It was more than a baseball game, this time

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Tuesday, September 18, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – You knew this night was different.

You knew it was different when the security guy at the press gate, a man you had spoken to countless times, searched your computer case.

He was almost apologetic for having to do it. “Hey,” someone said. “No need to apologize. I’m glad you’re doing it.”

You knew it was different when a King County police officer came through the press box at 4:45 with a bomb-sniffing dog.

A writer leaned down to pet the dog, a black labrador named Quincy. The animal licked the man’s hand. “He’s a lover, not a fighter,” the officer said, “but he does his job.”

You knew it was different when you walked outside the ballpark and every other person, it seemed, either wore a shirt bearing an American flag or held a flag in his hand.

On the sidewalk along First Avenue, a man and his family sold paper flags for $1 each. He hoped to sell 10,000. Most of the proceeds, after expenses, would go to a disaster relief fund.

In front of the main gate, Connie Smith of Shelton unfurled a large afghan, patterned after an American flag. She had made it years ago and thought this an appropriate time to bring it out.

Smith was ready for some Mariner-style baseball. “We need to get back to normal and look forward to good things,” she said. “What better way than with the great American past-time.”

Roberta Compton of Wenatchee echoed that sentiment. “It’s always been called the All-American game,” she said. “Baseball, in and of itself, is patriotic.”

Sitting beside her was her daughter, Shawna, who wasn’t supposed to be in the U.S. on this 18th day of September. A member of the Peace Corps, she was to have flown to Romania last week, but had her trip postponed until Oct.1.

The thing that made this night different, of course, and caused her still to be here was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last week.

The movie that was playing in the Mariner clubhouse also signified a difference in the night. It was the film “Patton,” starring the late George C. Scott. Pat Borders, a recent pickup, sat intently watching it. He wore classic American clothing – cowboy boots, faded jeans, a cutoff T-shirt – but wasn’t trying to make a point. That’s his customary outfit.

Something else that spoke of difference was the bulletin board outside manager Lou Piniella’s office. One message read: 7 p.m., on first-base line for National Anthem. 6:55, in dugout for pregame ceremony.

As the clock hands moved towards 7 o’clock, it was apparent that Mariner fans wanted to celebrate this fine team that was on the verge of wrapping up the American League West title, and that they were ready – as Connie Smith said – to try to bring some semblance of normalcy back into their lives. The stands were quickly filling up – another sellout was promised.

Before 6:55 ever arrived, the M’s and the Angels players were lined up along the dugout railings, the first time that had happened since the season opener, and when the Gospel Outreach Youth School choir from Olympia began singing “Amazing Grace,” both teams walked onto the field, the visitors taking their places along the third-place line, the M’s lining up on the first-base line.

This would be a night unlike any other at Safeco Field. Patriotism reigned during a stirring pregame ceremony – the singing of “God Bless America” and the national anthem, not by just the choir, but with 45,000 voices joining in. And 45,000 small flags waving in the night air.

Then it was time for what everyone had come for: baseball.

All of us wondered how the M’s players would be affected by the seven-day layoff. There was speculation that the pitchers might have some trouble regaining their sharpness. Freddy Garcia quickly put that kind of talk to rest, retiring the Angels in order in the first.

Nobody much worried about the M’s hitters. Roust some of these guys out of bed in the middle of December and they’d go 3-for-4.

Ichiro responded as if he’d played all week: Getting a hit in his first at-bat, a line-drive single off pitcher Ramon Ortiz’s wallet. His second time up, same thing: He didn’t get the ball out of the infield, but got another hit when third baseman Troy Glaus came up with the ball, but had no chance to throw him out.

The crowd was buzzing not just because baseball was once again being played, but because the M’s could clinch their division. All they needed was to win their game and have Oakland lose at Texas. For once, M’s players would be fibbing if they said they weren’t scoreboard watching.

The M’s had five hits and a 2-0 lead after three innings, but they also had a couple of base-running boo-boos, which bespoke of minds that hadn’t had to concentrate for a week.

In the top of the fourth, the scoreboard flashed that Texas had taken a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth on a 2-run homer by Alex Rodriguez, and the crowd reacted with a slight murmur. If that score stood up, would the Safeco Field faithful relent and welcome Alex with a cheer the next time he comes to town?

Doubt it.

It became a moot point when Oakland regained the lead in the seventh and went on to win.

The celebration would have to wait for another night.

And the cheering of A-Rod – that might have to wait forever.

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