|Plenty of jewels in the Safe|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the first report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
SEATTLE -- Every night, the Mariners broadcasters practically develop laryngitis repeatedly telling listeners that Safeco Field is the best park in baseball, if not in the history of civilization. Well, I'm sorry but it isn't, at least not in my book.
That isn't meant as an insult. Safeco Field is a very, very good ballpark. It's just that there is a lot of competition for the top honor -- really, any stadium cracking the Top 20 in Page 2's ratings of the major-league ballparks is going to be a pretty darn nice place to watch a game. Safeco has a lot of terrific things going for it, but it falls short of being truly great in one crucial area. It doesn't have a distinctive signature.
Fenway has the Green Monster. Wrigley Field has its bleachers. Camden Yards has its century-old warehouse. Pac-Bell has McCovey Cove. But Safeco has little inside the stadium or outside that sets it apart from all the other new stadiums or identifies it with the city. Forget about screaming "Seattle." It doesn't even whisper the city's name.
Seattle built the stadium at the edge of downtown and a couple blocks from the waterfront, but you wouldn't know it if you're sipping coffee in the lower deck. Except for parts of the upper deck, you can barely see the surrounding mountains, water or skyline.
I know we go to stadiums to see the game and not the view, but it's the extra things like ivy on the wall or a home run landing in San Francisco Bay or the Pittsburgh skyline rising above the bleachers that turn a good stadium into a great ballpark. Seattleites should know this as well as anyone. Husky Stadium is special because fans can look to the west and see the Olympic mountains or look to the east and see Lake Washington, the Cascade mountains and the area's largest geographic landmark, Bill Gates' mansion.
At Safeco, fans can look to the north and see Seahawks Stadium eclipsing the view of everything else.
I'm not saying Safeco Field isn't an excellent stadium -- it's extremely fan friendly and I rate it very high -- it's just that it could have been so much better. And for $517 million, it should have been.
1. Seat comfort: Well, I wouldn't fall asleep in one of the seats, unless Bernie Williams was taking even longer than normal to get into the batters box. But the seats are reasonably comfortable with sufficient elbow and leg room. Bonus: Even the cheap seats in the upper deck have cup-holders. What I like best about the seats, though, are the silhouettes of Fred Hutchinson under the armrests, a very nice salute to Seattle's baseball heritage. Points: 4.5
3. Quality and selection of other concession-stand fare: Too many stadiums go about their concessions the wrong way. They sign a contract with a huge concessionaire who delivers such bland, predictable food that it should come with a tray and a fat woman in a hairnet and rubber gloves. Seattle has it right. It treats the stadium almost like the city's famed Pike Place Market, leasing space to independent operators who offer good, distinctive food.
And what a variety. You've got all the classic stand-bys; but you've also got clam chowder, salmon sandwiches, sushi, chocolate-covered strawberries, garlic fries, wok-fried noodles, southern barbeque and much, much more. If Mo Vaughn knew about this, he would have insisted on a trade to the Mariners. 5+++
4. Signature concession item: How do you choose? Is it the Ivar's clam chowder? Or the salmon sandwiches? Or the Ichi-roll sushi? Or the kettle korn? I didn't know what to pick, and then I smelled the garlic fries, whose intoxicating aroma can be savored as far south as Tacoma. Mmmmmmmmm. 5
5. Beer: Complaining about beer prices at a stadium is like complaining about real estate taxes. Everyone thinks they're too high. So I'll just say the beer is expensive (from $5.50 for a small Bud to $7.75 for a microbrew) but the selection is better than you find in most bars. Red Hook, Pyramid, Sapporo, Fat Tyre, Henry's Weinhard, Pabst, Alaskan Amber -- it's a wonder David Wells stays in the dugout when the Yankees are in town. 4.5
6. Bathrooms: Let's be honest. The only thing I'm looking for in a restroom is availability, a short line and reasonable cleanliness. Safeco amply provides all three. And there are enough women's rooms that even those lines are short even during a sellout. 5
7. Scoreboard: The big replay board in center field is solid, providing complete lineups for both teams. And the little scoreboards down the foul lines are very handy, giving pitch counts, velocity and inning recaps. The one drawback is the out-of-town scoreboard isn't as good as the hand-operated board they had at the Kingdome. It's electronic and it doubles as an advertising/message board. So there are all these times when you look up to see how the Cubs are doing, and instead you're reading a come-on for Ichiro bobblehead night. 4
8. Quality of public address system: I don't know who runs the speaker system, but they do a great job. The music played between innings is a superb mix of the latest hits and solid ballpark favorites. And they save the organ music until after the game when most people are already on their way home. 4.5
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: There is a speed-pitch machine and a playground for the kids, plus a plaza in center field that is a veritable mosh pit for young adults. They play some nice games on the board between innings, such as the hydro races. And because the Mariners are owned by Nintendo, there are computer games for everyone behind the bullpen. 4.5
10. Price and selection of baseball souvenirs: Name it, they have it. A replica jersey? Players' wives' cookbook? An Ichiro nesting doll? It's all here, at stands throughout the stadium as well as a team store that seems larger than the entire grounds at Fenway Park (open year-round). Of course, the prices are ridiculous, so don't let your spouse out of your sight. At least not with the credit card. 4
11. Ticket price/availability/location: A decade ago, you could show up five minutes before the first pitch and sit anywhere you want. No longer. Sunday's game against San Diego was a complete sellout, a frequent occurrence on summer weekends here.
