Michael Bylsma, a lifelong Mariners fan and longtime season-ticket holder, had just gotten comfortable in his family’s usual seats in the 300-level when an usher approached with an offer he couldn’t refuse to choose.
“Would you like to move down to the lower level?” the usher asked.
Bylsma was about to respond with an emphatic “yes” when it occurred to him what was waiting below at T-Mobile Park: thousands of fans packed into the 100-level seats, many of whom were obviously ignoring the stadium’s mask policy.
Bylsma turned to his wife, Adrienne, and 9-year-old son, Cadel.
“It’s pretty crowded down there,” he asked them. “Are you OK with that?”
“It’s Row 18,” Adrienne responded. “We’re going down!”
So that’s how the Bylsmas found themselves sitting behind home plate Wednesday night, in Section 132, Row 18, for the Mariners’ thrilling 4-2 victory over the Oakland A’s.
“We’re staunch ‘maskers’ ourselves, and we felt pretty safe there,” Bylsma said later. “Any concerns we had about COVID went away when watching Logan Gilbert’s fastball pop that close.”
The kicker: The Bylsmas already have tickets to go back for Saturday’s game against the Angels, for what is shaping up to be the Mariners’ biggest weekend in decades.
Question is: Given general uneasiness around COVID-19, and the loosely enforced mask policy, how many more fans might show up this weekend as the Mariners make a final push for the franchise’s first playoff berth in 20 years?
The Mariners have sold 40,000 tickets for Friday night’s game, the team announced Friday. More than 30,000 tickets have sold for each of the remaining weekend games against the Angels for what the team is calling its Fan Appreciation Weekend. The team will have a fireworks show Friday night and multiple giveaways throughout the weekend.
Fans have, so far, been reluctant to fully commit to returning to the ballpark en masse.
On Monday, the Mariners announced an attendance of 11,169 in the team’s first game of the final homestand of the regular season. Tuesday’s crowd of 12,636 was pretty good for a school night under cooling fall skies.
An announced crowd of 17,366 turned out Wednesday night. Though T-Mobile Park (capacity: 47,476) was a little more than a third full, the atmosphere and energy in the stands made it feel almost like a sellout — and Mariners manager Scott Servais said the fans helped make it feel like a playoff game.
“We haven’t had this feeling in a long, long time,” said Dennis Kaizuka, a veteran guest services staffer monitoring the aisles along Section 126.
Fans stood and cheered whenever Gilbert, the Mariners’ rookie pitcher, got two strikes on an opposing hitter. They chanted players’ names in unison, shades of the “Ed-gar! Ed-gar!” cheers of the ’90s (now it’s “Sea-ger! Sea-ger!”). They groaned at just about every ball/strike call from home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.
Maybe, just maybe, this could be a baseball town again.
But to get back to that, many fans will have to overcome years of hard-earned skepticism about the team’s mismanagement.
“We’ve just been dragged through the mud for so long,” Bylsma said.
The pandemic, no doubt, has kept many fans home during the Mariners’ late-season push for the playoffs. Because of local health mandates, stadiums were closed to fans in 2020, and some have been reluctant to return to the ballpark this year amid the delta surge.
Eric Hess, another lifelong Mariners fan who made headlines in February when he discovered the YouTube video of then-Mariners CEO Kevin Mather’s disparaging comments about some players in a speech to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, has attended about 30 games this season, many with his wife and three daughters. He says they all try to bring two masks to the park with them, and on occasion the family has moved to less-dense seating sections to get away from larger crowds.
“There have been day games where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and we’ll say, ‘Let’s go sit somewhere else,’ ” Hess said. “I don’t know if that will be a luxury this weekend though.”
The Mariners, following state and local health guidelines, promote a mask policy throughout games. Fans are required to wear masks unless they are “actively” eating or drinking. (The team announced it will require fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend postseason games, should the team advance that far.)
The team has “Masks Required” signs posted throughout the stadium, and several times a night, the team shows a video on the big screen reminding fans to wear masks.
Many fans simply ignore the mask mandate. In the middle of the sixth inning Tuesday night, the team’s mascot, the Mariner Moose, appeared with a handful of fans on the big screen with an oversized mask covering his face. The accompanying message: The Moose wears a mask covering his mouth and snout, and we ask all fans to cover their mouth and nose as well.
The problem: Five of the six fans on screen with the Moose were not wearing a mask at all.
Guest service staffers say they are doing their best to enforce the mask policy.
“We had new (mask) restrictions for this homestand, and everyone (in the stands) was really good the first game,” said one usher, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “But it’s gotten worse and worse each night.”
About 1 out of every 3 fans walking up toward the concourse behind home plate were not wearing masks during the fourth inning Wednesday night. Ushers offer a reminder to those who aren’t wearing their masks.
Hess said he will continue to be cautious in crowds, but he said there’s no way he would miss this weekend’s games. He’ll be there, and he’s confident many others will join him.
“This team has been torture for 20 years,” Bylsma said, “but I just keep coming back.”