A small group’s joke has turned into a detailed operation at Safeco Field that is growing, with even more signs and more fans chanting, “eh.”
A group of Mariners supporters just wanted to annoy some Blue Jays fans when Toronto played at Safeco Field in June. That was the plan.
All of the hoopla that has followed — from accepting a potted maple tree from the Mariners to receiving maple bars from James Paxton on the field prior to Seattle’s game on Tuesday — has simply been the bizarre, but enjoyable, byproduct of what started as a joke.
When Seattle played Toronto last season, two longtime Mariners fans, Daniel Carroll and Megan Shear, brought signs to the game to torment the Canadians who were coming down to watch. The posters ranged from reminding the fans of how the Sounders beat Toronto in the MLS Cup to saying that milk bags are pointless.
When the Blue Jays headed to Seattle this season, Carroll and Shear planned to create a similar environment. It just so happened that Paxton, who is Canadian, was Seattle’s starting pitcher that day. The group of fans ran with it, and the Maple Grove began.
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Imagine a smaller, fan-driven version of King’s Court, the cheering section of yellow-shirted fans every time Felix Hernandez starts. That’s how this group of fans landed on the idea of creating a similar scene for Paxton. Instead of spectators holding up signs that say, “K,” these Mariners fans have signs that say, “eh.”
“That was one of the best ways we knew to honor a starter,” said Hillary Kirby, a graphic designer who became the creative mastermind behind the Maple Grove’s signage.
Paxton remembers the first time he saw King’s Court, and he said it gave him chills. He never thought something remotely similar would be created by fans for him.
Each time Paxton throws two strikes, the group chants, “eh,” and Paxton could hear them from the mound.
“To have people that are doing that for me is really cool,” said Paxton, a native of Ladner, B.C. “It’s very special to have that going on.”
And lately, Paxton has been pitching in a way that’s worthy of these fans’ applause. He’s won the past five games he’s started, stretching to July 2. If he gets the win on Sunday when he pitches against the Mets, it would be the first time in Mariners history a pitcher has won six games in a month.
The Maple Grove’s name stemmed from Paxton’s nickname, “Big Maple.” Paxton has a tattoo on his right arm of a giant maple leaf that is filled in with the scene of Bowyer Island, where his family has a cabin. He’s had the tattoo since 2013, but the nickname only began this year. Bench coach Tim Bogar gave Paxton the name, and Paxton said he thinks it started to gain traction when manager Scott Servais said the moniker to the media in an interview.
When the Maple Grove first appeared on June 11 against the Blue Jays, Paxton didn’t have his best day. He gave up four runs in four innings, but over in the upper deck, the Mariners fans with the “eh” signs were having a blast.
“Everybody in the group pretty much universally said, ‘You know what, it was a loss. But this was the most fun I’ve had at a Mariners loss,’ ” Carroll said.
Unlike King’s Court, which the Mariners started in May 2011, the Maple Grove is entirely fan-generated — apart from the potted maple tree that features a photo of Paxton’s head nestled in with the leaves, which was given to the group by the Mariners.
Kirby, who designed the signs, works in the beer industry, so she’s used to putting disclaimers on anything she creates. It only felt right to include one on the blue and yellow “eh” posters. Another fan in the group is a surgeon, and he collaborated with Kirby on what to write. It started as their inside joke.
The fine-print on their signs reads, “According to the surgeon general, consumption of maple syrup impairs your ability to hit a 97 mph fastball from the left side or operate a bat and may cause humiliation and taunting.”
“That is pretty cool they went into that much detail,” Paxton said.
Before the Mariners’ game on Tuesday, the pitcher met the group of devoted fans. The Mariners brought the potted tree down to the field for pictures. Paxton signed autographs and gave the group maple bars as “a little appreciation for all of their creative work,” Paxton said. He kept one of the signs to put in his locker.
Organizing the Maple Grove requires quick planning. The fans, who met because they are prolific commenters on Mariners blogs, communicate through a group direct message on Twitter. They have to wait to see when Paxton is starting and then find a group of seats together.
After meeting Paxton, they stayed for the game against the Red Sox, which lasted 13 innings. The Maple Grove fans started to panic. They already had tickets for Sunday, Paxton’s next start. But if the Mariners somehow decided to use a starting pitcher late in Tuesday’s game, it would throw off the pitching rotation.
The Maple Grove will certainly continue to grow now that it has received attention from the organization. The fans have their tickets for Sunday, and for the first time, they posted publicly where they’ll be sitting, in case others want to join in. The small group’s joke has turned into a far-reaching operation. And it’ll continue, just with more signs and more fans chanting, “eh.”
“We certainly don’t have an end date,” Carroll said. “As long as it’s fun, we’ll still do it.”