The players come and go and their team rarely make the playoffs, but it doesn't seem to matter to baseball fans in Everett. The minor-league AquaSox have hit a home run with a family atmosphere and lively, in-game promotions.
EVERETT — It wasn’t the prettiest windup, or delivery, ever seen on a baseball diamond.
But the hard-core fans in the sparsely filled grandstands at Everett Memorial Stadium, soaked by a steady rain, remained glued to their sopping seats awaiting the outcome of the night’s biggest payoff pitch.
Down on the field, a woman picked from the stands had already made five tosses of some giant-sized foam dice on the field and needed only a “6” or a “1” in her final try to complete a “straight” and win $23,000 from a casino sponsor. Groans promptly went up as she heaved a “2” and was escorted from the field, no wealthier and a little wetter.
Welcome to a night of baseball in Everett, where the between-innings contests are often more intense than the games. It’s the 25th season of minor-league baseball here, and the fans who have kept showing up love to see the hometown AquaSox win.
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But with players constantly coming and going from this team — a Mariners short-season Class A farm club in the Northwest League since 1995, and a San Francisco Giants affiliate for 11 years before that — the affection shown to the between-innings promotions often exceeds that given to anyone on the roster.
“We’ve only made the playoffs once in 14 years, and we have eight teams in the league,” AquaSox general manager Brian Sloan said of the team’s tenure under the Mariners. “So, you don’t really have control over who the players are.”
The AquaSox won’t be going to the playoffs this season — they’re 30-40, tied for sixth place.
There could be some future Mariners among this year’s AquaSox, dubbed the “Frogs” by locals because of a green amphibian in the team’s logo. The team plays an abbreviated schedule from June through Sunday and is one of the first stops for all new Mariners prospects.
Right fielder Dennis Raben, the team’s second-round draft pick out of the University of Miami, had a double on this night and threw a runner out at second base. And an 18-year-old third baseman named Jharmidy DeJesus swatted a three-run homer to left-center that proved the difference in a 4-2 win over the visiting Vancouver Canadians once rain finally halted play in the sixth.
But both players will be long gone from Everett by the time anyone makes a call on their big-league futures.
Which explains the team’s marketing slogan for 2008: “Tomorrow’s Mariners, Today’s Fun.”
Sloan’s job has little to do with player management and is all about the business end, including between-innings promotions, special-event nights and giveaways.
“The thing we’ve never done is pushed winning, or who the players are,” agreed Tom Lafferty, the team’s public-address announcer since its inception as a Giants affiliate in 1984.
Lafferty remembers when the stadium consisted of “three little portable bleachers and then some plank bleachers further out.”
It’s now tripled in size to a 3,682-seat facility, with a grass berm “Homer Porch” area beyond the right-field fence increasing capacity to more than 4,000. There was also a new, $450,000 grass playing surface installed last year.
Lafferty was at the 1987 game when Ken Griffey Jr. hit his first professional home run for the visiting Bellingham Mariners. The feat is marked by a plaque on the sidewalk outside the stadium, where the ball landed.
Over the years, Lafferty has seen plenty of future Mariners pass through Everett, more recently Felix Hernandez, J.J. Putz and Jeff Clement.
He says the team is now fortunate to keep the talented ones for an entire season. The only semblance of continuity comes from the off-field staff.
Trainer Spyder Webb is in his 30th season of Northwest League ball, the past 14 with Everett. Radio man Pat Dillon has spent a decade calling the team’s games.
“That’s the way things have changed,” Lafferty said. “The way different teams have handled this league. Last year, the Salem-Keizer team had a guy who was 8-0. We would never have that. If he’s 3-0, he’d be in [higher Class A] Wisconsin.”
Lafferty does the in-stadium play-by-play as the giant dice are being tossed. An inning later, he broadcasts a “race” from first to third base between 6-year-old fan Austin Duffy and a mascot relay team of “Webbly the Frog” and “Frank the Hotdog.”
The crowd roars its approval as little Austin comes in ahead.
“The mascot usually loses,” Lafferty said.
It wasn’t always that way.
Lafferty remembers the “Beat the Walker” contests, when the late Jim Averill, a speed walker and the grandson of Snohomish native and Baseball Hall of Famer Earl Averill, used to race children between innings. Averill hated to lose, Lafferty said.
“Everyone in the crowd knew this, so things were pretty intense,” he said. “The crowd would be on its feet yelling and screaming. It was serious stuff.”
Things were calmer on this night as Lafferty called the action in a remote-control car race. The screams heard from the stands often come from children. Ticket prices of $7 to $15 make it easier for entire families to attend.
“We bring them all and they have a fun time,” said Stephanie Wolcott, watching her sons, Brandon and Luke, cheer on the toy cars.
Mariners draft pick Raben compares the baseball to what he often saw in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He led Miami to this year’s College World Series.
“It’s a pretty good atmosphere in here,” said Raben, an instant fan favorite after a hot start before an early August finger injury sidelined him nearly three weeks. “The fans know the game and they like to have fun.”
Last week, more than 3,000 fans showed up for Edgar Martinez Night. A Dan Wilson Bobblehead Giveaway brought in 3,843. Onetime Mariners star Jay Buhner, a minority owner in the team — bought by Cleveland businessman Peter Carfagna in 2004 — attended a Buhner Buzz Night and helped shave the heads of fans wanting to get in free. That promotion drew 3,044.
Only 1,581 braved the wet weather on this night to watch the “Frogs” in their come-from-behind win. AquaSox GM Sloan said the team has averaged about 2,600, but admitted the Mariners’ poor play has made filling the stands more challenging.
“I think the better the Mariners do, the better the interest we get,” he said. “If they’re talking Mariners, they’re talking baseball. When it’s a tough ticket, fans say, ‘Where can we go to see baseball?’ So, they go to Tacoma and they go to Everett.
“So, we’re feeling the effects of it as well.”
But there’s no time to fret. Finishing touches need to be planned on tonight’s final edition of the team’s highly popular Friday fireworks events — featuring postgame pyrotechnics.
Win or lose, the celebration goes on.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners