The Washington Post published an article involving the Mariners last week. This was unusual. Between the club’s lackluster start and the tendency of many East Coast pundits to see the Pacific Northwest as an isolated region 3,000 miles removed from relevance, Seattle’s big-league baseball team is not an obvious subject for a national story .
Then again, the Post story was not about baseball or the team. The story was about the introduction of toasted grasshoppers as a Safeco Field concession item. It seems the bugs are all the rage — 18,000 were sold during the Mariners’ first three home games — despite (or, perhaps, because of) the perception that digesting an insect is totally gross.
A bromide holds that any publicity is good publicity, and while assorted politicians, celebrities and United Airlines shareholders might dispute the notion, there’s some truth to it. The Seattle Mariners were not on the national radar screen when the season opened, and now, thanks to toasted grasshoppers, they’re on the national radar screen.
That sports fans across America are talking about something associated with Safeco Field is an encouraging development, I suppose, but it also frustrates me. In my version of a perfect world, sports fans across America are talking about the powerhouse team that plays baseball in Safeco Field.
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Since their last playoff appearance in 2001, the Mariners have trudged through an up-and-down cycle with fewer ups than downs. The strength of the organization, the arm that consistently delivers, is a superior marketing department.
No franchise in baseball — in pro sports, for that matter — is better at entertaining fans not prone to scribble a dozen pitching changes on a scorecard. Openers with red-carpet introductions, giveaways of cool souvenirs that are legitimately collectible, clever TV ads, imaginative audience-participation events between innings: The Mariners do all this with the polished flair of a Las Vegas show.
And yet I keep daydreaming about that perfect world where I’m sitting next to a stranger in an airport bar during a layover, say, in Denver, and the small talk — “Where are you from? Where are you going?” — evolves into something like this:
Stranger: “Your trip began at Sea-Tac?”
Stranger: “How ’bout those Mariners?”
At which point the discussion turns to the dominance of the starting rotation, the depth of the lights-out bullpen, the versatility of a lineup combining power and speed, and all the hopes awaiting a first-place team destined to compete through October.
The only grasshoppers we talk about are chilled, served in a shot glass.
Stranger: “Want one? I’ll buy.”
Me: “I’m on a fully booked United flight, so thank you very much. You get the first, and I’ll get the next three.”
There’s no chance Denver-airport strangers will talk about the Mariners’ success on the field any time soon, but a 16-year playoff drought is not a death sentence. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Chicago Cubs, who went 72 years between World Series appearances, relied on Wrigley Field as their marketing anchor.
A ticket to a Cubs home game once offered nothing more than a quirky-ballpark experience, a party disguised as a contest. And then they won, won it all, and the emphasis shifted from the party to the contest.
Aside from the lights enabling the Cubs to play at night, the Wrigley Field scene in 2016 was little different than it was in 1966. But there was urgency in the air, genuine tension, enhancing an already festive mood.
The Mariners’ marketing department has no peers. It assures fans will enjoy every aspect of baseball theater but the happy ending.
The Washington Post reporting on what’s happening at Safeco Field, before the season is two weeks old, can be interpreted as the ultimate compliment.
One of these years — speaking here as a daydream believer — the Post will report on all that’s happening at Safeco Field between the foul lines.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath