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Reporter's Notebook: A few days in sports nirvana
I've never been the kind of guy to high-five total strangers. Not even at sporting events.
Wednesday changed my mind.
I wasn't planning to go to the Mariners' day game on Aug. 15. Normally I check the season schedule for the so-called Businessmen's Specials — mid-afternoon games that inspire urban dwellers to call in sick while they slip away to watch their local ball club for a few hours.
I was taking part of the day off, but my destination was Redmond, to check out the final Seahawks practice open to the public as they game-planned for their upcoming contest at Denver. My father and I wanted to see if we could get a good look at Terrell Owens, Marshawn Lynch and the trio of quarterbacks who are battling for a starting spot.
On our way back, we ran into a traffic-plagued downtown off-ramp and realized Safeco Field was open for business.
On the fence about taking even more of my day to watch mediocre Seattle sports, I thumbed my smartphone to see who was pitching and what inning. If Felix Hernandez is on the mound and it's close, I'm in.
As it was, the M's and Tampa Bay Rays were scoreless through two innings, and yes, King Felix was on the mound.
My father was set on shooting some photos of the Taylor Bridge Wildfire near Cle Elum.
"Hey, can you drop me off at the stadium?" I asked.
Sure. And so went by a chance for my dad to witness history.
Other than the first few innings, I didn't miss a thing.
But that's the middle part of my story in what turned out to be a whirlwind week for this sports fan.
The Hawks in Redmond
Let me say this right away: the staff with the Seattle Seahawks are great. Top notch. Wonderfully nice folks. Courteous and friendly. Salt of the Earth.
That being inked, the overall fan "experience" of witnessing a Seahawks practice is somewhat underwhelming.
After a semi-arduous process of getting on school buses to shuttle from The Landing, a mini-living community/mall ingloriously built in north Renton, we arrive at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, affectionately known as the V-MAC.
It's impressive. Like, 200,000 square feet worth of building nestled between I-405 and Lake Washington. The second-largest facility in the NFL, it seems more complimentary than anything when paired with three full-length practice fields. When we get there a bit after 10 a.m., the Hawks are already doing their stretching and conditioning drills. I immediately look for TO, the firebrand of the NFL for so many years who spent last season playing himself into and out of arena-league football.
From a grassy knoll a hundred feet away, he looks, well, like any other dude. Sure, I recognize the swagger. But, I don't know, I guess I was expecting horns or tentacles or for him to be glowing. None of that. He was another dude catching (and dropping) balls.
But most of the action takes place a football field away. The field closest to our picnic-style area was empty for most of the session. The exceptions were stretching and kicking sessions featuring placekicker Steve Hauschka and punter Jon Ryan (yawn), and a quick down-and-back rotation with quarterbacks Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson, Tavaris Jackson and Josh Portis and a few receivers.
Other than that, it's like watching football on a television. A bad one.
But it's a sunny day, and the slight breeze off the lake and good company make for a pleasant (if uneventful) morning.
It's hard to have much of an impression of this version of the Seahawks after watching them do a few run-throughs, but here are my quick takes:
Wilson may be the best quarterback of the bunch. He looks energetic and hungry and can throw the ball. The only question is, can he see over the offensive line?
Owens is only one of a handful of interesting receivers. There are a bunch of lanky, athletic types. One that saw a bunch of reps was Lavasier Tuinei, a 6-4, 220-pound monster from Oregon.
The secondary is this team's strength. That much was obvious at the end of last season, but it is glaring in practice. Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and company are downright scary.
This will be a fun team to watch. Successful? Maybe. The Hawks get Dallas in week two and Green Bay in week three, following an opener at Arizona to kick off the season. If they are 2-1 after that, they should be fine. If not, look out.
The Seahawks would go on to clobber the Broncos 30-10 Saturday night on the strength of an inspired defense and Wilson's second-half game management.
Felix finds perfection
Day games at Safeco are great. The stadium is usually half-full — this one saw just 21,889 fans in the stands, according to ESPN, less than 46 percent of capacity — so one can wander and grab a seat in various sections without too much hassle from the staff.
And in this one, they weren't paying much attention to the fans, anyway.
On the mound was Felix, Seattle's ace, who was disarmingly dominant. Along with a few other fans, I suspect, I didn't really start thinking about a no-hitter until the fifth inning or so. The M's had scratched a run across in the third and Jeremy Hellickson was doing a great job of baffling the M's, so my focus was more about the win.
In the sixth, I looked up and saw that not only had Felix not given up a hit, but he hadn't walked a Ray, either.
It's hard to say the atmosphere was charged. I mean, these are Seattle fans on a hot day. Lethargic for seven innings would be a better description.
But by the eighth inning, it was alive.
I had sauntered across the stadium, picking a new section every inning or so to get a new perspective. In the late innings, however, I was superstitiously confident that my moving was helping Felix stay perfect.
With two outs in the seventh, Rays manager Joe Maddon got tossed arguing a call. He wasn't the most popular guy in town at that moment.
In the eight, Felix struck our Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena swinging. Pena simply flicked his bat in disgust.
In the ninth, Tampa pinch-hit a pair of good hitters in Desmond Jennings and Jeff Keppinger, but it didn't matter.
And when Sean Rodriguez watched strike three go by, Mount Rainier erupted. Beautiful.
And yes, I slapped five with total strangers. We all had the same, dumb look on our faces: "Do you believe this?"
What gets lost in Felix's greatness and the resurgent Seattle Nine is this: the Mariners have the best defense in baseball. The best. No doubt about it. The M's went into Monday night's game against Cleveland with just 46 errors — 10 less than the second-place Yankees with one more game played — and a ridiculous .990 fielding percentage.
Ryan made two great plays — one in the first I had to see on the highlights and another in the seventh — to preserve perfection, while Eric Thames made a great snag in right field on the game's first play.
Call SafeCo a pitcher's park, spacious beyond belief and a disqualifying factor for great ERAs and poor batting averages. But ballpark size means little when it comes to handling the baseball. The bases are still 90 feet apart, outfielders can lose their attention as well here as anywhere and screaming grounders can take tricky hops on Seattle dirt as well as in Baltimore (a major league-leading 93 errors).
Give a little credit to the eight guys behind Felix, Jason Vargas and the gang.
And if Brendan Ryan doesn't win a gold glove this year, there is no justice.
I capped the week by watching the Seattle Sounders knock off the Vancouver (B.C.) Whitecaps 2-0 on Saturday.
I have to admit, I'm a tourist in Century Link Field when the Sounders hit the pitch. I'm not a devotee. I didn't know the Sounders' record coming in (although I had checked the standings a few days back) and I certainly didn't know any of the chants. I knew few of the starters when they were introduced and had little to add to conversation with the Sounders fans around me.
Still, it's a great place to be a casual fan. Great atmosphere (55,718 at the stadium that day, second best in the MLS this season), decent food, spirited play and a win.
My wife Patsene and I had seats in the northeast corner, which put us in proximity of the Whitecaps' area. It also put us right next to a pair of Whitecap fans who had made their way from Vancouver for the affair, and we traded barbs and stories about Pacific Northwest sports for the full 90.
I tried to buy them a drink so they could drown their sorrows after Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson tallied the winning scores, but they declined.
Next time, they said, when they visit once again for a Seahawks game.
The Sounders took control of third place in the Western Conference, in prime position for a playoff spot.
And it gave this sports fan a bit of frosting on a rather busy week.
Michel Dashiell is editor of the Sequim Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.