It’s Not the Park, It’s the GAME: A Kingdome Reminiscence

Photo credit: Blake Handley. CC-BY.

I moved to New York City, from Seattle, in the fall of 1995. I wasn’t around to see the Kingdome imploded on March 26, 2000. It would have broken my heart.

The last game I saw in 1995 was on October 10. I watched the Mariners defeat Cleveland 3 to 2 in game one of the League Championship Series. That series followed the American League Divisional Series in which the the Mariners took three straight from the Yankees in the Kingdome, after dropping two in Yankee Stadium, to win the series and move on to the American League championship against the Indians. Game five of that series was arguably the most exciting game ever played in Seattle. The Mariners came from behind to win in the 11th inning. A double by Edgar Martinez scored Joey Cora from second, and Ken Griffey Jr., in a mad dash around the bases from first, to win 6-5.

On October 11 I drove east in a rental truck with everything I owned inside. Inside the truck was seats, screen, projectors, and etc. from my Pike St. Cinema. That night in a bar in Wallace, Idaho I watched the Mariners lose to Cleveland. On October 17 I watched the end of the Mariners’ playoff run, a shut out loss in game six against Cleveland, in a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Soon after that I opened the Lighthouse Cinema on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side of New York.

During the next five years I would return to Seattle in the summer and take in a few games. It was different. The team was winning and the attendance was good. In 1996 they came in second in their division. In 1997 they won it. They reverted back to losing way the next two years but it didn’t matter. Baseball had been saved in Seattle and midway through the 1999 season they moved into Safeco Field.

So, what happened in the Kingdome in those days before the hallowed 1995 season, when for most of the season the Seattle fans stayed away in droves?

Photo credit: Joe Mabel. CC-BY-SA.

From the beginning of the Mariners in 1977 through the 1995 season I saw about fifty games a year in Seattle. While most of Seattle was staying away, I was watching major league baseball, including players who are now in the Hall of Fame. I wanted the Mariners to win and felt bad when they didn’t. I felt bad a lot. I would have felt worse if there had been no Kingdome and no major league baseball. I watched players come and players go. I watched shortstop Craig Reynolds turn into Spike Owen turn into Rey Quinones turn into Omar Vizquel. In that group was also Mario Mendoza establishing the “Mendoza line.” Everybody knows about the Mendoza Line. How many people got to watch him establish it?

During most the 1980’s the teams were bad and the attendance was worse. It didn’t matter to me. It was major league baseball. I would listen to fair weather fans complain about the Kingdome. They said it was charmless and cold. They said they’d watch baseball if there were an outdoor stadium. They were not real fans. A baseball fan will stop to watch a little league game. The ball park is not as important as the game.

There were some famous events I was there for: Lenny Randle blowing a ball foul, a feral cat drawing blood from an over-matched groundskeeper, Gaylord Perry winning his 300th game. I saw Willie Horton hit a home run over my head in the left field bleachers that passed through the grid work of a hanging speaker. I saw the 1979 All Star game. All that took was walking up, buying a ticket, and walking into the Kingdome. I saw many wondrous things. Here are some of my favorites.

In 1983 I attended the least attended game in Mariner history on September 28. The record book says 3,603. Maybe that was the total sales. It seemed many fewer showed up for the midweek game against Kansas City on a beautiful fall day when everyone else in Seattle was out on a boat, or hiking in a forest, or watching TV. Entering the bleacher seats the Kingdome air seemed tinged with red from the lights bouncing off all of the empty seats. Pat Putnam hit a first inning home run into the second deck in right center field. Many of the few fans hadn’t made it past the concession bars to take their seats. The ball hit the back of a bench with a clang that echoed through the near empty hall. There was no one seated within a sixty yards of where it landed. A large man with a decided limp seated in foul territory on the first base line left his chair to take the long lumbering walk to pick it up. He was half way to it when a kid seated even farther away thought he could beat the lumbering man to the ball. A third man got up at the same time and started walking in the same general direction. With ten yards to go the lumbering man heard the approaching footsteps of the kid. He picked up his pace. They both arrived at the spot at the same time. They couldn’t find the ball. While they were scrambling around looking the walking man arrived. He reached down, picked up the ball, put it in his pocket, and walked back to his seat. The lumbering man and kid were still looking for the ball when he sat down. They kept looking until a good Samaritan walked over to tell them their search was futile. The M’s lost 11 to 8. It was their 99th loss of the season.

Mark Langston was one of the few bright lights for the Mariners in the 80’s. 1984 was his rookie year. In the last game of the 1984 season I watched him strike out nine while beating future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. It was Langston’s 17th victory of the year. The strikeouts gave him 204, which led the league. He was named Rookie Pitcher of the Year in the American League by the Sporting News. That same year Alvin Davis was the American League Rookie of the Year. His 116 RBIs were the most by a rookie since Al Rosen had 116 in 1950. That final game was a piquant ending to a frustrating, but encouraging year, witnessed by fewer than 6,000 fans. With Langston and Davis the future looked bright.

