Not to jar your Easter weekend idyll of church, baseball, daffodils and sunshine, but, um, Safeco Field is middle-aged.
At least as far as baseball stadiums go, Seattle’s secular church of Our Men of Participation is No. 15 in years of service among the 30 MLB teams, despite entering its 13th season.
The opening of Marlins Park in Miami last week prompted numerous stories of its exotic looks and features, as well as sidebar acknowledgements of anniversaries for three remarkable stadiums: 100 years for Fenway Park in Boston, 50 years for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and, amazingly, 20 years for Camden Yards in Baltimore.
As longtime Mariners fans know, Camden’s retro look was hailed as the future in 1992, and sure enough, a spate of copycats followed, including Safeco. The Seattle park borrowed from Camden its brick facade and exposed steelwork that was a reflection of both cities’ surrounding industrial character and a throwback to urban parks back in the day.
Despite multiple steaming controversies about its funding and cost — at its July 1999 opening, it was, at $512 million, the most expensive baseball-only park ever built — the park charmed the cynicism out of all but the darkest souls.
Since then, and despite the horrors of 9/11 that caused speculation that America would become a much more conservative, serious culture, new parks, most with varying degrees of public funding, opened (in order) in Houston, Detroit, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., two in New York City boroughs (Mets in Queens and Yankees in Bronx), Minneapolis and now Miami.
Between Camden’s ’92 debut and Safeco’s opening came parks in Cleveland, Arlington, TX. (where the Mariners play four starting Monday), Denver, Atlanta, Tampa and Phoenix.
It is, in a word, astonishing. The build-out for baseball in the past two decades is a reflection of many things: The game’s enduring appeal, public yearnings for nostalgia, connections and community, as well as the cunning of a monopoly operation that knows how to exploit those feelings and the vulnerability of electeds who know there’s usually nothing like a sports palace that can draw 51 percent of voters.
Since 2008, things have changed. With the prospects that higher employment and lower incomes, benefits, and job stability are becoming the new normal, the appetite for public palace building has shrunk. Certainly it has in Seattle, where various levels of government have rejected multiple bids by two public sports buildings, KeyArena and the University of Washington football stadium, to get public money for remodels.
Back to Safeco. Having fresher parks around the country doesn’t mean Safeco is decrepit. The building has been well-maintained and should easily outlive the Kingdome’s 24 years. But independent of nationwide trends, reaching middle age for an outdoor stadium in a marine climate means a continuing list of maintenance and upgrades, particularly with a giant mechanical, mobile roof. The lease says the cost of these fixes are borne by the Mariners, according to the Public Facilities District that operates the shop.
But if and when a big-ticket repair arises, the Mariners may suggest that the lease is unclear, and in any event, may ask/demand that the PFD chip in. That news would become public quickly.
If that happens, the Mariners are going to to need friends, in public office as well as among ticket-buyers and non-ticket-buyers.
So in the conduct of public ballpark business, it seems wise to court friends, not create enemies. The franchise doesn’t want to rue the day it burned up its community goodwill with foolish rhetoric.