The Falling Kingdome Tiles

On the afternoon of July 19, 1994, four tiles fell from the Kingdome roof down into the stands behind home plate. More specifically, at about 4:35, three hours before the scheduled game that night against the Baltimore Orioles, a 32″-by-48″ fiberglass tile dropped 180 feet as some of the Mariners players were stretching on the field. The three other tiles fell later in the day.

Coach Sam Perlozzo said: “I was walking from our dugout to the Orioles to talk to Chris Sabo when our players starting screaming that the roof was falling in. I thought they were kidding.” Ken Griffey Jr. said he was asleep at the time: “I’ve always told you guys I could sleep anywhere and through anything. I was in the clubhouse asleep and never heard a thing.”

Griffey had this to say about the situation: “They canceled the game for that? Hey, nobody was bitching when the roof was leaking and I was slipping and sliding out there in center field. Just put a sign at the gates saying ‘Enter at your own risk’ and let ‘em come on in.”

Randy Johnson made a prediction: “One way or another, we’ll get a retractable dome here.”

The Mariners went back out on the field within 45 minutes to take batting practice, only leaving the Kingdome after being ordered to do so: King County officials told the Mariners their safety was at risk. Afterward, general manager Woody Woodward reminisced: “Once in Dodger Stadium, we were playing and there was a boom behind me in the infield and it turned out someone had dropped a bag of flour from an airplane. It scared the hell out of us, but can you imagine if it had landed in the stands?”

One Orioles fan from Baltimore, Hilton Bosies, had taken Amtrak trains 3,500 miles to get to Seattle and watch the Orioles play the Mariners. He made the short walk from the station to the dome, got his tickets, and then had to watch as the game got cancelled. Of course the Kingdome closed down for the rest of the season, so maybe Bosies wound up going down to California to watch the Orioles plays the A’s and Angels. Or maybe he turned right around and got on the train back to Baltimore.

All 40,000 of the 15-pound tiles were removed within two weeks, and two of the workers removing tiles were killed on August 7 in an accident. The Kingdome managers said hundreds of people called up asking to buy a tile, but since the process of removing them consisted of just letting them drop 200 feet or so to the floor, they weren’t in any shape to sell as collectibles. Much of the urgent work of removing the tiles (which cost $51 million) went for naught, because the major league baseball strike started on August 12, 1994, shutting down Mariners baseball for the rest of the year.

Once the tiles were removed, the news broke that right at the start of the Mariners’ season, the Kingdome, King County, and Mariners officials all knew that the tiles were in danger of falling. They made some stopgap repairs and inspections, but failed to make the comprehensive inspection that was needed, and that would have cancelled at least one Mariners game, probably the home opener.

That September, after the baseball had stopped, a report to the King County Council said the county lost $9,444 for every Mariners game at the Kingdome. So the irony is that having the Mariners hit the road, and then having games from mid-August onward cancelled by the strike, saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in game-hosting costs. The Seahawks, on the other hand, generated $144,392 for the county with every home game.

Of course, eventually the Mariners and Seahawks got their own stadiums, and the tiles were just a weird episode in the saga of Seattle sports. You have to wonder what would have happened if the tiles had fallen during a Mariners game and killed one or more people. Instead of being a footnote in Mariners (and Seahawks) history and an embarrassing episode in the life of the Kingdome, the falling tiles would have instigated a full-blown scandal. The officials in charge would have been guilty of criminal negligence for letting the risk of the tiles falling go uncorrected.

We would have seen the demise of at least one major politician (Gary Locke was King County Executive at the time, so you have to figure he never would have become governor), an even longer shutdown of the Kingdome, and an end to the careers of everyone with responsibility for maintaining the stadium. The Mariners might easily have left for Tampa Bay for the 1995 season, and that’s where this story impacts the ’95 team.

The entire story of that season wouldn’t exist if the tiles scandal had become a tragedy and pushed the Mariners out of the Kingdome for good, not just for a month in 1994. Also, the home opener in late April was the first game at the Kingdome since the tiles fell, and between the tiles and the strike,  people had a couple good reasons to lose their allegiance to the Mariners and stay out of the Kingdome. It helps explain why it took so long for the place to start filling up as the M’s made their run for the division title in September. And, legend has it that the Mariners’ month-long road trip to close ’94 created a bond between the players that helped fuel the surge in ’95.

On that last point, Mike Blowers said: “We really had fun. It was like college again-sort of that us against the world thing. The tiles were huge for us. It brought us together.”

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