The All-Star Game is coming back to Seattle, 22 years after its most recent appearance. And on nights like Tuesday, when the ballpark crackled with energy, and the game resonated with meaning, it’s possible to dream.
To dream that the return of the Midsummer Classic to T-Mobile Park in two years will coincide, fortuitously, with a resurgence of baseball prominence in these parts.
I’ve always felt that those few days in July of 2001, when the baseball world converged upon Seattle, represented the absolute peak of baseball in this city, for reasons I’ll elaborate upon shortly. But the Mariners have been chasing that feeling, in vain, ever since, 20 years of receding relevance and declining interest.
Now comes word, via ESPN’s Jeff Passan and confirmed by Ryan Divish, that the Mariners’ long-standing efforts to bring the All-Star Game back to Seattle have succeeded. That will become official Thursday in a news conference at the Space Needle attended by Commissioner Rob Manfred and the usual parade of dignitaries.
The timing of this showcase event could be perfect. No guarantees, of course. Who knows what direction the Mariners’ fortunes could turn in the ensuing 22 months? But it’s finally trending on the right track, with a reasonable projection for the Mariners’ rebuild to hit its zenith in, drum roll, 2023.
The first step is legitimate contention, and the Mariners are there. You still might be a skeptic about the worthiness of this team, but you can’t discount a two-game deficit in the wild-card race beginning play Tuesday, with less than 20 games to play. This run has lasted far too long to be written off as a fluke.
The next step is to compete for a division title, and that will depend on how their young players develop, and how aggressively general manager Jerry Dipoto hits the free agent and trade market in the offseason. But with the surprising success they’ve had this year, and the core that has developed, there is certainly a clearer path to that outcome than there has been in a long while.
The Mariners have the top-rated farm system in the major leagues, according to Baseball America. They have three of MLB’s top 12 prospects (outfielder Julio Rodriguez at No. 2, shortstop Noelvi Marte at No. 10, pitcher George Kirby at No. 12) in the new rankings released this week. By 2023, we’ll know just how accurate all those projections are, because the blue-chippers should be past their adjustment stage and ready to flourish. The Mariners believe they have more where that came from.
The point is that if this clicks optimally, the renaissance of the Mariners will coincide perfectly with the 2023 showcase. And some of us remember just how magical that was.
A little historical context. The ballpark, then known as Safeco Field, was in just its second full season of operation in 2001, and fans were still giddy about having such an open-air jewel after two-plus decades in the antiseptic Kingdome.
Safeco’s unveiling coincided with the best run of baseball the Mariners have ever had (let’s be honest, the only sustained run of success they’ve ever had). The glow from the amazing 1995 comeback was still bright, and not yet resented by a new generation of fans tired of what they perceive to be an overreliance on ’95 nostalgia. GM Pat Gillick masterfully constructed the roster, somehow managing to dispatch Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and form an even stronger team.
In 2000, the Mariners made the playoffs as a wild-card team. And in 2001, they were a true juggernaut, winning an American League-record 116 games to win the AL West in a landslide.
The result was that Seattle became an unabashed baseball town. The Mariners drew 2.9 million in 1999, 3.1 million in 2000, 3.5 million in 2001 and ‘02. The ballpark was filled to the brim almost every night, and the allure was strong. People couldn’t get enough of this team.
That was the setting for the All-Star Game in 2001, and what a magical time it was. The Mariners reached the All-Star Game with a 63-24 record and a 19-game division lead over the A’s, largest ever at the break. The weather was picture perfect, and the visuals on the national broadcast were the Chamber of Commerce’s dream.
Ichiro was a breakout star in his rookie season, a singular phenomenon the likes of which the majors had never seen. He was one of eight Mariners to make the All-Star team, and as a piece de resistance, manager Lou Piniella was named as a coach by American League manager Joe Torre.
The game itself was made memorable by Cal Ripken’s home run in his final All-Star appearance (and also a pratfall by honorary third-base coach Tommy Lasorda that was comedy gold). Even A-Rod turned his customary boos into cheers when he switched positions with a surprised Ripken in the top of the first to give him one final inning at shortstop.
I wrote the next day: “Maybe the best part of all was the baseball atmosphere in Seattle, the omnipresent buzz of a city consumed by a sport and a team, providing such a powerful backdrop by simple osmosis it elevated the entire affair.”
You could say that baseball has never again felt as wonderfully alive in Seattle as it did on that day. The Mariners didn’t make it to the World Series, a bitter disappointment, though the 9-11 attacks put it in proper perspective. The ensuing two decades has been marked by a steady decline in the primacy of baseball in Seattle, as reflected in the dwindling attendance. They are still waiting to get back to the playoffs.
But I’ve always felt that this could be a baseball town again, with bottled-up fervor waiting to be re-released. Maybe by the time baseball’s best come to Seattle in July of 2023, that moment will have arrived.