September 22, 2016
Players Prefer Presentation
Short-Season Baseball With A Third Deck
It happened because sometimes in Everett it rains in September, and the night Game One of the Northwest League’s Northern Division title series was supposed to be played was one of those sometimes. The AquaSox couldn’t play the Spokane Indians as scheduled. Instead, they met on a home field, of sorts, a few days later, skipping southward and forward in time to play at Safeco on a cool Friday evening. And it was baseball, just not baseball as I was used to seeing it there.
You don’t realize how many people actually pack in for a major-league game on a random September night until you've attended a short-season playoff game in a big-league park, when all the seats are general admission and the crowd comfortably fits between the dugouts. Each foul ball clanged loudly in the stands; chants of player names generated tepid enthusiasm, but their echoes and volume were met with nervous glances normally worn at golf tournaments. Few of the jerseys bore familiar names; only a few concession stands hawked refreshments. The anonymity of a big-league crowd was absent; most of the fans knew one another. Even the usual reserve of the security team was lacking.
Host families gathered close to the “home” dugout, settling into seats a few rows back before realizing their general admission tickets could get them closer. A few teenage boys marched confidently down the aisles, almost flying, delighting in their unfamiliar freedom. Grade-schoolers hopped between seats wearing backpacks that looked too heavy, with plush AquaSox frogs clipped to the zippers of each pocket. A few of Spokane’s infielders took grounders during batting practice. They misplayed more than a few, booting balls off the heel of their glove, or missing them entirely. The Mariners were playing in Oakland that night; their score joined the others on the out-of-town scoreboard in left field. Jerry Dipoto, toothy and intently focused, sat behind home plate, providing a minor bit of theatre within the larger drama; watching him watch the proceedings was like a ballet company’s artistic director sitting just off stage, assessing the worthiness of the Corps.
The stadium DJ played all the usual warmup songs, only they marked slightly different beats. Where normally the videoboard would show a montage of the prior night’s heroics, it simply displayed the logos of each team, leaving the jolts and grain of minor-league highlight reels to much smaller displays. The familiar THUMP THUMP THUMP of dubstep announcing the day’s lineup still THUMP THUMP THUMPed, but Robinson Cano didn’t come bounding out of the dugout. Luis Terrero lined out sharply to Nick Zammarelli, the AquaSox third baseman, to end the top of the first inning, and when he did, “Hawt Corner” blared. The song, written to honor Kyle Seager’s 2014 Gold Glove award as much as hairband parodies can, normally denotes an exceptional play by the Mariners third baseman. Here, it was enough that the play was good, if unspectacular.
While many in the crowd were Mariners fans in a vague sort of way, their experience of baseball was much closer, much more local, than that. These were AquaSox fans. Their allegiance is to a smaller unit of government. Their concern is these boys as they are now rather than as they might be when they’re fully cooked, ranging around in bodies that look like Major League bodies and doing the things that Major League bodies can do.
The normal beats of a major-league park exposed the gaps in minor-league play rather than covering them up. The mix of the familiar and foreign was jarring. These were not Seattle Mariners, and most of them never will be. They were playing baseball that was recognizable as such, only it felt a little different. There were a few close plays at first, and Spokane’s manager squawked, but there was no replay available to him. Eric Filla made a spectacular, leaping catch at the wall to rob a home run, but it was one of few flyballs that approached a wall. Austin Grebeck,listed at 5-foot-8, looked as small as that might suggest, and diminutive compared to the bodies who normally roam around Safeco Field.
But if the players felt their smallness, or worried about the gaps, you couldn’t tell by looking at them. They beamed as they took batting practices. They hooted and hollered when they scored a run. They made big plays, even if they weren’t all Safeco big. The joy of victory was the same, even if they lingered on that field a bit longer than a major leaguer might. Safeco was now as much a mile marker on their journey as the eventual, tantalizing destination, road forward and return all at once. Their baseball bodies aren’t ready for the Show, but they were ready for this night.
On that field, the game’s vastness is much more obvious—it can swallow you whole. But these kids—closer in category to being men than they are to being Nelson Cruz or Kyle Seager, but some of them barely men at all—got a night in Safeco. Their baseball family as they know it was there. They may not have quite conquered all that bigness, but they beat the Indians. They weren’t quite Mariners, but they were came out from that dugout, and enjoyed the same beats. It wasn’t baseball as I was used to seeing it there, but for that evening, it was close enough.