What to do? Set my wife loose on the scalpers. They never have a chance. She never pays face value, and she always gets good tickets. By the time she's done with them, they're practically paying her to take the tickets. And sure enough, within five minutes, she had two free tickets in the upper deck. And she had been offered two free tickets behind home plate, but she knew that I wanted to sit in a cheaper seat for this survey. Love that woman.
With a $10 face price, the seat was in the view reserved section in right field, which is about as high as the Space Needle and so far away that Edgar couldn't reach it on steroids. But it's one of the few spots you can watch the game and get a limited view of the city. While the seats in foul territory are very expensive ($30-$50) you can buy a general admission ticket for $6 -- less than a movie ticket. And then once you're inside here, you can literally go anywhere you want and watch the game from any of multiple standing room areas. More on this later. 3.5
12. Exterior architecture: Did I mention that Safeco lacks a signature sight? I thought so. But at least the roof is removeable. 2
13. Interior Architecture: Here's the problem with building stadiums as large as Safeco. A lot of the seats are a long way from the field. In fact, most of the seats are farther from home plate than the comparable seat was at the Kingdome. That's the downside. The upside is they all give you a clear, wide view of the field. And that's real grass out there, not artificial turf. 3.5
14. Access: Those Boeing bastards cited Seattle's notorious traffic problems when they moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago -- yeah, like the Dan Ryan is always clear -- but Safeco is wonderfully accessible. Interstate 90 and I-5 dump you off right by the stadium, and there is plenty of parking. It's expensive in the nearby ramps but cheap, and often free, if you're willing to walk a mile or so after the meter maids go home at 6 p.m. There also are park-and-ride lots throughout the area with buses that drop you off right in front of the ballpark. Heck, you can even ride your bicycle -- which I did on Sunday -- and lock it in a special protected area.
Just don't expect clear sailing an hour before the game. Or after the game. 4.5
15. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: When the place first opened, there was a real problem with a couple ushers near the high-priced seats. A friend of mine once left her seat to go to the bathroom, and they weren't going to let her back because she didn't have her ticket stub. She was practically crying by the time they relented.
Apparently, a lot of people complained because the bad eggs have been removed. The ushers I come across are friendly and helpful. 4
16. Trading-up factor: When the stadium is full as it often is, trading up can be a problem unless you're reasonably light, reasonably attractive and the fans behind home plate are willing to let you sit on their laps. But before the summer crowds got thick, my friends regularly bought $6 bleacher seats and then moved around to the third-base line and sat in excellent $30 seats the entire game. Even during Sunday's sellout, I was able to move to behind home plate for the final two innings without trouble once the casual fans went home.
But like I said, there are so many great places to walk around and stand that you don't have to worry about getting a seat. 3
17. Knowledge of local fans: They're good fans and very supportive -- they gave Arthur Rhodes an ovation after he gave up a game-tying grand slam in the ninth inning Sunday -- but they're still learning the game. A fan behind me referred to "home base" Sunday, and the crowd later did the wave Sunday and really enjoyed it. Which is understandable given that many still are unaware that Seattle had a baseball team before 1995. 2.5
18. Seventh inning stretch: They play "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" like everyone else and the fans sing along. Nothing bad about it or particularly special. 3
19. Pregame and postgame bar and restaurant scene. Safeco hasn't led to much development around the stadium, but there are more little stands selling hot dogs and kettle korn than there are Starbuck's. And you can bring the kettle corn into the stadium.
There is a brewpub directly across the street but for some reason, it closes about an hour after the game. Pioneer Square, the city's alcoholic epicenter, is a 10 to 15 minute walk. 3.5
20. Wild Card I mentioned that you can walk freely throughout the stadium but I need to stress how unbelievably cool this is. There are plazas and nooks and bars and concourses around the stadium where you can go and stand (or even sit at a table) and watch. It doesn't matter where your actual seat is, you can go anywhere else you want in the stadium. As much as I dislike Safeco's overall design, this is a huge plus. Bonus Points: 6
TOTAL SCORE FOR SAFECO: 81.5
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.