Jokers and jesters in Felix Hernandez's rooting section at Safeco Field are loud, loyal and eager to gnaw on a turkey leg.
Kristian Sanford used to get heckled for standing up at Safeco Field during key moments of Mariners games, cheering too loudly, or trying to wave a banner.
Now, he gets applause; even when doing all three things while a game is going on and nothing crucial is happening on the field. In fact, Sanford, 23, a recent University of Washington graduate, momentarily outdrew Felix Hernandez on the cheering scale Wednesday afternoon when he slowly strode down the steps to his seat in Section 149 while Seattle’s ace was pitching.
Sanford is the original look-alike “Larry Bernandez” — Hernandez’s alter-ego from a Mariners television commercial — and totes a poster-sized, cardboard placard of his facial disguise, complete with bushy sideburns and glasses. Cries of “Larry! Larry!” greeted his arrival all around Sections 148-150, home to denizens of the new “King’s Court,” a special area near the left-field foul pole the Mariners have allocated to die-hard fans of “King” Felix on days he pitches.
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King’s Court members all have their costumes, be they of Bernandez, his “brother” Jerry, other royalty and jesters, or simply those wearing the yellow T-shirt that comes with the $30 ticket, discounted from $40. The idea has caught on as one of the more popular in-stadium ventures, appealing to fans who feel they can express themselves more freely than in other parts of the ballpark.
“It’s awesome. It’s exactly what I was hoping for,” Sanford said. “Because I graduated from U-Dub last year, so I’m kind of used to that football-basketball game, Dawg-Pack atmosphere. So, when I thought that this could be kind of a similar atmosphere, I jumped all over it.”
King’s Court patrons stand up and cheer when they feel like it, wave their homemade signs and generally do what comes naturally. Sanford said his girlfriend, Sherika Brooks, came up with the Larry Bernandez costume idea and was originally going to dress up in it.
But Sanford figured it would look more convincing if he did it. He cut the sideburns from a Halloween wig and used spirit gum suggested by a costume store to stick them to his face. His efforts won him the first Turkey Leg prize given by the team each week to the most spirited fan in the section.
Sanford said he’s sat all around the ballpark, but could never get away with cheering the way he does in King’s Court.
“I think Safeco has a little bit of a reputation of being kind of a quieter, family-oriented place,” Sanford said. “And I think that’s baseball in general. When you go to a Sounders game, or a Seahawks game, it’s crazy all over the place. But Mariners games have never really been that way.”
The Mariners have made no secret of wanting Safeco Field to be family-friendly, where patrons aren’t harassed by drunk or obnoxious behavior. But they’ve also received complaints about stadium staff being too vigilant with cheering and signage, to where they take the spontaneity out of cheering and give the ballpark an antiseptic feel.
Sanford said the ushers in King’s Court are “pretty good about the standing, and the cheering and the loudness” and only intervene if somebody is blocking the aisles.
Daniel Carroll, 24, said his “unusually loud clap” isn’t always appreciated in the section where his mother, Mitzi, 64, is a season-ticket holder.
“We actually had a lot of fun the other night when they had the intentional-walk wild pitch,” he said of sitting in the other section. “I think I had somebody up above in the Hit it Here Café yell at me ‘Hey, drunk guy!’ “
But no one in the King’s Court complains about him.
Chip Hughes, 58, and his wife, Katherine, traveled from Salt Lake City to visit family and figured it might be more enjoyable in the King’s Court than other sections they’d sat in.
“They’re cheaper and it looks like they’d be a fun time,” Hughes said. “But $40 seats for $30 plus a T-shirt? Not much of a decision.”
The King’s Court idea came from Gregg Greene, the team’s marketing director.
“We have one of the best pitchers in the game in Felix,” Greene said. “Every time he pitches, it’s an event. And we wanted to create an event around Safeco Field and each of his starts.”
Five events in, Greene said fan enthusiasm has exceeded expectations. Ticket demand has caused the team to expand the King’s Court from two sections to three. “They’re becoming part of Safeco Field lore with all the things they’ve done,” he said of the fans.
The success has spawned a flood of ideas from others both inside and outside the organization. Greene noted that the idea for the Turkey Leg prize came from the wife of Mariners assistant general manager Jeff Kingston.
Ideas being considered include other designated areas of the ballpark, perhaps devoted to additional Mariners players.
For now, it’s the fans expanding things.
Last week, several King’s Court fans spontaneously erupted into “Oh-li-voh! Oh! Oh!” chants for Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo.
On Wednesday, Nathan Rauschenberg, 23, dressed up like a king with a robe and crown, stood next to a pal — who calls himself Thudge Ester — in a jester costume and juggling various objects.
“Ay! Oh! Pe-gue-ro!” the buddy shouted from his aisle seat, getting the crowd to join his chant — adapted from an old Ramones tune — for Mariners left fielder Carlos Peguero after a rolling catch.
“The King’s Court made it OK to dress up and get in the spirit of things,” Rauschenberg said.
The kind of spirit both the Mariners and their fans are in mutual agreement with.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners