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April 05, 2005

First Baseman Protocols

I went to the Mariners home opener yesterday. We own a small fraction of some season tickets, so our seats are pretty good: six rows back on an aisle, and the aisle is directly lined up with the stairs at one end of the Mariners' dugout.

It's near first base, so the first baseman (and a few other infielders) use those stairs when they go back to the dugout after being in the field for a half inning. Because the firat baseman often makes the final putout of an inning, he often has a baseball in his glove when he comes off the field. As a result, this location can be a good place to get a souvenir baseball.

BUT, you have to know the protocol.

First of all I should explain that when the Mariners opened Safeco Field, they adopted the trendy notion of seat licenses. Seat licenses are a brilliant idea where instead of just charging people for season tickets, you charge people for the RIGHT TO BUY season tickets -- and then you charge them again for the tickets. Most of the primo seats at Safeco (for example, the first six rows where our seats are) are seat license seats. You buy a 20-year seat license and this gives you the opportunity to buy the season tickets for those seats. You can sell the seat license if you want. Owning the seat license also requires you to buy the season tickets every year, so really it's just a way to jack up season ticket prices, but with a different pricing scheme.

For reasons that include a) good customer service for seat license seats and b) keeping riff-raff out of the empty seat license seats, the Mariners have installed seat attendants at the bottom of each aisle. The seat attendants (who are people -- the previous sentence wasn't quite clear on that) help fans find their seats, shoo away those who don't belong, stop people from jumping on the field, etc. During the part of the baseball game where something is actually happening on the field, they sit in folding chairs at the bottom of the aisles.

The seat attendants are assigned to the same spot for every game, so you get to know them. Ours is an affable fellow named Jerry, who is great. If you want to define customer service, include a picture of him. Jerry remembers everybody (so he never has to ask to see our tickets), gives out candy to the kids, and leads us in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Yesterday I spilled a bit of my drink on my scorecard and Jerry dried it off on his pant leg.

Anyway, as I mentioned above our aisle is where the first baseman runs off the field, and he usually tosses a baseball into the stands if he has one in his glove. Now, the Mariners first baseman used to be John Olerud, who was a master of the baseball-toss-into-the-crowd. From being at many games, we knew what to expect.

First of all, Olerud (and first baseman in general) only threw a ball if he ended the inning with a putout. After EVERY inning, someone in the dugout would throw him a baseball so he had one in his glove to warmup the infield for the next inning, but he wouldn't throw that one. This confused a lot of kids who would be clamoring for a ball when we knew there was no hope of it.

Also, Jerry did not want lots of kids rushing down the aisle to jockey for the ball. So he established a convention with Olerud that if too many kids ran down the aisle, then Jerry would stand with his back to the field. Olerud would see this and not throw the ball.

So if you knew the protocol, you could avoid some disappointment for your kids. We would know, based on how the inning ended, if it was even worth having them run down the aisle and wave their glove. And if we saw a two-out grounder to the shortstop, we could have them out there ahead of almost everyone else.

Olerud has departed for greener pastures. Last year the Mariners had Scott Spiezio and Bucky Jacobsen at first base a lot of the time. They would generally just throw the ball to whoever kid they saw in the front row, which led to some ridiculous distributions (one family with two kids got four balls in one game).

Now the Mariners have Richie Sexson at first, and he looks like he is settled in there for a while, so it's worth investing in some training. Jerry was down at spring traning and said at first Sexson would just roll the ball back to the pitcher's mound at the end of the inning. So Jerry talked to him one day and explained the situation, and Sexson did pretty well yesterday. Olerud would actually pick out a specific child, point at them, and flip the ball to them when he was close to the dugout stairs. He was also a master of distributing the ball around; they say Ted Williams could tell you exactly where in the strike zone a pitch was, but I think Olerud could tell you down to the seat where he tossed each baseball. Sexson flipped it from further away, towards nobody in particular. But he did alternate left-side-of-the-aisle, right-side-of-the-aisle, to get some decent distribution. Did not get an opportunity to see whether the "Jerry's back" rule was in effect.

(There was one new wrinkle -- Jerry had some holograms, I think, that he would stick on baseballs that went into the stands, to guarantee their "game-used" authenticity. I guess this was the CRC part of the protocol).

Baseball players are taught to always think ahead of time about what to do in the current situation. Like, "if the ball is hit to me, throw to second." So when the first baseman is sitting there, in some small part of his mind, he is thinking "If the ball is hit to the shortstop, cover first...AND THEN THROW THE BALL TO THE LEFT SIDE OF THE AISLE THIS TIME!"

Baseball is not without its charms.

Posted by AdamBa at April 5, 2005 10:26 AM

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I've been a baseball fan since Peewee Reese (announcing days, not playing ones) and I have watched nearly every single Mariner game on TV for the 13 years I've lived here. And I never knew this. I love it. Thanks for the telling. We're in the 3rd inning of game 2 as I type this and so far, Sexson's a keeper in terms of production, here's hoping he gets his end-of-inning ball sharing skills honed up.

Posted by: Susan Dennis at April 5, 2005 08:06 PM

Also there should be a rule about Duane stealing tossed balls from us shorter folk. He's 2/2 now...

