Baseball Cards: My gift to Seattle

In the spring of 1999, at almost 29 years old, I found myself working a full-time job I couldn’t stand and a part-time job that I loved. I’m not sure what I hated most about my full-time job: The company’s strict white shirt and tie dress code; the ‘no facial hair’ policy; or the fact that I took a pay-cut for the pleasure.

While I wasn’t at all happy with my capitulation to neckties and the untimely loss of my goatee, I made-up for the loss of income by gigging more. I umpired and refereed various sports all over town (quickly finding out that I was a bum just like every other umpire and referee…) and at the urging of a friend the previous year, got a part-time job with the Seattle Mariners as a Guest Services rep during home games at the Kingdome.

***

Back in the spring of 1992, I was fresh out of college and trying to wedge my foot in the door of a professional baseball front office.  After I failed to land an internship with the Spokane Indians, I knocked on the door of the Everett Giants (now the AquaSox) and found the small office of only 3-5 full-time employees to be extremely welcoming.

The owner of the Giants was a man named Bob Bavasi.  His father was a longtime Major League executive, most famously as General Manager of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers during their 1950’s and 60’s heyday.  After briefly meeting the other members of the of club’s staff, I was brought into Mr. Bavasi’s office and introduced to him.

I couldn’t believe it.   He made me feel so completely at ease – but I knew this guy was baseball progeny and, in my head, I was thinking about how he probably grew up around ALL the Dodger greats from Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale…

He casually reclined in his chair with his feet up on his desk and hands behind his head as I did my best to convince him that I’d do anything it would take to work in baseball.  I honestly have no recollection of what I said but with equal parts composure and enthusiasm, I he told me they’d give me a call if they needed any help with special projects and then work part-time during the summer season.

I was so excited and I quickly found out they were serious about special projects. Not long after my impromptu interviews with the club, I received a call from one their few full-time employees who was looking for a volunteer. This was my chance!

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Within days, I found myself standing outside the south entrance of the Kingdome, armed with a duffel bag full of Everett Giants pocket schedules, handing them out to every baseball fan who would take one. I was working in baseball!

The guy who I helped that day, went on to be recognized as Northwest League Executive of the Year in 1999.  On the other hand, my first attempt at a career in baseball was derailed by pretty much the ONLY thing I liked more…

I was in love for the first time in my life.  She told me she wanted to have my babies…and I definitely liked to practice.  Instead of attending a weekend-long, mandatory training event for Giants seasonal employees, I decided to take a trip with my girlfriend.

I dumped the Giants for her.

She dumped me at the end of that summer.

***

So with six years of agonizing hindsight into the worst decision of my young life, I interviewed with the Seattle Mariners for another part-time position in 1998.  When I was hired, I was determined to make the most of my second chance to work in the game I love.

Like myself, the other members of the guest services team all fell somewhere on the fangirl/fanboy spectrum but as far as I could see, none of them aspired to more.

I on the other hand, worked like I owned the club.  I carried myself with enthusiasm and professionalism and volunteered for everything.  In a job that’s constantly on the front line of guest dissatisfaction, I excelled in creative problem-solving.  It wasn’t long before I was given the more challenging and high-profile assignments.

I looked after the executive suite; I had to (somewhat controversially) check kids’ ID’s on Beanie Baby night; and most memorably, on a day when the game time had been moved ahead by several hours, I was asked to placate the people who failed to get the notice in time.

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Unaware of the early start but with all the excitement a trip to the ballpark evokes, fewer than 100 people showed-up at the Kingdome’s north gate during the late innings of the game that afternoon. Their excitement was quickly dashed away when they realized they’d missed the day’s game.

Fortunately, we were well-prepared, and I offered everyone tickets to the next day’s game.  In a few cases where fans had traveled from outside the area, I was even given the ability to offer an overnight hotel room.  I honestly don’t recall anyone being angry, and the offer of free tickets worked for everyone – except for one small group.

Traveling to Seattle from Portland that day, was a group of about 15 people.  They were a team of mostly 10-ish year-old boys, in town celebrating a birthday, and were devastated to hear they had missed the game.  To their credit, my managers were willing to let me book the whole group into a hotel, but they unfortunately had to return to Portland that night.

With the game now over and people streaming out of the stadium, an idea flashed through my head and I asked the despondent group to hang tight as I radioed back to my supervisors.  With their blessing, I offered up my solution to the birthday boy’s Mother.  She liked it but I’d have to run it by the boys first…

“Hey guys, I see you brought your mitts” I said to the deflated little ballplayers. “Do you wanna come play inside the Kingdome?

They responded with immediate and incredulous excitement. “What?!!” “No way!” “YES!!!”

Now mostly clear, I escorted the birthday crew through the tunnels of the Kingdome and into a room that sat between the Mariners’ clubhouse and dugout. I’d hoped we might run into a lingering player or two but with none in sight, we loaded-up a few batting helmets with baseballs, grabbed some bats and I led them through the dugout and out onto the Kingdome field.

