Faded Signs

40 Years in the Wilderness

Sick's Stadium at Rainier Avenue S and McClellan Street, 1965. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

The saga of professional baseball in Seattle fittingly begins with a heartbreaking loss.

It was 1967 when, after decades of hosting some of the country’s most accomplished minor league teams, Seattle was finally awarded a major league squad. Nicknamed the Pilots after the region’s rising mid-century profile as home to Boeing and several military bases, the team would be permanently awarded to Seattle by the American League only if a new ballpark would be built to supersede the cozy but inadequate confines of Sick’s Stadium. County voters passed a measure for a new stadium in February 1969 for a building that eventually became the Kingdome. But to the skeptical AL, votes in ballot boxes did not equate to butts in seats.

The lowly Pilots played a single season in Seattle, finishing 64–98 before being forcibly relocated to Milwaukee and renamed the Brewers. Sick’s Stadium—built in 1938 when amateur teams like the Seattle Indians and the Rainiers provided a distraction from the Great Depression—decayed as the decades wore on. It was finally demolished in 1979. The block it once occupied is now home to a Lowe’s home improvement store.

You can traverse the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and McClellan Street to the store’s entrance, where Rain City Hot Dogs operates a stand feet away from a plaque proclaiming the spot’s historical significance. “You are standing on the site of Sick’s Stadium,” a bronze slab reads. “If the year were 1942, you’d be in perfect position to knock one out of the park.” The home plate replica near this plaque tragically faces the wrong way. Nonetheless, from the imagined batter’s box, you can look out to center field and glimpse the future that Sick’s Stadium and the short-lived Pilots never saw: a faint glimpse of the Columbia Tower, built in 1985, on the eve of Seattle’s arrival as a center of technology and a city of the future.

Yet the past haunts—and it does so through baseball. Seattle history can be told as the story of three ballparks: the sleepy and endearing Sick’s Stadium of the pre-industrial period, the concrete grit and upstart charm of the Kingdome in the post-WWII years, and the ceaseless commercialism of Safeco Field at the turn of the millennium. Baseball is a repository for Seattle’s anxieties and aspirations, for its sense of exceptionalism, and also for its fear that little separates it from the second-tier of American cities it so loathes being compared to.

More than hot dogs or freshly cut grass, it’s the scent of imitation that follows all of these parks. Safeco Field was not sui generis, but a facsimile of the trend toward Yuppie Chic stadiums that started with Camden Yards and Jacobs Field in the earlier 1990s. The Kingdome was a worthy copy of the Astrodome, opened in 1965, but a copy nonetheless. And Sick’s Stadium was nothing if not the post-Fenway trinket of petty businessmen who believed that building even a modestly sized ballpark would inflate their status in a small community.

“You will be a big man in this city and you will sell lots of beer,” labor leader David Beck told booze magnate Emil Sick, convincing him to shell out $350,000 to construct the stadium that would carry his name.

Seattle did not stay in the pre-industrial slumber epitomized by Sick’s Stadium. Its ambition would not allow it. Nor would the energies of sundry ethnic groups who found a home here, nor the surviving Natives who continued making an imprint on the region, despite being tokenized by the names of amateur teams like the Seattle Indians and the Seattle Braves.

Unbeknownst to many, Native labor provided much of the forestry work needed to launch Boeing’s first crude experiments with aviation in the interwar period. And as the nation mobilized for a second World War and the Cold War that followed, Seattle’s political map was a mosaic of organized labor, strong local government and a growing middle class. Residents were sold on the idea that professional sports would announce the town’s arrival as a “world-class city”—a metropolis set above the Portlands and Fresnos and Boises of the world.

It was an act of public authorship—not, as is widely assumed, private enterprise—that constructed the Kingdome and brought the Seahawks, the Sounders, the Supersonics and the Mariners to town in the 1960s and ’70s. The teams were part of the same “Forward Thrust” package of bond measures that created the city’s public transit and sewer systems. We think of sports’ sweet escape from politics as an antidote to gridlock and division, but in an earlier period of American history, athletics were actually an expression of optimism—the artifact of a shared civic architecture and a functional democracy.

That all came to an end in the 1970s, as disloyal corporations like Boeing turned their backs on the delicate post-WWII consensus in search of deunionized labor and laxer taxes. In their stead, ballparks were posited as a post-industrial variant on traditional paths to socioeconomic solvency: They would “create the jobs,” “generate the revenue” and “build the excitement” that unions and public life used to. By building Safeco Field at taxpayer expense in the 1990s, Seattle was one of scores of cities that elected to go into debt for fallow fields of dreams in the arena of late capitalism.

The Seattle Mariners have existed through many of these epic transitions and tectonic historical shifts. From the start and consistently throughout, they’ve been losers, an embarrassment to a cripplingly self-aware city, and a non-competitive team in an economic climate obsessed with competition.

Named the Mariners in 1976, when Bellevue resident Roger Szmodis submitted the moniker to a contest held by the team’s directors, the team selected a primary logo—an upside-down trident forming an ‘M’—that was immediately perceived as a bad omen: In Greek mythology, Neptune the god of the seas never held his trident without the prongs in the air because it was considered bad luck. The Mariners opened their inaugural season April 6, 1977 with a 0–7 loss to the California Angels, on the way to a dreadful 64–98 season. Eerily, that was the same mark posted by the defunct Pilots during their single season in Seattle. For a decade while wearing the topsy-turvy trident as their logo, the Mariners never once finished remotely close to a winning record.

After voters approved the construction of the Kingdome in 1969, Seattle was subsequently awarded the Mariners when the city teamed with county and state government to sue the American League for breach of contract when the league relocated the Pilots. The American League has retaliated by summarily abusing the Mariners:

Of the 14 expansion teams in Major League Baseball history, the Mariners are the only AL team to never appear in a World Series. They have also gone the longest number of seasons without appearing in the playoffs (16). Despite a brief flash of brilliance in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, the team has been bad—so bad it averaged a change of managers every year and a half in the 2000s. Didn’t make an appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for 12 years bad. Only 13 winning seasons in 40 years bad. Very bad. Historically bad.

For the last decade, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks have represented the raging expression of Seattle’s long-suppressed ego: the terrifying triumph of sustained municipal passion multiplied by a century of shortcomings, equaling an erupting refusal to continue being the Cleveland of the West Coast. For four decades, the Mariners have been the precise opposite. They are a link back to the loser lifestyle of third- and fourth-place finishes to other towns in competitions for railroad terminuses in the colonial period, to the doldrums of the Great Depression when Sick’s Stadium was built, and ti when—as Roger Sale wrote in his landmark history of Seattle—“the bitter, depressed city had failed its earlier vision and gone quiet.”

All ambition is built on a fragile artifice of longing and hard labor that comes with no guarantees. And herein lies the value of being a Mariners fan. In a constantly connected world of social networking announcements, endless striving and the faint promise of upward mobility, the Mariners provide a respite from the burden of achievement.

The march to modernity has produced many amenities—most too good to give back and others that weren’t worth the cost. As a haunted (cursed?) team, the Mariners mock ambition. They make the city seem as quietly industrious yet content as it probably was before the Denny Party ever arrived here in November 1851, setting in motion the thing called Seattle, and all the cyclical action and pointless construction that has come with it. “Seattle is a haunted city,” historian Coll Thrush writes in his 2007 book Native Seattle. But the past can’t plague you if you never decide to run from it.

All the same, 40 years in the same wilderness is about enough. In the 2017 offseason, team management conducted transactions and trades at a furious pace, placing a gaggle of athletic gamers alongside an aging core of Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Nelson Cruz. Several prospectors have the team finishing somewhere in the playoff hunt at the start of their 40th season. Others have even encouraged fans to dream big—a dangerous notion for a squad that has known mostly nightmares. Misgivings aside, these are encouraging signs for the Mariners, and it’s an exciting time to be a Mariners fan.

For the team from the city by the sea, here’s to hoping life begins at 40. Here’s to hoping that 40 isn’t the new dead.