The wonderful irony of the mushrooming Maple Grove cheering section for Mariners pitcher James Paxton is that it sprouted from gently anti-Canadian roots.
Daniel Carroll, a Seattle resident, is a season-ticketholder who chafed at the annual cross-border invasion of Toronto fans for the Blue Jays’ series in June at Safeco Field.
Carroll planned to heckle those fans and now admits: "I kind of just wanted bodyguards." The initial group included Hillary Kirby, a graphics designer from Ferndale. But with Paxton, a Canadian, scheduled to pitch, a idea blossomed.
"We wanted it to be like King’s Court but not King’s Court," Kirby said. "We didn’t want to dishonor Felix (Hernandez). We were trying to figure out what to call it. We came up with Maple Grove."
The name comes from Paxton sporting a big maple leaf tattoo on his right arm.
Next, the group wanted to distinguish itself from other fans.
It turned to Kirby.
"She had the energy to come up with the signs for Maple Grove and the `eh’ cards," Carroll said. "We have four or five people here who are really high energy and super into getting into the chants and just having a rocking time."
Kirby turned the group’s rough ideas into tangible items.
"I was like, `OK, how big of a sign do we think we want to make a statement?’" she recalled. "`Is 10-by-3 too big?’ Everybody was like, `No! Make it.’ The `eh’ cards were the first thing we came up with."
The group chants "eh" whenever Paxton gets two strikes on a batter, much like the King’s Court chants "K" whenever Hernandez gets two strikes on a batter.
The big difference is the King’s Court is organized by the Mariners with a specific section and special ticket prices. The "K" signs are part of the package.
The Maple Grove is a grass-roots operation.
"We’re up there in the left-field bleachers (for the Toronto game)" Carroll said, "and there’s like five or six or eight of us who are at the game. But we have some extra cards, and we’ve started spreading them out.
"There’s six or eight extra people. So all of sudden, we’ve got 15 or 20 who are all chanting, `eh, eh, eh!’"
The group had a second outing earlier this month, but it really took off Monday night when Paxton pitched seven shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over Boston. The group attracted media attention and, more important, Paxton noticed.
"It was definitely bigger tonight," he said, "and they had the maple tree out there, which was really cool. I’ve got to meet them."
That comment led to an on-field meeting Tuesday between Paxton and several Maple Grovers after the Mariners completed batting practice.
"Thank you, guys," Paxton greeted them. "Glad you got the tree."
One mystery solved is how members of the group smuggled a potted maple tree into their section. Well…they didn’t. Gregg Greene, the club’s senior director of marketing, stoked the group’s efforts by putting it there for them.
"I walk into ballpark and go upstairs after grabbing a beer," Carroll said, "and there’s a tree. Gregg is hanging out with a tree. I couldn’t do anything but cackle."
Carroll has been in contact occasionally with Greene, which is how Tuesday’s on-field meeting with Paxton took place. Mostly, though, the Maple Grove operates through its members.
"We’ve been organizing this on twitter," Carroll said. "In the organization group, there’s like 25. About 20-23 of us have actually been to one of these games so far. We keep adding more to the group.
"We’re getting to the point where we might do a group-ticket thing and get the discount."
Kirby added: "I designed T-shirts. They’re ordered, but they’re not here yet. We’re trying to make it as big as possible. It’s obviously not official. I tweet out what section we’re going to be in."
The group already has tickets for Paxton’s next start Sunday against the New York Mets.
"We’re going to be in (section) 182 next to 183, on that aisle," Carroll said. "We’ve got the last two rows with the first five seats. We’re going to pack that area pretty good, I think."
Anyone is welcome.
"That’s what we want," Kirby said. "We want it to be as big as possible. It makes going to the game a lot of fun."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners