Being seven years old, I couldn’t see much from my spot in the back row. But I knew where everyone sat. We always sat in the same places. Uncle Manoli was driving because it was their van, and my father sat in the passenger’s seat because he was the other man. My mother and Auntie Marina sat in the middle row, like sisters more than sisters-in-law. And the back row was us: me, my sister who is a year younger than I am, my cousin who is a year older than I am, and his sister who is the same age as my sister. The back row was ours. Made for only three people, the four of us always sat together. In the green van and in the other cars our parents drove, we always managed to fit all of us.
Even though I wasn’t the eldest, I was always the one to make sure we were all safe. I made sure we all had our seatbelts on. I asked if they wanted their jackets on or off before we left so they wouldn’t have to adjust later. I made sure we all had the snacks we needed and a couple of water bottles to share. It was a two-hour drive from Bellingham to Seattle, so I just wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable.
This time we were going to our first baseball game. Like with all the other car rides that took more than an hour, the four of us fell asleep. Dimitri’s head on his sister Andreana’s shoulder, Andreana’s head on my sister Lia’s shoulder, Lia’s head on my shoulder, and my head against the window. I liked that the window was cold against my cheek and still let the sun warm my face.
I only slept for about twenty minutes. That’s how it always was when we went on road trips. I could never sleep. I would try, letting myself just listen to the music of our parents’ conversations or watch the trees turn to a green blur outside the window, but I never managed to sleep for more than half an hour. So when I would wake up, I would just listen to my cousins’ and sister’s breathing slowly match up and continue as one rhythm.
When I saw the Space Needle, I knew we were in Seattle. It was one of my first times seeing it in person, well, driving past it, but it meant that we were almost there. After two hours of driving, passing building after building, tree after tree, the Space Needle meant that we were in Seattle. I would always see the water first, and I would be scared that we had already passed the landmark and I had missed it. But then it was there, and I would eagerly look it up and down, admiring how it stood apart and away from the other buildings, claiming its own space in the sky. After we drove past it and it was moving away, I would turn around and keep my eyes on it until it was too far behind us. I waited patiently for the rest to wake up.
At that time, we didn’t know anything about the Mariners except that Ichiro was on the team. But we did know that we were going to Safeco Field, the new home of the Mariners. Dimitri led the chants.
“Okay, guys, I’ll say, ‘Safe,’ and you guys say, ‘Co,’” he said as he looked at all of us, making sure we heard his instructions.
“Why?” Andreana asked, her voice high-pitched and truly curious.
“Because that’s where we’re going,” I told her.
“Ready?” he waited a second before starting. “Safe!”
“Co!” we girls yelled back.
“Safe!” Dimitri said again.
“Co!” we responded.
We went on like this, Dimtri yelling from his end of the row and us responding, for a few minutes. We were all looking forward out the windshield where our fathers were sitting, too focused on our own part of the chant to look at each other. Uncle Manoli and my father just laughed their van-filling laughs. Our mothers were closer to us and got the full effect of our call-and-response, turning back to glare.
We finally pulled up to the gate of the parking garage, and our fathers told us to be quiet so they could hear what the attendant was saying. The green van climbed the parking garage, all the way up to the above-ground level. We could see the stadium from there before we even left the car. Photographs of the players were on the walls, there was a big metal glove that other kids were playing on, and there were skinny men with thin grey hair trying to sell people magazines and asking for tickets.
The four of us ran to the stairs and down them to the crosswalk, Safeco Field just a white walking man away. Our parents were right behind us, and they herded us across the street to one of the lines forming at the gates. Standing in line, we saw the people in front of us taking off their backpacks and putting them on a table to be checked. Water bottles and peanuts were tossed in the garbage. You weren’t allowed to bring those things in with you, so it was a good thing we had left our water in the car.
We handed our tickets one by one to an old lady. She scanned them with her gun, it beeped and lit up our tickets, and she let us walk through the spinning thing into the stadium. I don’t know why, but even now, those first few steps into the stadium are my favorite. Other people had been going through the same short process and were entering at the same time. Fathers were holding their daughters’ hands; mothers were looking at stadium maps to see which way to go; brothers and sisters were trying to run up the stairs to see the field before anyone else. Everyone was everywhere. Dimtri, Lia, and Andreana were already running up the stairs and didn’t see what I saw. There were hundreds of glass baseball bats hanging from the ceiling. Some were hanging from handles, and others were hanging from the barrels. But they all seemed to be touching each other. One on top of the other and next to another and below another and diagonal from another. The chandelier was a big circle of bats at the top and spiraled down to a tiny circle above our heads. The sun was shining through it and off of it and filling the foyer of Safeco Field with sprawling, floating lines of calm yellow light. It was magic and inviting.
But I ran up the stairs with everyone else. Our parents, again, were right behind us and made sure we didn’t get too lost. They called us over to them, and the eight of us formed a loose huddle, our heads somewhat together and everyone looking in separate directions. Our mothers told us where we had to go to get to our seats. We weren’t too far away; we had entered near home plate, and our seats were along the first base line. We followed our fathers’ bobbing and turning heads visible from the front of our group, we followed them. The mothers closed us in at the back of our line and steered us back in line if we drifted. Hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, we walked past garlic fries and kettle corn and followed Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs’ soft booming voices to our seats.
The hour we had before the game was to start went by fast. We sat and watched batting practice. Player after player came up to the plate and hit ball after ball into the outfield. I was hypnotized by the routine. Everyone knew where they were supposed to be and how many swings they were supposed to take. Left-handers and right-handers and short players and tall players talked and ran and swung their bats, and it all repeated until the game started. It was a methodical dance that they went through almost every day. Spinning and swinging and running, and doing it all again and again. One batter would take his swings, run behind the plate, and another would take his place. The players in the outfield played pass, throwing the ball back and forth in arches that seemed to stay the same height and length every time—perfect mirrors of each other. That was the first time I experienced the magic of baseball—that everything was connected. My family was connected to each other. And I was connected to the game—every fan of every team, every player, every announcer, every peanut thrower, every ticket scalper, every brother and sister. I was innocent, and I had fallen in love with an entire culture.
The only thing I remember happening during the actual game had nothing to do with the game. The wave of fluids hit our backs, splashed up, then came back down and ran down our shirts and made our shirts cling to us. It was summer, and it was sticky. I don’t remember exactly where everyone was sitting, so I don’t know how it only happened to me and Andreana, but we were the hit. We were sitting at the top row near all the beverage vendors and their carts. No one saw how it happened, but one of the carts that had pop and water and beer on it fell over and spilled on us. Our shirts were soaked with drinks, ice, and melted ice water. Our parents jumped up and made a laughing yelling sound that drew attention to us. The man selling drinks at the cart that spilled came over to us with a stadium attendant and apologized. Then Uncle Manoli, Andreana, and I followed the attendant to a stand that was selling clothes. The attendant asked the person working at the stand for two medium youth shirts. We went to the bathroom to change as Uncle Manoli waited outside for us, one eye on the door and one eye on the field. We came out of the bathroom, Andreana with her Freddy Garcia shirt and me with my John Olerud shirt. And that was it.
John Olerud was mine.
For the whole rest of the game, I yelled for John. I cheered when he came up to the plate. I cheered when he ran out to play defense. (He was, conveniently, the first baseman, so we were closest to him.) I cheered when he got a hit and told him it was okay when he grounded out to the shortstop. When he was released and put on the free agent market in 2004, I went to my room and marked it on my calendar, proclaiming it “John Olerud Day.”
