(Photo by Associated Press)
It was a great night at Safeco Field tonight — one of the best I can remember in a long, long time. In fact, the buzz, the electricity, the festive atmosphere reminded me of the good old days of 2001, when the Mariners ruled the town and Safeco Field was THE place to be.
They filled the ballpark almost every night back then, but over the years, attendance has plummeted, and Mariner fever has been replaced by anger and cynicism. That’s what happens when you put up losing seasons year after year, and run out teams without much charisma or, in some cases, character. Not to mention bereft of talent.
It would be naive to say that one winning streak means the Mariners are back, or that one packed ballpark means that fans have bought back into The Plan. But I’ve felt for awhile, even amidst they cynicism, that Mariners fans are hungry to fall back in love with their team. And it just feels to me that Felix Hernandez’s perfect game was the sort of galvanizing moment that this fan base has been craving. Throw in the fact that the Mariners are the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break, and you have the ingredients for a magic night like tonight.
In recent years, the bigger crowds have been the result of Opening Day, or a large percentage of people coming to see opponents like the Yankees, Red Sox or Giants. But tonight, it was about saluting Hernandez, and hitching on to a team that brought a six-game winning streak into the game,a nd made it seven.
Credit the Mariners for doing it up right with the “Supreme Court” promotion (and I’m told that even though the crowd of 39,204 was about 5,000 over the promised giveaway of 34,000 shirts, they anticipated the surge and spent all day printing up shirts to accomodate just about everyone). And it helped that the Mariners didn’t lay an egg. They played crisp baseball, with several “Web Gem” highlights, Felix fired a gem (not a perfecto, but one of the best perfect game followups in history), and the offense exploded in the seventh. Jesus Montero’s three-run homer ignited the sort of visceral roar that I’ve heard in other parks frequently, but hadn’t heard here for a long time.
I had arrived at the park a little later than normal tonight because I had some things to attend to. At 5:30, when I pulled up, I could already feel a different sort of energy, not like anything I’ve seen this season, or in any recent season. And that energy never subsided until the last out of the game.
Will it last, or is it just a tease, the result of a once-in-a-lifetime pitching performance, by Hernandez and a mirage of a hot streak? We’ll find out soon enough. For now, it’s good enough that for one night, Seattle was a baseball town again.