Posted by: Drew at April 6, 2005 12:10 AM

Now that Drew has singled me out, I will point out that I must sit very near you - either 2 rows in front of you or roughly 2 rows in front and across the aisle. You're right that Olerud had the drill down perfectly and he definitely remembered faces. Unfortunately, my kids were 14 and 17 by the time we started having such great seats and therefore never got a ball from him. On the other hand, Sexson pretty much just wings the ball into the crowd. After getting no baseballs at all in 2004 (& none ever from Olerud), I have now gotten 1 ball each of the first 2 games from Sexson. I did get Rich Aurilia's batting gloves in 2004. So each of my kids (although they're grown now) received a ball this week. I'm feeling pretty lucky. I'm sure Sexson will get better about distributing it. In the horrible inning where we gave up 7 runs, he threw the ball back to the mound.
And I totally agree about Jerry. He's great. I try to remember to let the M's front office know about him every year. We had rotating ushers the first year. It's been a much better experience since he took over full-time. He makes my family and our frequent guests feel welcome and is generally part of the great thing about Safeco Field for us. He handles those who have had too much to drink really well, too. Lindy (one section over in 122/123) is great, too.

Posted by: Duane at April 6, 2005 02:12 AM

We have one-eighth of four seats in section 122: row 9 seats 1&2, and row 10 seats 1&2. I think you are right in front of us actually. I remember what was probably the ball you caught on Monday, it was a couple rows in front of us and it got bobbled a bit in the stands. In fact I think I was there when you caught Aurilia's gloves, believe it or not, unless he made a habit of tossing them into the crowd. I was definitely at a game last year where he threw them in after the game and someone a few rows in front of me caught them (looking a bit surprised).

Sexson is good and bad compared to Olerud. He is good because he seems to throw it about as far back as we sit, so we could get one at any given game. On the other hand, Olerud would throw it to kids and we have several adorable ones to parade about. At some of the later-in-the-season night games last year there were not a lot of kids around and two of our sons got balls (at different games). One good thing about Olerud is he was obviously throwing it to a specific person so when he threw one to our 5-year-old and he missed it, the person who got it gave it to our son. With Sexson, since he is just throwing it up for grabs, I don't know if that would happen.

- adam

P.S. Who's Rich Aurilia??

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 6, 2005 11:18 AM

Great post - I have seats right next to yours (the Microsoft section) (121, row 8, seats 9-12 on the aisle). Strange I have never seen you!

Our kids love Jerry too. He used to give out bubble gum, but the Mariners made him stop last year apparently because it was "too messy" We have a sizable collection of balls, mostly from Olerud, but we did get one from Bucky last year during his brief spell at first. The best technique I have found is to pick up a small cute child and hold her (only tried with my girls) in one arm, then have a baseball glove on the other hand. Olerud was pretty leery about throwing to small children, but if you are holding a small child he would throw it to you. On the theory that you would give the ball to the child, but if you want to be a meanie, keep it for yourself.

When Mike Cameron was with the M's, he ALWAYS used to throw the ball to an attractive young woman (not kid) which I thought was pretty funny.

The funniest Jerry moment is from back in Ichiro's first year. At the end of every inning there would be this stampede of Japanese teenage girls down to the dugout to get a glimpse of Ichiro. Jerry didn't speak Japanese, and they didn't speak English, so Jerry would put on this very entertaining pantomime that meant "you can't come down here without a ticket"

Posted by: John Vert at April 6, 2005 12:48 PM

My seats are right across from yours, John - 122, row 8, seats 1-4. I never noticed Cameron giving the balls to young girls but I did notice how Freddy Garcia would always scan the crowd. It was funny because most players would never look at the crowd at all but Freddy was always looking up there (& he wasn't looking at me).
My 19 year old son who has been to at least 150 games over the last 10 years has never gotten a ball at a game but his girlfriend who went to about 3 or 4 games got 2 balls last year - one from Bucky and one from Jose Lopez.
I didn't know who your seats belonged to - I've seen many people that I know (mostly NT guys) sitting in them over the years. Lean over and say hi sometime.

Posted by: Duane at April 7, 2005 01:00 AM

Are you guys at most games? We draft for seats within our group that shares the tickets. Our next ones are May 14 (Boston).

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at April 7, 2005 04:55 PM

Someone from my family (my wife, my grown kids or me) is there probably about 80% of the time. We were busier when our son was in high school and missed more games. Our daughter also moved back into town last year so we make more of the games because of that, too. When we miss games we have a bunch of friends that go in our place.

Posted by: Duane at April 7, 2005 11:36 PM

Yes! With Duane not there today I was able to catch a Sexson toss (although I might have kind of boxed out his son)! Of course what am I going to do with a ball? I turned around and gave it to the daughter of a guy who works in the XBOX group and sits in row 10 of section 122.
Olerud was much better at this and finding kids in the crowd. Sexson still rolls the ball back to the mound to often and did it at the end of two innings today which by my count makes seven times in the three games I have been in my charter seats this year.

Posted by: Aaron at April 9, 2005 11:29 PM