John McGrath

Tradition or a middle reliever? Long live Safeco Field!

As iconic as this sign in left field is, it will be going away after the 2018 season.
As iconic as this sign in left field is, it will be going away after the 2018 season. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In what amounted to a statement I translated as “20 Years, Who Cares?” the Mariners announced Tuesday that the ballpark we know as Safeco Field won’t be known as Safeco Field beyond next season.

The team already has initiated “preliminary talks” for a new naming rights deal likely to be struck with a corporate partner based in the Seattle area. Early suggestions are flooding the blogosphere, and I’m not encouraged.

Starbucks Grounds? (It’s from the scrap heap and, besides, associating Starbucks with a Seattle sports franchise would be – borrowing here from Humphrey Bogart’s “Casablanca” retort to Ingrid Bergman about Paris – bad salesmanship.)

Microsoft Park? (A bit dull, but at least it would provide some exposure for a quaint business operation’s obscure brand name.)

Amazon Park? (Ditto.)

Boeing Field? (One is enough.)

Alaska Airlines Stadium? (Good luck enticing free agents to play 81 home games in a ballpark associated with any aspect of Alaska.)

Here’s a thought: Upon the conclusion of the Mariners’ current naming rights deal with Safeco Insurance, call the ballpark “Safeco Field.”

It won’t happen, as pro sports franchises generally aren’t amenable to giving away what can be sold. For the Mariners, collecting a few million bucks a year means more than preserving the name of a place a full generation of fans has come to recognize as a destination point.

Sponsorship deals expire; new sponsorship deals are made. Safeco Field becomes Fill-In-Another-Corporate-Name Field and life goes on, posing only a slight inconvenience for those of us destined to struggle with the transition.

And yet some baseball owners have left money on the table – big money, billions rather than millions – in fear of the backlash they’d face by replacing the iconic name of a ballpark with a bland one.

Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field: If the owners sell those names, they’re cliff diving into troubled waters and swimming at their own risk.

The Cubs, for instance, are halfway through a four-year plan to bring Wrigley Field into the 21st century. Massive video boards now hover over the outfield bleachers. A boutique hotel, adjacent to the park, is under construction, radically altering the intimate neighborhood ambiance.

Controversies have ensued with every phase of the renovation. But changing the century-old name of the park itself? No way.

Although Safeco Field has little of Wrigley Field’s tradition, it has a tradition. The “Safeco Field” logo sign in left field, illuminated to accentuate its art deco splendor, exudes warmth on the coldest of spring nights.

A new naming rights contact means the sign must come down, and I wonder whether whatever deal the Mariners decide upon will be worth it. Safeco Insurance paid the team $40 million for a 20-year association with one of America’s most critically acclaimed ballparks, or about $2 million a season.

General managers offer $2 million contracts to relief pitchers confined to a set-up role. The Mariners recently paid $11 million for one season of Yovani Gallardo, a fifth starter who is 3-6, with a 6.11 ERA.

The average salary for a big-league player in 2017 is $4.7 million. It’s a bit misleading – huge contracts to the superstars spike the figure – but still: The average is $4.7 million.

There is no way the Mariners will command $4.7 million a season for the naming rights of their ballpark. If the Mariners manage $3 million a season from the new deal, front-office executives will pump fists and possibly participate in a conga line.

Does any of this make sense?

Since 1999, the Seattle Mariners have been occupants of a beautiful home, a home called Safeco Field. And while I was indifferent to that name at first glance, the name has grown on me over the years.

Changing the name will help offset the annual cost of acquiring a journeyman outfielder, or backup catcher, or middle reliever.

Hoo boy.

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