USS Leahy (CG-16) in front of the Kingdome Stadium on 6 October 1982.
Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Harold J. Gerwien, U.S. Navy. CC0/Public domain.

Things were looking pretty gloomy earlier that year on August 25. During a 14-1 drubbing by the Yankees, Chuck Cottier made a lousy decision as a third base coach. Steve Henderson was a 32 year-old left fielder playing for his third major league team. In the fourth inning the Mariners were only trailing by four when Henderson hit a ball over the center fielder’s head. In most cases it would have been a triple. In this case the ball kicked off a corner in the center field wall and bounced past the approaching right fielder. Seeing that, Steve shifted into high as he rounded second. His form looked so good as he approached third that Cottier waved him around. The crowd rose in anticipation of an inside-the-park homer. Henderson was just past third when he just ran out of gas. He looked like a man running in sand. He looked like a mime doing an impersonation of slo-mo. The throw home beat him by fifteen feet. The catcher Rick Cerone could have read a newspaper article while waiting for him to finally stagger into the tag. Henderson collapsed on the plate and didn’t move for many seconds. I was relieved when he finally got up. I thought for a moment that he had died and they would have to remove him on a stretcher.

Cottier had broken one of the cardinal sins of third base coaching: Never make the second out at home. If Cottier had stopped him at third Henderson could have scored on a sac fly or ground out. To make that clear the next batter Jim Presley hit just such a grounder to Mike Pagriarlulo, who botched it for an error. Larry Melbourne then struck out to end the inning. Steve Henderson must have still been tired when a fly was hit to him the next inning that he dropped it for an error.

That glaring example of bad coaching by Cottier was not his first. Previously he had made many bad decisions, either holding players at third when they could have scored, or sending them along to certain doom. On June 17, 1985 Mariners’ manager Del Crandall was fired. Chuck Cottier was promoted to replace him. Some of us in the bleachers were sure that the only reason Cottier got the job was to keep him from doing more damage as the third base coach.

On May 7. 1986 the Red Sox came to town. It was always annoying when either the Yankees or Red Sox came to town because legions of their fans would show up, probably the only time they did all year, and often the loudest cheers in those games were for the away team. If you look up that game you might think it was just another lopsided loss with the Sox drubbing the M’s 11-4, their 16th loss in 20 games. The fireworks started in the first inning when Cottier was tossed for arguing an interference ruling. In the fifth inning Dave Henderson homered off Al Nipper. Kearney then struck out. Spike Owen followed with a base hit. Nipper hit Phil Bradley on the bill of batting helmet. Bradley charged the mound and got there in what looked like record time. Spike Owen also got a great jump off first. He and Phil arrived at Nipper at the same time. Spike landed on Nipper’s back as Phil collided with Nipper from the front. Then both benches emptied with Nipper, Phil and Spike ending up at the bottom of the pile. Phil was ejected for that altercation along with the Sox catcher Rich Gedman. Bill Buckner for the Red Sox was ejected the next inning. Chuck Cottier got fired the next day.

Three years later on May 21, 1989 the Yankees beat the M’s 6-2 In the 9th inning of that loss a very unusual thing happened. Roberto Kelly was playing center field for the Yankees. The inning started with Phil Bradley hitting a single. Ken Griffey Jr. followed with a wicked, sinking line drive. Roberto sprinted to it and dove. The ball short hopped over his outstretched glove and caromed off of his head. When the ball was hit left fielder Ricky Henderson ran toward Roberto. The ricocheting ball shot past Ricky going the opposite direction. His momentum carried him well past Roberto who lay on the turf seemingly knocked unconscious. The ball rolled into foul ground and nestled under the relief pitchers’ bench near the left field foul pole. By the time the shortstop reached it Griffey had scored standing up with an inside the park home run. In the box score it looked like an average two run homer. The losing pitcher that day was the 1984 hero Mark Langston. Four days later he was traded to Montreal.

Sometime in the mid 1980’s in a mid-week game against the Red Sox, during the seventh inning stretch, Jim Rice was minding his own business in left field, while everyone sang “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” A man of about thirty, in a light blue business suit, hopped over the short fence in the left field corner and ambled out to where Jim was standing. The man stuck out his hand and Jim shook it. They then stood there and chatted like two guys who happen to meet on a street corner. When the fielders threw in the practice balls and the catcher threw the ball down to second, the man gave a little wave goodbye, ambled back into foul territory, over the fence and sat down in his seat. There he sat for the next two innings. It wasn’t till half way through the ninth that two security guards walked down to him and escorted him out. After the game we rushed to my car to listen to the post game report. We hoped that Rick Rizzs and Dave Niehaus would have Jim Rice on the show to ask him about the man. We weren’t disappointed. Dave asked Jim if the man was a friend. Jim said he’d never seen him before. Dave then asked him why he shook his hand. Jim said “When he came running toward me, stuck out his hand, and there wasn’t a gun in it, I was so relieved that I shook it.”

