clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An elegy for Mariners FanFest, the last pure good thing

In a world that feels increasingly focused on squeezing every last penny of profits from consumers, Mariners FanFest stood alone. Now it seems it’s a thing of the past.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Across baseball, several teams have been holding their FanFests over the past few weeks, a fan-centered event that serves as both an unofficial kickoff and a palette-whetter for spring training. The Giants just had theirs on February 4, sponsored by the city of Scottsdale, already greasing that southwestern slide for Bay Area locals. The Padres, Dodgers, Astros, Rangers, Twins, Guardians, Reds, Rays, Marlins, Atlanta, Red Sox, Royals, Cardinals, and Cubs all also recently held or will hold traditional FanFests, while the Orioles and Blue Jays have both opted for a “winter caravan” that visits different sites around their region with a rotating cast of players and team representatives (the Mariners have done this in the past, but not this year). The Brewers didn’t hold a traditional weekend-long FanFest this year, but did do an evening called “Hot Stove and Cold Brews” where fans had an opportunity to meet players, participate in a Q&A, and win prizes—all elements of a traditional FanFest—bringing the total number of teams who did do some kind of in-person event where fans could meet players or engage with the ballpark to 17.

The last Mariners FanFest was held prior to the 2019 season, rolled into the team’s return from Japan and a pair of exhibition games against the Padres, after having been skipped in 2018 for field refurbishment. Since then, there have been attempts to create some sort of fan experience without allowing fans in the ballpark—the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a “Virtual Baseball Bash” in 2021, which was replicated this year with the “Spring Training Pre-Funk,” a day of virtual “activations,” to borrow some of MLB’s corporate-speak. But no virtual event can come close to capturing the magic of a true FanFest, the last purely good thing in baseball.

Admittedly, there was a good run at “pure” early on. Taylor Trammell kicked off the day hosting an Instagram Live with his adorable pup Remington and started out by talking to a 15-year-old who’s hoping to make varsity and was clearly delighted to be able to ask questions of a pro player (second maybe only to the delight of skipping class in order to do so). It was genuinely touching to see the two interact, funny and charming. At the same time though, Instagram’s format asked the classic question, “what if an open forum Q&A, but with a constant barrage of useless commentary from irony-poisoned digital barnacles with screen names that look like suggested passwords?”

This is no slight against Trammell, who was masterful, keeping up a lively stream of chatter while also acting as his own tech support (showing that burden also falls on millennial/zoomer pro players, they’re truly just like us) and asking questions of his conversational partners when they faltered, but in lesser hands than Trammell’s media-savvy ones, this could have been a full-on disaster. Things skated to that edge when a fan—either ignorant or deliberately trolling—suggested Trammell use Morgan Wallen as a walk-up song; Trammell, of course, handled it with grace, but it’s not his job to do that. At a traditional Q&A—like the one held at traditional Mariners FanFest—a moderator with a microphone weeds out off-topic questions and the overt bad actors, but on Instagram, the payoff for the widespread reach of the service and free access is a near-total lack of moderation.

The next “event” was a pre-taped segment debuting on YouTube of Cal and Teoscar Hernández playing the Hasbro game Pie Face! (but without naming it, because intellectual property rights and all). Pie Face!, its name as brutally simplistic as its mechanics, is a “game” in the same way Russian roulette or operating the Doomsday Clock is a game: you’re just clicking a dial and waiting for disaster to strike. Not a game so much as an expression of the precarious nature of human existence! But I digress. Nothing important happened here except this gif:

good, but decidedly not pure

Again, this is the kind of thing that done live, in front of fans—all cheering every crank of the wheel, the sense of anticipation building in the crowd—would have been exhilarating. As a pretaped segment, it’s still funny or at least funny-adjacent, but loses that essential spark, the spark that’s in all live performances, that thrill this is happening once only, here and now, right before our eyes, and anything could happen—the spark that draws fans to baseball games to begin with.

