It had been 12 years since the last time I headed to the Lower 48 to watch a major league baseball game, but with Juneau's Chad Bentz pitching for the Montreal Expos last weekend in Seattle I figured it was time to take another trip south.
The last time I saw the Mariners play live, they were still using the Kingdome, that now-destroyed concrete mausoleum of a ballpark that also hosted the Seahawks. The pitching matchup for that game between the Mariners and the Texas Rangers was supposed to be Randy Johnson versus Nolan Ryan, just to give you an idea how long ago it had been.
Anyway, when I walked into Safeco Field before the Expos-Mariners series opener on Friday, June 11, one of my first thoughts was they'd built a cathedral for a kids' game in Seattle. After five years in Juneau, where the fields are true sandlots, and 30 years living in Anchorage where baseball fields usually are full of divots, just seeing the lush green grass was an experience.
The press box had nearly as many seats as Juneau's Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park, and the press dining room sold a salmon dinner for $10, not much more than the price of a soda in the stands.
Both the Expos and Mariners were struggling when they entered the series, with the Mariners not having scored a run for 29 innings when they finally won the series opener 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning. That shutout started a 23-inning runless streak for the Expos, who scored just one run in the three-game series sweep by Seattle.
The Mariners had fallen on such hard times, the lead story in the Life section of last Friday's Seattle Times was "What to do when the Mariners are in the cellar."
Friday's game was a nice pitching duel between Seattle's Ryan Franklin and Montreal's Livan Hernandez, with two Mariners thrown out at the plate before Seattle won the game. But the crowd was pretty dead. During the top of the fifth inning, a chant of "Let's go Expos" could be heard and the loudest cheer of the game before Seattle's ninth-inning rally was for the Hydro Challenge, a computer-generated series of hydroplane races shown on the scoreboard during the seventh-inning stretch.
The Mariners still are one of Japan's favorite teams, especially with outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and relief pitcher Shigetoshi Hasagawa on the roster, and there remains a large Japanese press corps following Mariner games. But during the games I noticed at least two Japanese TV crew members were playing solitaire on their computers.
While one of my reasons for using vacation time to visit Seattle was to watch Bentz get to pitch in the majors, he wasn't the only player I watched develop their skills in Alaska.
Bentz, a 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate who pitched for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots in 1999 and 2000, was one of several former Alaska Leaguers involved in the series. I grew up watching the Alaska League, and covered the league for the Anchorage Times and later for Baseball America. Over the past 40 years the Alaska League - a summer program for college all-stars - has had about 600 of its former players eventually reach the major leagues.
The Mariners had several former Alaska Leaguers on the roster - first baseman John Olerud (Palouse Empire Cougars of Pullman, Wash., and Kenai Peninsula Oilers, 1987-88), second baseman Bret Boone (Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, 1988), shortstop Rich Aurilia (Kenai Peninsula Oilers, 1990), relief pitcher Eddie Guardado (Anchorage Glacier Pilots, 1990) and even first base coach Mike Aldrete (Cook Inlet Bucs, now the Anchorage Bucs, 1982).
"A lot of guys played baseball in Alaska," Guardado said as the Mariner relief pitchers beat the starting pitchers in a home run derby before Saturday's game. "Alaska was one of my best baseball experiences. Sharon Woods was my host parent and I still keep in touch with her. I had a great time, a great experience."
There also were a couple of former Alaska Leaguers in the stands, including Philadelphia Phillies scout Tim Kissner (Anchorage Glacier Pilots, 1991-92 as a player and 1998 as a coach) and Bob Boone (Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, 1966-68).
Kissner, a JDHS grad, was in town to watch Bentz pitch. Boone, a 19-year major league catcher and a former major league manager, was in town to watch his son, Bret, play for the Mariners. My family didn't arrive in Alaska in time for me to see Bob Boone play. But I did get to see Boone's younger brother Rod play for the Goldpanners in 1971 (Rod played in 1969-71) and I got to see his sons Bret and Aaron (Anchorage Glacier Pilots, 1992) in action.
"It was great, the people and the lifestyle," Bob Boone said of his Alaska experience. "We worked all day, played baseball at night, then we'd go fishing."
Bentz only got to pitch once during the weekend, throwing 1 2/3 innings of shutout ball in Saturday's 3-0 loss to the Mariners, getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning. But it was enough to give some 50-100 current and former Juneau residents like myself the thrill of seeing a local kid make it to the major leagues.
As for getting back down to Seattle for another game, I'll have to do it more than once every 12 years.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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