Many of my favorite memories of the Kingdome occurred during batting practice. At the Kingdome the doors opened two hours before game time. If you got there early you could watch the end of the Mariners’ batting practice and all of the opposition’s. That is still the case today at Safeco. In all other respects it was different then. There was no loud music playing. In fact there was no music at all except for the crack of the bat against ball and the clang when a ball struck a seat. Of course fans who came early would bring their mitts with the intent purpose of catching all those balls before they hit chairs.

Because there was no music the fans were able to talk to the players. Johnny Moses would often come out to left field and talk to an older couple who were there in the same bleacher seats every game. Bob Kearney and Mike Stanton would stand and talk against the right field fence. When a ball would roll out to them they would toss it some nearby child. You could watch masterful fungo hitters, including old Jimmie Reese who had been Babe Ruth’s roommate with the Yankees in 1930, hit perfectly placed pop flies to outfielders who needed work on such things. Pitchers would shag balls in the outfield, or sometimes just stand out there in twos or threes and talk. Ed VandeBerg was one pitcher who loved to run down long fly balls. He could also jump. He practiced over and over trying to catch balls that would just clear the left field fence. He would race to the wall and jump, grab the top of the wall with his left (pitching) hand, hoist himself up and thrust his mitt above the wall to snag the ball. It usually didn’t work, but he did catch a few. It was nothing I ever saw a fielder attempt in a real game.

The best part of batting practice was catching balls hit into the stands. With the team built for jacking home runs, the cozy dimensions, and the lack of fans, catching balls was fun and easy. Since there was no music playing interesting things could happen. One day with Kansas City in town I was having a great day catching balls in the left field bleachers. I had made seven clean catches using a vintage 1940’s Wilson “Ball Hawk” three finger glove. I was putting a just caught ball into my blue zipper give away Mariner bag when I heard the few fans around me start laughing. I asked the nearest guy what was so funny. He told me that Willie Wilson had just dropped a ball after a long run. Willie was still near the fence so I yelled down to him “Hey Willie, I missed that. Could you do it again around eight o’clock (which would have been around the third inning)?” I’m not sure what Willie heard, but whether it was what I had said or he thought it was a reference to his drug arrest, it really ticked him off. He turned his back to the infield and started yelling at me. He challenged me to come down to the field to face him man to man. I asked if that was to compare our ball hawking prowess. He just repeated his rant. I told him that if I came down on the field I would be thrown out of the park and would miss the whipping the Mariners were going to lay on them. He didn’t give up. I finally told him that I had nothing to prove by going down on the field. I had made seven catches hopping over seats and I hadn’t dropped one. He finally walked away muttering.

Photo credit: Ron Clausen. CC-BY-SA.

I will admit it wasn’t nice of me to berate Willie Wilson. I can also tell you Willie had a great memory. Every time the Royals would come to town he would look for me at batting practice and yell at me. This continued after he was traded to Oakland in 1991. It only stopped when he was traded to the National League Cubs in 1993 and no longer appeared in American League parks I wonder if I showed up at an old timers’ game if he would still be mad at me. Just last year my friend Carl Harms, who I met during batting practice in 1984, met Willie in spring training. Carl asked Willie if he remembered me. Willie asked if I’d stood in right center. Willie then got a hard look in his eye. Carl then told him I was a good guy. The hard look softened and Willie autographed the ball to me.

Catching balls in the stands had other dangers. One of them was the presence of very large men who didn’t come out very often and didn’t know the protocol. The protocol was simple. Don’t knock anyone down when going for a ball. Some people just didn’t get this and more than once I was camped under a towering fly and the next thing I knew I was several feet away sprawled out on a bleacher. The only time I was injured was strictly a fluke. Phil Bradley hit a line shot that was coming right to me like a laser beam. I stuck my mitt out and waited for it to arrive. A young man a few rows below me, with no mitt, leaped into the air extending his bare hand. He must have just gotten a finger on it. It was just enough to change the flight of the ball by a degree. It was just enough to send it over the top of my mitt. It was not enough to send it over my head. It struck me squarely in the middle of my forehead and bounced away from me where some other fan grabbed it. An usher was soon at my side asking if I needed medical attention. I was woozy but I wasn’t bleeding. I walked around until my head was completely cleared and then resumed chasing balls.

