My brother Mike is such a devout hacker, he literally lives on a golf course. So when I came back from covering the 1992 U.S. Open golf championship, at famed Pebble Beach, no less, he surmised that I probably didn’t realize how many people would have killed for an assignment that I’d otherwise considered with an almost off-putting nonchalance.
And he was right. To me, that U.S. Open was walking 72 holes in four, grueling days, stalking my former Beacon Hill neighbor, Freddy Couples, who was coming off a Masters championship and at the height of his pro-golf powers. While I remember once thinking it was cool to peer through the fog and see seals ringing the majestic Bay Area course, most of my memories are of early mornings, sweaty afternoons, throbbing calves and once waiting nearly two hours for Couples outside the golfers-only practice area.
That event, which would have chilled the spine of my brother and so many others, simply was work for me.
Fast forward 20 years, and you might well imagine how it evolved that I was standing, reluctantly and feeling rather numb, as mayhem erupted on Wednesday afternoon in King’s Court at Safeco Field in Seattle, Wash. Our section’s namesake, (King) Felix Hernandez had fashioned baseball’s rare masterpiece during a 1-0 win — the 23rd perfect game in major-league history and first in Seattle Mariners club history. In a way, I had hit the sports fan’s lottery — yet I might as well have just discovered an errant charge on a restaurant check, for all the excitement it generated for me.
During a text exchange with my buddy Jim Moore, aka the Go2Guy on KIRO 710’s Kevin Calabro Show, I was at a loss to explain the absence of any uplifting sentiment. “Being a sportswriter,” he answered, “it took the fan out of us.”
I’m glad somebody understands.
Mine was the very definition of dumb luck. I had some free time, knew there was a Mariners game, and went to the team’s website to check on tickets. I fell victim to some nifty online marketing about King’s Court. “The most majestic section in baseball,” the website crowed. Included with a ticket was a free t-shirt and a “K” card. The ticket also was supposed to be $10 off regular price, though in the new math of today’s sports finances, I actually paid more than $40 for mine (the “price” was $33 for the $30 ticket, $3.25 for convenience that I never actually got to enjoy, 31 cents in taxes that do not go to Chris Hansen or his endeavors, and then $3.83 to have some Web script “process” the order).
I’ve been dumb in my luck before, though Wednesday was a lot more Forest Gumpian than most. I was there, for The Seattle Times, when Ken Griffey Jr. scored on Edgar Martinez’s double in the Game That Saved Baseball in Seattle against the Yankees in 1995. I was sitting at the finish line when Ben Johnson ran way faster than man had ever churned during the Seoul Games in 1988. And I’ll never forget the roaring, confetti rainstorm after the Sonics beat Utah in an epic Game 7 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals at KeyArena.
All those occasions provoked a bit of that unfamiliar tingle. But when you are a sportswriter, such emotional indulgences immediately are replaced by a more urgent, voice-of-God moment when the question begs, “What the hell am I going to write about ?!”
You learn quickly that people — your readers — only want to know how it happened, or why. They want to know how the athletes felt, not you. So you stop feeling. You root, but only for the best story. Somewhere between The Times asking, “when can you start?” and my oldest daughter Sassia lacing up for her first high-school basketball game, the thrill was gone. I became fan-neutered.
I can get excited, like when my younger daughter Mika won a gold medal in Special Olympics bowling, or when my dog Santana learned to catch blueberries, or for a brilliantly executed solo at the ballet or jazz performance. Shoot, I even cry at movies. But sports I watch with emotional, almost clinical detachment. I track strategy, alignments and athletic prowess, not scoreboards or even box scores. Wednesday, I was most excited for seeing my daughter’s names scrawled on a fan brick I’d purchased when Safeco Field was opened. I felt a thrill when I parked for $2, swiped my Orca card and was deposited by Link Light Rail right in front of the SoDo stadium complex in minutes.
For some reason, on Wednesday, I hurriedly packed my best, high-powered bird-watching binoculars, instead of my smaller sports glasses. So, because of my magnified view, augmented by the great vantages offered up in King’s Court (not just online hype), plus my decades of sportswriting and coaching experience, it was pretty clear, early on, that something was on the verge of happening. The play zipped along — and not just because of the usual futility of the Mariner batters. The Rays looked more helpless, and Hernandez almost effortlessly commanding.
About the fifth inning, the Go2Guy texted, “you’re there to watch a perfect game nellie!!! Right in the middle of kings court!” He was far more excited about things than I was.
Other matters occupied my mind. There is a custom in King’s Court of standing and waving the K signs when Hernandez reaches a two-strike count. En route to a 12-strikeout performance, there were so many such counts I felt like the people on the bus, going up and down, up and down. It was getting annoying. Besides, unlike 99 percent of the section, I folded up my gold (and free) King Felix t-shirt and K card and stuffed them into my bag. I favored my Ichiro jersey, which I’m wearing the rest of the season in protest and memoriam. Plus, when King’s Court is chanting, “K, K, K,” isn’t Felix hearing, “What, what, what?” (as in “que, que, que”)?
A lady behind me complained of being too hot. A guy on the other side of the aisle kept trying to impress his wife/girlfriend/date by uttering baseball bromides, such as “can of corn” or “frozen rope.” Once, he told her “K” was short for “strikeout”; I bit my lip, concealing the truth that a backward K is the scorekeeper’s designation for strikeout, the backstory for which is too varied to be repeated here. I made the two blondes sitting next to me for high schoolers because they were wearing very fragrant, fruit-scented body lotion. I recognized the smell from my days chauffeuring my girls’ basketball team in vans that reeked of funky fruit salad because, while eschewing showers, my players did not coordinate scents.
To be honest, being a mossy, native Seattleite, I mostly worried about my 45 spf sunscreen holding up for the entire game. Before the sixth inning, I retired to the covered, breeze-cooled concourse. I had a large lemonade and a slice of pizza which, combined with an earlier Mariner Dog and soft drink, put me, in great American baseball tradition, a nice Italian dinner’s tab into junk food. From behind home plate, I watched Hernandez strike out the side in such startlingly dominant fashion that I texted Moore, “You might be right (about a perfect game) after the sixth he just threw.”
By the time I returned in the seventh, King’s Court was nearing fever pitch. Compelled by the two-strike-count tradition, everyone virtually stood as Hernandez again struck out the side in the eighth. Between innings, a man unleashed three Felix bobbleheads and arrayed them in the aisle for good luck. I noticed that the number of people wearing spongy King Felix crowns had at least trebled. Before the ninth commenced, an obviously beer-drenched young man almost angrily commanded the King’s Court assemblage to rise. After Hernandez whiffed pinch hitter Desmond Jennings to start the final inning, I relented and high-fived a neighbor.
When Hernandez secured the final out and thrust his arms toward the heavens, the woman sitting next to me wept. Her boyfriend told me, “It’s OK to look happy about this.” I explained myself. The woman fixed upon me with sympathetic, tear-filled eyes.
“So this is like work to you,” she said, sweeping her arm across the pandemonium erupting before us.
Fifteen minutes later, by the miracle of mass transit, I was at the Columbia City Farmer’s Market. There, awash in a community celebrating a midweek haul, I got great deals on coho salmon, a flat of berries and homemade ice cream.
Which made me want to cheer.