grow into. It was both an escape from encroaching adulthood and where I first felt the freedom that came with leaving childhood behind.
The Kingdome felt like home to me. I felt like I belonged. Maybe I would have felt the same way about any other ballpark I grew up in. There’s just something about wholeheartedly loving, and missing, something that seemed unlovable.
There was a ceremony after the game where the past was honored. Next door, we felt the presence of Safeco Field and the looming future. David Segui’s son Cory threw out the ceremonial last pitch. Segui was the son of the first Mariners starting pitcher, Diego Segui. The past flowed into the future.
That September I would begin my senior year of high school. I hoped the Mariners would have a playoff game in their new stadium. When the game ended on June 27th, 1999 they were 4 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West. It wouldn’t happen that year, but the magic I was sure would happen in a beautiful new ballpark was still to come.
I turned 18 the following March. On the weekend after my birthday my parents went out of town, taking my brother and sister with them. I was left with an empty house. Naturally, I had some friends over. One of my friends obtained alcohol for us by flirting with middle aged men outside the liquor store down the street. I didn’t drink back then and for some reason felt a responsibility to make sure my little gathering didn’t devolve into the kind of wild parties popularly depicted in all the teen movies that were in theaters at the time (my sense of responsibility peaked when I turned 18). After a night of hair curling and nervous talks about what the next year would have in store for us as we graduated high school and went to college or to work, we woke up and turned on the tv to watch the Kingdome implode.
The rubble, the smoke, it all fell in on itself.
And just like that my childhood was gone.