BY Art Thiel 01:15AM 08/01/2020

Thiel: Mariners fill the void in home opener

In the absence of fans, the home opener managed to have a bit of buzz. That it happened at all was nearly as remarkable as Taijuan Walker’s 7-inning 1-hitter in a 5-3 win.

A home opener like no other: The final day of July and no fans. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

John Fogerty’s Centerfield is as ubiquitous and celebratory a song as there is in the audio armory of sports-venue music. It was the first thing up Friday on T-Mobile Park’s video screen as the Mariners tried to navigate a home-opening “ceremony” in the bizarro-world of operating big-league sports in the middle of a bigger-league global catastrophe.

This video version was sung by Ben Gibbard, best known as lead vocalist of Death Cab for Cutie. Sitting on a stool and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he rendered the high-energy song slow and soft. I didn’t expect the impact.

I imagine the converse would be like Rick Rizzs singing the blues. It seems implausible.

Gabbard made Centerfield mournful.

Perfect.

As the final line dropped gently, “Look at me, gotta be, centerfield” in the emptiness of the cavern, some of us looked around as if we had been hit by a bucket of wistful.

“I thought it was awesome,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.”

Fortunately for the Mariners, the rendition wasn’t part of a eulogy. They beat the Oakland A’s, 5-3 (box), Taijuan Walker was borderline brilliant with a one-hit shutout over seven innings, the Mariners are 4-4 and nobody is publicly reporting any symptoms.

In a pandemic, clutch the straw as hard as possible. In a 60-game season, the phrase “small sample size” takes a tumble down the stairs.

Whatever the chances of MLB finishing this gambit by letting its labor force work and travel for two months outside of a bubble, the players need to manufacture a day-to-day illusion of normalcy.

Sure, the 8,000 fan cutouts look from the back like tombstones. But from the front they don’t look like an empty seat. The recorded crowd audio murmurs and exults with the action, the music between innings and during walk-ups helps distract.

Even having Gov. Jay Inslee throw out the first pitch — he’s no Anthony Fauci; a high lob reached the plate — suggested that it was possible to break away from from the relentless political brawl for a little ball.

“I’m biased, but the last two places we were in (Houston and Anaheim), we blew them out of the water tonight,” Servais said. “I tip my cap. We have a shorthanded crew that’s allowed in the ballpark. But the guys really appreciate it, along with the cutouts.

“It’s hard to get a feel for that (watching) at home, but when you look up and you see 8,000 cutouts, it’s pretty awesome. It’s got a way different feel than what it felt like on  the road. We might have a home field advantage.”

Baseball’s Opening Day is a ritual unlike any other in sports because it ushers in a voyage, like a crowded dock for an ocean liner’s launch. But there’s no voyage this time; it’s a whitewater raft trip. The season was more than 10 percent done before the home opener, which came on the final day of July with a game-time temperature of 79 degrees.

Here’s how fast things are moving: Walker went from stiff to star in one outing, and was a better pitcher Friday than when he was a 170-inning guy who won 11 games for the 2015 Mariners.

In his 99th career appearance, he gave up a double and two walks with 94 pitches, six days after a 3.1-inning outing in Houston when he gave up seven hits and five earned runs.

“It seems like he’s such a different pitcher now because the off-speed stuff is better than his first time around here,” Servais said. “Back in ’16, he was very reliant on the fastball. Some nights he had a curve ball, some nights he didn’t. He didn’t really have much else after that.  He’s still developing a change-up. His kind of slider-cutter has really come along. There’s more go-to pitches.”

After Tommy John surgery in April 2018 chewed up his previous two seasons with the Diamondbacks, Friday was a hallmark moment, especially in the fifth inning when he struck out the side. The only hit was a leadoff double in the fourth inning by Ramon Laureano.

“It was just fun going going deep into the game,” he said. “It’s been a long while, but I felt good, didn’t feel tired, like I was breathing hard. I feel like I could have gotten more, but we got the win.”

It was the fourth-longest scoreless outing of his career, longest game since July 2017 and first win since September of that year.

Even though he seems he’s been around along while, Walker, who was once likened athletically to Cam Newton, is only 27. That’s the only evidence Friday that time slowed down.

Nine Black members of the Mariners knelt after the anthem in support of a video from the Players Alliance about Black Lives Matter. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest


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YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    It would just be the Mariners luck if the season were cancelled and they were either leading their division or in the playoff hunt. Not a fan of the cutouts in the stands. Seems there has to be better ways to spend money.

    • art thiel

      I wasn’t keen either, but the idea doesn’t seem bad. Unless you’re look from behind.

      All proceeds from the $30 fee goes to a COVID-19 chariy.

      • jafabian

        I want to see cutouts of Bill the Beerman and Rick the Peanut Guy moving through the stands for a real stadium experience. And one of Big Lo too!

        • art thiel

          Good suggestions. There must be room for Morganna.

          • Husky73

            That would take more than one seat in row 46 DD.

          • jafabian

            Bazinga!

        • Husky73

          jafabian, I love your Mariner logo.

  • coug73

    Hey, at least the cut outs didn’t get stiffed last night. Good M’s victory.

    • art thiel

      The marketers next need to advance to fan holograms, so people can stand and dance at home and see their images do it at a seat.

  • Husky73

    During the Astros series, I was thinking (dangerous), “Is there one player on the Mariners who could start for the Astros?” Nope, not one. Maybe Marco could be at the bottom of their rotation. That’s how far the Mariners are from contention.

    • art thiel

      It’s true. But the same could have been said about the Astros when they moved into the AL West. Remember all those 100-loss seasons?

      • Husky73

        I do, but I don’t recall 44 years of futility for the Astros. The 1977 Mariners may have been a better team than the 2019 and 2020 Mariners.

        • art thiel

          I saw the 77 team. No.

  • woofer

    One thing they could do to bring the intensity of the fan experience into the home is run the video hydroplane race on TV during the seventh inning stretch. If you have attended enough live Mariner games you will know that the hydroplane race is often the high point of the evening. Typically, the visitors will have scored four or five in the top of the first and by the seventh the home team will be behind in the vicinity of 8-2. The stadium has been as silent as a tomb for four or five straight innings, unless against all odds some kids in the bleachers have successfully generated a wave.

    Then after the top half of the seventh the hydroplane race flashes onto the center field scoreboard and suddenly the place springs to life — everyone madly cheering for red or green. Why does the yellow boat always flip over just before the finish line? America wants to know. A nice realistic touch would be to place loudspeakers behind the cutouts and have them cheer for their favorite hydroplane.

    The other big thing that needs to be figured out is, of course, how to create a Virtual Bobblehead Night. That will present a much more profound challenge, but if everybody thinks about it day and night, an answer will eventually come. The good news is that we all have lots of time to work on this.

    • art thiel

      Remarkable how you’ve elevated the dying Seafair tradition to savior of the Mariners. Perhaps it is time to put down the pipe.