The afternoon Instagram Live with Logan Gilbert and Paul Sewald got off to a shaky start, with an animated Rick Rizzs talking passionately into a camera with no audio before the video abruptly ended. It re-started, and while lacking the chaos of the earlier segment when Trammell was left to fend for himself on the wilds of Instagram, it also fell short of that spark, with everyone behaving themselves slightly more in front of Uncle Rick (there was still a flood of “daddy” comments directed at Gilbert that everyone involved chose to ignore) as he facilitated the conversation and picked through the comments for non-daddy-related questions. But still, it fell short of the intimacy of a traditional Q&A; a definite departure from the person who joined Trammell’s Instagram Live while still pajama-clad in bed, to be sure, but almost an overcorrection in how sanitized it felt. The most endearing part of the segment was when a caller requested “the Rick Rizzs voice” and Rizzs, without skipping a beat, recited his entire call of Logan Gilbert striking out Magneuris Sierra from September 20th of this year—a call he remembers because of the foul ball Sierra sent back up to the booth during the at-bat.

And so the day went, always with the barrier of technology between fans and players, with the attendant glitchy connections and lags. The Mariners gave away some merch and a few player-signed items on their socials. Andrés Muñoz answered questions on Twitter. Another YouTube player profile premiered. Rick Rizzs hosted J.P. and Ty France in another Instagram Live event that went much more smoothly than the previous Live (as far as questions answered; there was still a fair amount of debate as to whether J.P. or Ty is Daddy or Zaddy, which I assume Rizzs responded to like Tanya closing her eyes and shooting her way out of that yacht). The day’s lone in-person event will be held later this evening, at the Hatback Bar and Grill, where Rizzs, hopefully armed with a well-deserved Chianti, and the Mariner Moose will appear for trivia. It’s a far cry from the heights of FanFest remembered fondly by those who were in attendance six or more years ago, with ziplines and bounce houses and kids running the bases, caretakers and kids and friends and longtime fans having a catch on the field, snapping photos in the dugout.

Former staff writer Amanda posted this memory in the LL slack the other day when we were bemoaning the disappearance of FanFestt; the child in the pictures is now a grade-schooler. Her other child has never seen a Mariners FanFest, although he did enjoy playing with the tackling dummies at UW’s open spring practice.

This is the magic of FanFest, and something a virtual event can never approach: it builds lifelong memories by allowing fans direct access to the ballpark, the players, the people, the sport itself, to touch it and poke at it and question it and okay, maybe eat a little bit of the grass. There’s a messiness to FanFest, with all those people and their muddy boots tromping all over the space, but it’s having your boots in the space that allows fans, young and old, to form visceral, lifetime attachments that weather them through down periods, to feel like maybe this relationship isn’t so one-sided, to feel ownership over the space—especially key for people who don’t see themselves represented on the field. And while virtual events are theoretically easily accessible, events like Instagram Lives are limited to those who possess both the technology and the fluency to be able to connect, leaving out swaths of people—especially when they’re broadcast during the work day, during school hours.

But there’s also a cost to FanFest, one absorbed largely by the team, not only in opening the facility, staffing it, arranging activities, and giving out prizes while keeping ticket prices reasonable, but also in the logistics of bringing players to the park and housing and feeding them for the weekend. It’s a cost that should be negligible considering the goodwill it engenders among the fanbase, but moreover, it’s part of what makes FanFests so beautiful: a truly not-for-profit celebration of fandom and the sport itself. But it’s also, in a world where corporations are increasingly focused on the bottom line, what makes FanFests an endangered species. Nothing gold can stay, etc. etc.

Aside from the Mets and Yankees, who never hold events of this type, and the Phillies, who don’t usually do a traditional FanFest but instead a Phillies Phestival in-season on an off-day (the event hasn’t been held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; no word yet on if it will return this season or not), the Mariners join the Angels, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Tigers, Nationals, Pirates, and White Sox as teams who once held an in-person FanFest but opted out for at least this year. Like the Mariners, the A’s eschewed their FanFest this year and instead had a virtual “Spirit Week” that mostly seemed like a way to offload tickets for next season, culminating at a free “happy hour” with games and prizes (but no mention of players).

Take a look at that list again: LAA, ARI, COL, DET, WAS, PIT, CWS, OAK. None of these are franchises in good shape. Some haven’t spent money on free agents since the Clinton administration. Some have embattled ownership. Some are threatening to move or be sold. Most damningly, there is not one over-.500 team on that list—except, of course, the Mariners. That’s not the company this team should be keeping, and it’s not one the fanbase should be happy about.

As companies scheme up new ways to extract every consumer dime possible, FanFests—low-priced or free for fans to enter—stand in bold defiance, prioritizing fan access and de-emphasizing transactional relationships between players and fans. Far from the competition of the regular season, they focus on encouraging community and connection. They are the last good thing in a sport that nearly immolated itself last season, and they must be protected at all costs.