It’s a cold, miserable gray day, which is fitting given the reason we are all congregating together.
I’m not sure what to expect when I park my car in the Mariners lot south of the stadium, walk down the stairs, and cross the street to the southwest corner of the stadium.
We’ve all been to this place a hundred times, but never with our heads full of these emotions or these thoughts. We’ve never entered this place without knowing what to expect, or not knowing how to act.
It doesn’t take very long to realize this is going to be a tough environment to maintain composure. Right at the front gate, a small memorial has been created. Notes and flowers from fans, a few rye bread, salami and mustard sandwiches, and some handwritten notes from fans to Dave Niehaus, the man they are here to pay respects to. There’s a large posterboard from Seattle’s biggest fan, Big Lo, “I put away the Mustard, I put away the rye, I put away my Mariners shirt, and now the My oh My. Thank you Dave. You will be missed.”
It’s hard to stare too long at any one item, or even the shrine, for fear of losing it. And so I go inside the stadium, foolishly thinking it could possibly be less emotional inside the actual temple of the game itself.
Inside it’s dark, and just as cold. The roof is closed. There’s really only one thing to see – the line. A single file line starts at home plate, extends on the edge of the field parallel to the first base line, makes a right turn at 1st base and heads up to the concourse, where it makes another right turn and goes back toward home plate, then down the 3rd base concourse, and all the way down to left field.
The crowd is made up of fans of all ages. 60 year olds who saw the first game in the Kingdome, 7 year olds who don’t know why their parents have brought them. Men, women, couples, they are all represented.
The place is pretty quiet – it’s hard to talk when you are biting on your lip. You hear a few memories being shared. But mostly we all just wait in line. It gives us a lot of time to reflect. There’s no rationale for the 2 hours we’ll meander in line, just to get a few seconds in front of a makeshift memorial at home plate.
But this death is bigger than a memorial for a single man, a single icon. It’s an inflection point in the lives of all baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest. Baseball is unique, because when we walk in a stadium to watch a lousy 2010 Mariners team, we’re not really there for Michael Saunders. We’re there to remember and share stories about the time we saw Ken Griffey’s first Mariners at bat, or when we jumped fences to get out of the $3.00 General Admission section, or when we ignored our dates the last 3 innings of Randy Johnson’s no-hitter.
When we weren’t at the game, listening to Dave reminded us that we needed to get back to the stadium soon, that we were missing out by doing whatever else we were doing.
But more importantly, listening to Dave put us back in a place when it was ok to bring our glove to the game. Because we listened to Dave when a 7pm game meant having your mom pick up your 3 friends at 4pm so we could be there for batting practice at 5pm.
And so now we’ll have two eras – Dave and Post-Dave. The Post-Dave era begins now, a definitive moment on a timeline that we hoped would be infinite. We all had to grow up a little while we stood in that line. For folks my age, our baseball grandfather had passed away. The connection between us and the grand old stories of baseball past.
We don’t get to pretend we’re young anymore. The grand old stories of the past now include 1995, Gaylord Perry and Diego Segui, and we’ve suddenly become the caretakers of them. We’re not learners anymore, we’re teachers, and I’m not sure I was ready for that switch.
But back to Safeco for a moment, where nearly 2 hours after beginning my trip in line, I get to the makeshift shrine. It has some fantastic pieces of history, including the scorebook from the first game, and Dave’s Hall of Fame plaque. And I don’t know what to do. Do I take a picture? Do I smile? What’s the respectful thing to do? what I want to do is just stand and absorb everything I’m feeling, and channel it into some sort of productive emotion. But there are another 1000 people behind me in line, so I have but seconds, not the hours I would need.
Dave’s family stands next to the shrine, along with his long-time broadcast partner Rick Rizzs. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to stand there for 4 hours and shake hands with 3,500 people you’ve never met, all of whom want to share the pain of your loss, even though they’ve never met the man themselves. It must be the most complex, insane, yet gratifying feeling to see how many people cared about a person you were so close to.
The whole of the two hours was too much for me, and while I don’t break down inside the stadium, the sheer force of trying to control those emotions probably wrecks my psyche for a week. But it is clear I am not alone in my struggles. Everywhere I look, grown men are looking away at walls or the ceiling, in an obvious attempt to hide their wet eyes from their wives, sons and grandkids. Women are more willing to let the tears flow.
And then it is time to leave. I want to stay longer, because the next time I enter the stadium it will feel different. It won’t be the same safe house from my memories, and all connection to the Kingdome will be lessened. The next time I come in, it will be someone else’s house, with a different spirit, a different feel.
Eventually, reluctantly, slowly, I walk out of the stadium. I pass the shrine again. And I cross the street without looking back.