The biggest, gaudiest, craziest — and oh, yeah, the fakest — event ever held at the ballpark on the corner of Edgar Martinez Drive and Dave Niehaus Way took place 17 years ago, on March 30, 2003.
I’m not talking about a World Series, of course, because the Mariners haven’t had one of those at T-Mobile Park, not even when it was called Safeco Field.
It wasn’t one of the numerous big-name concerts, ranging from Paul McCartney to Pearl Jam and The Who, hosted by the facility. It wasn’t the U.S. national men’s soccer team’s friendly with Honduras, nor the U.S. women’s team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and certainly not the lone Safeco incarnation of the unlamented Seattle Bowl college football game.
No, for one surreal evening that took more than a year of preparation, the superstars of WWE got the run of the place for the Super Bowl of pro wrestling — WrestleMania XIX (Roman numerals not a coincidence). It was an extravaganza of profligate decadence that drew more people — 54,097 — than have ever been, or probably ever will be again, stuffed into the staid ballpark.
The airing of WrestleMania 36, er, XXXVI, this past week, plowing ahead in an empty arena in Florida because of the COVID-19 outbreak, got me thinking back to that incongruous orgy of suplexes, slams and stunners in Seattle.
I can hear you right now wanting to give me the People’s Elbow for dragging wrestling onto the sports page — at least, the kind that isn’t of the Greco-Roman, freestyle, or high school variety. Oh, Kurt Angle, who lost the showcase WWE championship match that night to Brock Lesnar, was indeed an Olympic wrestling gold medalist, but that’s where the legitimacy (but not the entertainment) ends.
And I hear you — I’m not a big wrestling guy myself, though I did indulge my son when he went through his WWE phase. And I indulged my work son, Ryan Divish, when he dragged me to Jerry World for WrestleMania XXXII in Arlington, Texas, when we were in town for the Mariners’ opener in 2016. (He was the one dressed up like Hulk Hogan.)
You have to respect the sheer audacity of it all. And I had a feeling there were some good behind-the-scenes stories to be told about the staging of WrestleMania at Safeco Field. So I called the guy who was involved every step of the way as the Mariners’ point man — Tony Pereira, at the time Safeco’s director of field operations. Sheltered at home like the rest of us, Tony was delighted to reminisce.
“Seventeen years later, I’d say it was a career highlight,’’ said Pereira, who now works for the Arizona Cardinals as their vice president of stadium operations. “In 37 years with the Mariners, I did literally thousands of baseball games. So to get to do an event of that magnitude for the first time — and it was a great group to work with — it was a great event.”
During a raucous news conference at the Experience Music Project’s Sky Church announcing WrestleMania the previous September, Pereira took the podium and said, “We put on a football game, and we put on a soccer game, but we knew if we really wanted to put ourselves on the map, we needed to talk to the WWE.”
Indeed, the Mariners had pursued this project with World Wrestling Entertainment (which had only recently changed its name from World Wrestling Federation after losing a court battle with the World Wildlife Fund) to show that the ballpark had revenue potential beyond baseball.
The EMP news conference was attended by about 500 fans who cheered, jeered and heckled, especially when Angle, a consummate wrestling “heel,’’ took the mike and said, “So this is the Pacific Northwest, huh? What a dump! If it wasn’t for Kurt Cobain and Frasier, no one outside this rain forest would even know who you people are.”
The news conference had the requisite barrage of lights, smoke and loud music. As he walked off the stage, Pereira passed WWE head honcho Vince McMahon.
“I can see how this can be kind of addicting,’’ Pereira said in passing.
“It is, isn’t it?” replied McMahon.
Earlier, Pereira had arrived at the hotel where McMahon and the 15 wrestlers on hand for the news conference were staying. When he went into the breakfast room, he was struck by the merging of the macabre and the mundane.
“Everyone’s just sitting at these round tables, quietly talking,’’ he recalled. “What really struck me, there was one guy sitting in the corner, and he’s got a full leather mask over his head, full-on leather, and he’s reading the paper.”
After McMahon came in to give a little pep talk, he called up his daughter, Stephanie, and led the group in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.
“Again, a very strange scene where a bunch of guys are having a very normal moment, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in these deep voices — including the guy in the leather mask,’’ Pereira said. “I learned that they’re really just normal people.”
Those “normal people” who appeared at WrestleMania XIX included such icons of the sport as The Rock (who was in the very early stages of his movie career), Hulk Hogan (who defeated McMahon himself in the culmination of a celebrated feud), Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Big Show, The Undertaker, Triple H, Chris Benoit, Rob Van Dam and others. Ashanti sang “America the Beautiful” and Limp Bizkit belted out the official theme song of the night, “Crack Addict.”
Pereira had been worried about the deportment of the fans, who filled not just the stands but the entire baseball diamond. There were no major issues. He had been worried about the effect of all those fans on the playing surface, with the Mariners’ home opener less than two weeks away. It survived with just minimal damage, much to the relief of Mariner groundskeeper Bob Christofferson.
Christofferson is famously protective of his grass. When McMahon made his first trip to Safeco in 2002 to scout out the place, bringing a small entourage with him, the Mariners had a game against Boston that night. Some Red Sox players were out doing early work, and Christofferson was out at shortstop raking dirt. McMahon walked straight out onto the grass — a no-no for anyone not in uniform.
“Bob just yelled, ‘Get off the grass!’ ” Pereira said. “Everybody looked, Vince turned around and stepped off. ‘Oh, Bob, be cool, be cool, man.’ I saw him later and he laughed and said, ‘I just need to set the tone early. You need to respect the grass.’ ”
For Pereira, it was one of the great logistical tests of his career. There was the technological challenge of pulling off the massive pyrotechnic and lighting effects. There was the bureaucratic challenge of getting the necessary permitting, which nerve-rackingly wasn’t finished until a couple of days before the event. And a million fires to put out during the full year-plus it took to prepare.
“One of the first things was how much they wanted to rig off the roof. A phenomenal amount,’’ Pereira said. “When they first came in, one of our first meetings, they were saying, ‘We’re going to need four cranes on the field.’ We’re like, ‘Umm. That doesn’t sound like a good idea.’ ”
Instead, Pereira and Safeco’s roof expert, Vance Akers, came up with an ingenious alternative method that involved essentially rigging from the roof, dropping chains down, and pulling items up with motors. That system has helped over the years with staging other big events.
In the final push to WrestleMania, which involved around-the-clock setup and late-night tests of the fireworks and lighting, Pereira needed to camp out at Safeco. Literally. He turned the office of first-year Mariners’ manager Bob Melvin into his makeshift studio apartment.
“I pushed a couple of couches together for a bed, and I brought about a week’s worth of clothes, because they had nights they were going really long,’’ Pereira said. “As the lead event manager, I felt I needed to be there on call any time if something wasn’t right.”
But it went off so well that many wrestling aficionados still rate WrestleMania XIX in the all-time Top 10. There is a belief that McMahon would like to come back to Seattle either for Royal Rumble or another WrestleMania.
Yeah, it’s all fake, but the memories are real. So was the confidence that WrestleMania XIX gave the Mariners that the 2-year-old ballpark could go beyond baseball.
“Everything that went into it really showed us what we could do,’’ Pereira said.
You could even call it a Stone Cold Stunner.