By David Krueger Herald Writer
SEATTLE — After 30 years as a school teacher, Judie Houtz retired and decided to begin a second career at one of her favorite locations: Safeco Field.
When the Seattle Mariners opened their 2012 home season last Friday, so did Houtz, a concierge on the suite level at Safeco Field. She’s worked at the ballpark since 2003 and, at age 63, doesn’t plan a second retirement any time soon.
“They hire people who are in wheelchairs and are in their 80s,” Houtz said. “I think I’ll probably be one, with a walker going up and down the suite level. They’ll have to take me away in a Mariner coffin. I can’t imagine not working there.”
Houtz, who lives in Clinton on Whidbey Island, faces a commute of at least an hour and a half — and sometimes up to 3½ hours — to get to her job. She has to worry about catching ferries, getting home late and leaving early enough the next day to make sure she arrives on time.
Even with all those concerns, the idea of not making the trek seems ridiculous to Houtz.
“It’s the best job ever, it really is,” she said. “All of my friends think I’m absolutely crazy for the commute that I do. They ask, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re retired.’ … When they do get to the ballpark, I always get a phone call the next day and they say, ‘I get it. I get why you’re there.’”
A baseball fan since she was little, Houtz grew up rooting for the New York Yankees. In 1969, when the expansion Pilots played their lone major-league season in Seattle before bolting to Milwaukee, Houtz and her husband bought $1.50 student tickets and sat in the outfield.
As Houtz got older, her seats got better. Her husband’s company had a suite at Safeco Field and she started talking to the concierge — who happened to be an old friend Houtz worked with at Redmond High School, where she taught English and leadership classes for 24 years.
“I said, ‘I want your job,’” Houtz recalled. “He told me about a job fair. I was hired on the spot and haven’t looked back since. And I now, by the way, have his job.”
Houtz is responsible for the entire suite level, including the deployment of employees. She’s in charge of all the concierges from opening to closing. “I’m busy every five seconds,” she said.
Officially she is the captain of the suite level, but she only hears that title when somebody needs something. “When they want my attention, they say ‘Captain Judie,’” Houtz said.
She said the best part of her job is getting to meet a variety of people. Her least favorite responsibility is dealing with fans who drink in excess. In the suite level, she routinely sees some of the same people over and over again, giving her a chance to get to know them.
Working at the ballpark has afforded Houtz, who estimates she watches “not even 5 percent” of any given game, the opportunity to meet her two favorite Mariners: Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez. Houtz said she loves how Wilson comes to the games with his family, and is “a great role model for kids.”
The usher said she’s had many memorable experiences at the ballpark, including meeting former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda — who she calls “just the funniest person” — and Mascot Day, when there’s a bunch of large, comical characters running around the ballpark.
But her most memorable moment came when she got on an elevator and spent a little unplanned time with a legendary member of the Mariners’ family.
“One of my favorite moments was being on an elevator with Dave Niehaus,” Houtz said. “It was one of those times where he hit the wrong button. He was supposed to get off at the press-box level. We started talking, he pushed the wrong button. Suddenly we’re on the third floor, neither one of us were supposed to get off there, and we had just talked all the way up and all the way down.
“That’s one of my cherished memories, because many people don’t get that one-on-one.”
Like the Mariners, Houtz goes through spring training. She is one of the staffers who helps familiarize — or usher in — the new hires at Safeco Field. Houtz said there’s not much in the way of attrition each year. Everyone has so much fun they don’t want to leave.
“It sounds kind of cliche-ish, but I think it’s like working at Disneyland,” Houtz said. “People who work at the ballpark want to be at the ballpark.”