As the grounds crew finished cleaning-up, they gave me only one simple rule: “Just stay off the mound.”  With that, I unleashed the happiest group of 10 year-olds that the Kingdome ever saw. We played catch, took batting practice, ran the bases, and posed for pictures up against the center field wall where Ken Griffey, Jr. stole away so many would-be home runs.

When it was time to say goodbye, I made sure each kid had a ball and the birthday boy, a cracked Edgar Martinez bat.

I don’t remember the details of the Mariners game that day and had those boys arrived on time to see it, I doubt they would either.  As disappointed as they were when they arrived after their long drive, only to miss seeing their baseball heroes play, they looked to be bouncing on air as they left the Kingdome that day.  I suspect they still remember every detail.  I sure do.

While I thrived in challenging situations like that, I also saw the need to proactively engage with fans – to try and make their gameday experience just a little bit better – especially the kids.

***

I was about 13 when I got my first baseball card price guide.  It was around 1983 and until that point, I was aware only of the growing collection of cards under my bed.  I had no idea that the baseball card-collecting industry even existed.  I had certainly never heard the term “Mint Condition.

My baseball cards had been around for almost as long as I could remember.  The oldest cards in my shoebox were from 1975.  More cards were added each year until a second and then third shoebox were needed.  I sorted and re-sorted them every possible way and created my own games with them. They were far from mint condition, but they were well-loved.

My collection continued to grow over the years and by 1998, it took up an entire closet. The shoe-boxes and rubber bands were replaced by stacks of 5000-count boxes full of meticulously-sleeved baseball cards.

I still had (have) an OCD-fueled predilection for sorting and resorting my baseball cards but when the collection got so big, the primary method of sorting simply became: “Star Players” and “Common Players.”  There were FAR more commons than stars – probably 80/20.  While commons technically have book-value, I saw mine as more or less worthless – and taking up a lot of space.

***

I can’t say exactly what game it was, but as I got ready to go to work one afternoon in the early summer of that 1998 season, I grabbed a big stack of Mariners “commons” before I left the house.  That evening, I assumed my normal pre-game position outside the north entrance of the Kingdome, making myself available to early bird fans for questions and directions before the gates opened.

As I mingled with fans that evening, like a clown with a never-ending scarf, I produced a tapestry of Mariners commons from the right-front pocket of my Dockers: Salome’ Barojas, Rich DeLucia, John Moses, Mike Kingery… Every kid in my immediate orbit got a baseball card until the gates opened and I left for my other duties.

I did it again the next night and the next, and again until it just became routine.  I had a lot of fun with it.  The little kids loved them and the mostly obscure players on the cards made for fun conversations and reminiscing with their baseball-loving dads.

I noticed that the older a kid appeared to be, the less appreciative they seemed.  I’d hand them an Edwin Nunez and they’d ask, “Do you have any Griffeys?”

I continued handing out my baseball cards at every game I worked for the remainder of that 1998 season.  I suppose a few of those cards wound-up in the garbage can but nonetheless, they made for fun interactions with fans of all ages.

Before Oprah, there was me outside the Kingdome:

“You get a common! You get a common! You get a common!”

“Hey mister, do you have any Randy Johnsons?”

“No. Here’s a Pete Ladd!  Commons for everyone!”

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At the end of that first season, I was awarded with the Mariners Guest Services team “Rookie of the Year” award.

The following year – 1999, would be the last for the Mariners in the Kingdome.  Construction had already begun on Safeco Field and by mid-season, the team would be moving into their brand-new home.  As part of the move, several new full-time positions were posted, including ‘Manager of Suite Services’ on the Guest Services team.

The basic function of the job was to oversee the patron experience and manage gameday guest services employees in the premium seating and group function areas throughout the new ballpark.  With 4+ years of management experience and one successful season with the Mariners under my belt, I applied for, and got the position.

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I’m sure it was the aggregate of things I did during that first season that earned me the job, but if there was any doubt, the baseball cards had to have sealed the deal for me.  As we began preparations for the big move to Safeco Field, plans were made to arm ALL ushers and guest services reps with baseball cards for kids.

***

Despite the fact that my career with the Mariners didn’t last beyond that first season at Safeco Field, I’m proud to say that 20 years after I did it for the first time, kids at Mariners games are still greeted with baseball cards from gameday staff.

As my focus on baseball has now turned to art and jewelry-making, I’ve brought baseball cards back into my work. My business cards are re-purposed baseball cards and I include a real baseball card with every piece of handmade, game-used baseball jewelry that I sell.

Most fun for me however, is that as I work markets and shows around Seattle, you will always find me with a handful of baseball cards for kids –  Just like the old days, handing out Giants schedules and cards outside the Kingdome!

I even give away Griffeys these days!

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