The best thing about the Kingdome was the camaraderie among the regular fans who inhabited the bleachers. Most of us got to know each other during batting practice. We would all sit together during the games. There were no assigned seats in the bleachers. It was first come, first served. We would normally sit in the same seats for every game. Our core group totaled about fifteen. Sometime in the 1990’s they made all of the lower bleachers assigned seats. This was to create a reason to raise the price. It made sitting with your friends difficult. Some of the friends moved away. One of them died. By the time I moved away the group of ten years earlier had largely dissipated.

Going to a ball game then was the perfect place for a date. It was quiet and you could either talk or watch the game. It was much better than sitting silently through a movie or talking with your mouth full over an expensive restaurant meal. When I go back to Seattle these days I try to catch a Mariner game in Safeco Field. It is a beautiful park and a lovely place to be on a pleasant summer evening. I usually go with friends I met in the Kingdome during batting practice. In one important way it is not as comforatble as the Kingdome. It is difficult to have a conversation there. During batting practice and between innings booming music plays. There is also always something on the Jumbotron including audience involving inanities such as the hat trick and the hydroplane race. Canned music is even played during the inning to introduce batters or to rev up the audience. You normally have to shout to be heard by the person seated next to you.

Kingdome and Seattle skyline, c. 1978. Photo: King County Archives. CC-BY-NC-ND

On July 31, 1989 I was sitting with five friends I had met in the Kingdome in the left-center bleachers watching the M’s play the California Angels. The hopeful season had started in April with the M’s losing ten out of their first fifteen games and at the end of July they were safely in next to last place with fans staying away in droves. Through seven innings nothing unusual had happened. Mike Witt, who a couple of years earlier had finished third in the AL Cy Young voting, was shutting out the M’s. The M’s starting pitcher, Scott Bankhead, who would never finish anywhere near the top in Cy Young voting, had struggled through five innings. Things would have been better if the Angels batters hadn’t homered three times during Mr. Bankhead’s evening of work. Things would have been a lot better if a few days earlier Ken Griffey Jr. hadn’t punched a wall and broke a bone in his right hand. Officially he had suffered the injury after slipping in the shower. Yeah, right, just like Jeff Kent a few years later broke his wrist washing his truck. Anyway, Griffey was now on the disabled list and the M’s were losing yet one more game on their way to their thirteenth straight losing season. Well, that hadn’t kept Carl, Chuck, Alice, Lyle, Bernie and me from attending and enjoying being together watching Major League baseball.

Alvin Davis singled off Witt to open the bottom of the eighth. That ended Witt’s appearance. Greg Minton, once a star reliever who received MVP votes two seasons in a row in the early eighties with SF, was brought in to shut the door. Instead he walked Darnell Coles, gave up a single to Scott Bradley and then, with the bases loaded, gave up a single to Mike Kingery. That plated Davis and Coles, and gave the M’s at least a moral victory by ending theshutout. Dave Valle signaled a return to normalcy by grounding out to third. Instead of just throwing in the towel, Dave Cochrane was sent up to pinch hit. He promptly doubled off the fence, scoring Bradley and Kingery, ending up standing on second as the possible tying run. All of a sudden there was a buzz in the ballpark, and although we had been disappointed so many times before, we collectively hoped we might be witnessing a very rare come from behind victory. Jim Presley was sent up to pinch hit. In Presley’s second season in 1985 he had hit 28 homers. Each year since his homer total had lessened. Pitchers had discovered he could not lay off a slider in the dirt. The flamethrower Bryan Harvey, rookie pitcher of the year the previous season, was sent in to put out the fire. Apparently Mr. Harvey had not read the scouting report. Instead of throwing sliders in the dirt he decided to conquer Presley with straight heat. With the count 3 and 1, Harvey grooved a fastball. When the ball left Presley’s bat I could hear in my mind Dave Niehaus in the broadcast booth shouting “Swung on and belted!” I watched the flight of the ball as it left the park. As it came close I put up my mitt and caught it. I was pummeled by Carl, Chuck, Alice, Lyle and Bernie. At least on that night there was joy in Mudville, or more correctly, the Kingdome.

For most of Mariner history in the Kingdome there was a live organ. The best organ player was a man named Dick Kimble. Dick apparently knew thousands of old songs. He could tailor a song to any occasion or player. When Gentleman Joe Simpson played for the M’s Dick would introduce him with the song “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia.” When an opposing pitcher was knocked out of the game he would play “April Showers,” or maybe “I’ll Be Seeing You.” During a game when a heated discussion was being held between Manager Dick Williams and an umpire I heard a soothing melody being played. It took me a minute to recognize it. It finally came to me: it was a nice, mostly forgotten song from 1931: “Can’t We Talk it Over.”

That song summed up the Kingdome. It was a place to watch major league baseball where you could talk the game over with your friends. It was a place for fans who appreciated the game. It was an ugly building that I loved. I miss it.

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Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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