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Don't Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The Charms of Busty Fans, the Kingdome, and the 1979 All-Stars
For better or worse, Tuesday's All-Star Game will be a far cry from the contest in 1979, when Seattle last hosted baseball's midsummer classic. Junior, A-Rod, and the Big Unit have come and gone, as have the Mariners' years of lousy play, poor attendance, financial headaches, and threats of moving. The M's are riding an all-time high as one of the most dominating teams in baseball history, with four players in this year's American League starting lineup. (In 1979, the token Mariner representative was Bruce Bochte.) Even better, the dismal Kingdome has been replaced by the marvelous Safeco Field, one of baseball's new, wonderfully retro-styled ballparks.
However, while the Mariners remain my favorite team, and the All-Star Game is my favorite annual sporting event, I'm not going to this year's game. It's not that it wouldn't be fun, but for financial reasons, I simply can't. And on general principle, I'm not sure I'd even want to.
Only 5,000 tickets were available to non-season-ticket holders when they went on sale in May, the cheapest costing $110. They sold in 40 minutes. Some tickets are being resold for $2,000, far beyond my price range.
Monetary concerns in general have caused many discouraging developments in baseball, both in Seattle and on a national scale. There have been multiple strikes since 1979 -- the result of quibbling between millionaire players and billionaire owners -- one of which cancelled the '94 World Series. Many seemingly desperate watering-down measures have been enacted to try to boost the bottom line, including more expansion, interleague play, and wild-card teams--necessitating an additional tier of play-offs. Both ticket prices and player salaries have increased exponentially, as has the amount of mass-produced memorabilia. (Case in point: Five different All-Star Game programs will be available this year, each with a unique cover. Collect 'em all, if you must.)
All of this is discouraging, leaving baseball with a tenuous hold on its "national pastime" status. I'm resigned to be content with memories of Seattle's last All-Star Game, which my dad and I attended on July 17, 1979.
The Mariners, in just their third year of existence, sold only about 2,000 season tickets in '79, leaving tens of thousands of All-Star seats to the rest of the public. My dad clipped a coupon from the sports page and mailed it in with a check. A pair of $10 tickets arrived a couple weeks later, which I received for my 10th birthday.
Unlike the five days of pricey, hyped-up festivities scheduled this year, including the Claritin All-Star Workout, the Century 21 Home Run Derby, and the Radio Shack Legends & Celebrity Softball Game, there was merely a noncorporate batting practice in 1979. It took place a day before the big show, and while it was free to the public, only about 15,000 people showed up (including me and my mom). The game itself didn't even sell out until days beforehand.
Game day was an unseasonably hot 96 degrees. Alas, the event was held in the climate-controlled Kingdome, somewhat dressed up with red, white, and blue bunting, streamers hanging from its closed oculus, and a giant All-Star logo painted onto the center field Astroturf. Dad and I took our seats in the 22nd row of the 300 level, high above third base.
In what has since become my favorite All-Star tradition, each player was individually introduced as they trotted onto the field, forming a sort of color guard along the first- and third-base lines. A veritable who's who of '70s baseball superstars stood before us: Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan, Steve Garvey, Carl Yastremski, Steve Carlton, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, and dozens of others.
Such an impressive display is unlikely today, when deserving players shun the game in favor of resting up for the second half of the season and others claim minor injuries as an excuse to go fishing. There are also the usual sour grapes who complain that the All-Star voting is just a popularity contest (it is), exacerbated by this year's international online balloting. Combined with roster limits and the controversial one-representative-per-team rule, many would-be All-Stars are left out.
In addition to the onslaught of talent, the '79 game included amusing sidelights. Comedian Danny Kaye, one of the original Mariner owners, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, then joined baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former President Gerald Ford in their front-row seats.
When George Brett stepped up to bat, Morganna the Kissing Bandit jumped out of the stands. Wearing a tight T-shirt and skimpy jogging shorts, the infamous blonde stripper (who claimed a 60-inch bust) made a beeline toward Brett. She stood on her toes and wrapped her arms around Brett's neck, planting a smooch on his tobacco-filled mouth. The howls from the record Kingdome crowd of 58,905 quickly turned to boos as the police escorted Morganna from the premises.
Perhaps inspired by Morganna, some other guy ran onto the field to shake hands with a startled Pete Rose. But the loudest cheers of the night came when hometown hero Bruce Bochte pinch-hit an RBI single in the sixth inning. In the seventh, Dave Parker turned a potential fielding error into a spectacular assist -- his near-perfect throw from right field to third base nailed Jim Rice, going for a triple. Parker struck again the next inning with the most amazing play of the night, if not the most amazing play I've ever seen. Fielding a line drive, Parker scooped up the ball and rifled it home, striking down the possible go-ahead run.
In light of everything that transpired -- five lead changes, several extra-base hits, a couple homers, and the unexpected fan participation -- the night ended in anticlimactic fashion. A bases-loaded walk in the top of the ninth forced home Joe Morgan with what proved to be the game-winning run. The Nationals prevailed, 7-6. Dave Parker won MVP and Morganna, later booked by Seattle police for criminal trespass, was the Most Valuable Fan.
I'm now 32 and disillusioned by baseball's increasingly exclusive nature. Sure, the Kingdome was awful and the Mariners stank, but in 1979, a Seattle All-Star Game was still accessible to the everyday fan.
But I still love baseball -- and the All-Star Game in particular. No, I won't be going, but as a consolation prize I bought a $15 ticket to the John Hancock All-Star FanFest, and I'll watch the big game on TV.
It's all right. I'll take Morganna over Ichiro any day.
© 2004-2013 Steve Mandich