The Stadium Vote and the Fan Van

It was a magical season for our young family. We lived in West Seattle, 10 minutes from the Dome, and were often given free tickets through work, so we went to almost every game. My wife and I and our 2 sons would often get to the Dome early enough for batting practice, and would often stay until the players left and the parking lot was empty. Sam was 9 and Zach was 6, and they had many autographs from the players from both teams. A favorite was when Don Mattingly signed Zach’s Stand Up action figure (in the unopened package). My wife and I would sit in the nearly empty stadium, and watch as both Sam and Zach would make the rounds for autographs. It was a very relaxed time.

One night after a game towards the end of the 1995 season, I remember when Lou was being driven out to his car in a golf cart, he stopped to sign some autographs, and made the quip that it seemed there were more people waiting outside than there were in the Dome. Boy, within a few games that all changed. They started winning, and it seemed every win was in the last 2 or 3 innings!

Well, fast forward to the Stadium vote. I remember how that divided a lot of relationships! Either you were for, or against! Neighbors against neighbors! Eastern Washington versus Western Washington!

The night the stadium vote failed to pass, Sam, 9 years old, told us he wanted to write a letter to Governor Lowry. So we gave him pencil and paper, and off we sent his letter to the Governor’s office, on our new “fax machine.” He wrote how he wanted to help save baseball in Seattle.

Then it all started. We received a phone call from the Governor’s office. They wanted to know if this kid was real. Yup. Later that evening, we watched the Governor’s News Conference on TV evening news, where he read Sam’s letter, and told how it moved him to call a special session of the legislature, that we needed to save baseball in Seattle!

Then the calls began. The Seattle Times, Spokane Review, Channel 4, 5, 7, and even 13! They all wanted to know who this Sam kid was. Walking to the store on day, Sam was approached and asked, “Hey, you’re the Mariner kid aren’t you?” Twice we had TV stations come to the house just to interview us while we were watching the game on TV, at the games they’d catch up with us, they even went to Sam’s school a couple times for interviews. It’s funny looking back at the time when they interviewed Sam and his elementary class, asking their views on whether the voters should approve funding a new stadium. You could sure tell what the kids were hearing at home!

Then the season ended. It all came crashing down. It felt sooo cold outside, and the sky was just a little more gray. I noticed my lawn for the 1st time in 6 weeks, it must have been 6 inches tall. We ALL came down with the flu! No more living on adrenaline.

Then another phone call. It was the Governor’s Office. The new bill was going to be signed into law, and the Governor’s office wanted to know if they could come to Lafayette Elementary in West Seattle, where Sam went to school as a 5th grader, and have the bill signed into law, in front of all the kids. I said it was up to the school, better call them, but it was OK with us! Impromptu Assembly! Just about every politician in town, and every Mariner front office person was there. The night before, we went down to Southcenter and had “Refuse to Lose” T-Shirts made for ourselves and Governor Lowry. When the assembly started, Lowry got up in front of all the kids and explained what a law was, and what they were doing by signing it. He then led the school in a chorus of “Take me out to the Ballgame.” A heavy sigh, and back to reality.

Then round two. Vanity plates. We got plates #00001 and #00003. WOW, we wondered if we should chance getting it stolen by putting it on our car! We put the #00001 plate on our family van. It was silver with blackened windows. I mention that because as we drove around, people would look, almost getting in accidents to see who we were. I mean, plate number #1? Had to be SOMEONE! We then coined the term “The Fan Van,” and an idea was hatched.

The Fan Van. We approached the Mariners with an idea, and they liked it. We would have a van painted in Mariner colors, with big letters across the side calling it the Fan Van, all with the #0001 license plate. We planned on getting sponsors to donate the van and paint, and would drive the Mariner Moose out onto the field before the games. Pretty much everything was negotiated until at the last minute, the Mariners backed out, citing liability issues. The following year, they approached us trying to obtain the plate, but we passed. They tried the idea for themselves to a small degree with a Hummer…but it went nowhere.

Finally round number 3. It all comes together, and what a small world. In 2010, here in Phoenix at a business lunch, a group of 6 people, talking about the business we were all in, when the subject of Seattle came up. The gentleman I was sitting next to, Brian Beggs, mentioned how he too had lived in Seattle. I asked what he did in Seattle, and he mentioned he had worked for the Seattle Mariners as CFO!!!! OMG!!! You can guess what we talked about the rest of the lunch! The other people at the table just sat and listened. I recounted our family’s experience in 1995, and he told his stories. He told how he had to make the decision to cancel the games after the ceiling tiles fell, along with many other great stories. Then, I mentioned the Fan Van. He fell somewhat silent. Here he was, having flown in from California, trying to win my business, when he softly mentioned it was him that killed the idea of the Fan Van. We finished lunch, and I told him it was all in the past. I shook his hand, we shared a few emails, and that was that.

By Dave Keeler

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.”