My sister and I watched every Mariners game the next season. During the weekdays, games started at 7:05 p.m. Lia and I had soccer practice from 5–6 p.m. Our father would pull up to the parking lot right at 5, and he would help us get into the car. Our mother made him put dirty towels on the floors and seats of the car so we wouldn’t get anything dirty. He made sure that we didn’t fill the car with too much dirt and grass smell. Then he would drive us home. It took seven minutes, so we had time to sing along to two songs in the car. It would either be Elvis or Greek music. Sometimes we would listen to the Mariners pregame on the radio. As much as our whole family loves baseball, my father would get frustrated with the team when they were losing, so he would try to not watch the game or not listen to the radio guys talk about it. But he always seemed to accidentally put it on that channel, even if he just ended up yelling.
Hungry from running around at practice and not wanting to miss even the first inning, we would hurry through our dinners and run upstairs and take showers. She would take our bathroom, and I would take our parents’. I had it down to six minutes. I would shampoo, condition, and soap up as quick as I could, then I would get in my pajamas and get ready for the game.
We were only in second and third grade, I think, so our bedtime was around 8:30 or 9, which meant we only got to watch the game until about the seventh inning. Usually the score was a big enough margin that even though we didn’t want to go to bed, we were okay with it because we knew who was going to win. But on nights that the game was close, we would sit on the couch with our father and will him to not look at the clock. But he always somehow knew what time it was, and he would look at us and laugh.
He would turn toward us, put his head down, look up at us from under his eyebrows, smile, and say, “You know what time it is.”
“But Dad, just one more inning,” Lia and I would say.
“I don’t know. It’s past your bedtime,” our father would say.
“But Dad, we promise! After this inning,” we’d said.
“Okay, just one more,” he’d finally say.
Now my sister lives about a six-hour drive away from me, but we’re both busy with school, so we only see each other a few times a year, when we’re both at home for Christmas or Spring Break. But whenever we see a Mariners writer post something on Twitter or see a player post a picture, we call or text each other. These days, we mostly just share our frustrations with how the team is being managed. But we always remember the guys on the team when we first fell in love with the sport. Most times, we’re just telling each other what we’ve already seen on our own. Maybe it’s just an excuse to hear each other’s laughs and know we still make each other smile when we say the same thing at the same time.
But Lia still makes fun of me for loving John Olerud so much. Maybe it’s because I wore No. 5 for my soccer jersey just to have the same number as John. Or maybe it’s the frame that I have hanging on my wall in my old room at home. The frame is pretty big. There are baseball cards and tickets that John signed for me when I met him. I was in sixth grade, and our mom took us to a mall about an hour and a half away, but she wouldn’t tell us why we had to go there. It was Christmastime, so we didn’t really question the road trip. Our mom ended up surprising us with a chance to meet John Olerud, Dan Wilson, and Jamie Moyer. As soon as I saw the line for autographs, I panicked. I wasn’t ready to meet him. Admiring him from afar was good enough for me. I remember my stomach hurting and causing me to tremble all the way down to my toes. I kept my hands in the pocket of my sweatshirt, making them sweatier instead of hiding the sweat. As we approached the table, I was glad that he was at the end of it, so I would have more time to internally steady my voice. I couldn’t stop smiling when I was finally standing in front of him. All I could say was “Hi.” My mom had to do the talking for me. Looking at the photograph of me and John that sits in the frame, my cheeks look even warmer than I remember. But in the middle of the frame is the shirt with his name on the back that I got at my first baseball game. I don’t remember the drinks falling on us, just how it felt to wear the shirt for the first time. Walking to our seats with my new shirt, I felt like I was a part of the sport. They call major league baseball The Show, and now I was one of the characters; I was essential to the game of baseball. Even after just one game, one shirt, the magic of being innocently in awe of the atmosphere captivated me.
It’s been fourteen years since my cousins, sister, and I fell in love with the Mariners. Dimitri and Andreana don’t watch them at all anymore, really. But last season Lia and I went to two games together. I was living in Seattle for the summer, and she was back home, so she came to stay with me for a couple of days. We went to one game on Friday and one game on Saturday. Even at nineteen and twenty, we couldn’t stop talking about the Safeco and the players the entire weekend. One day she drove, and one day I drove. I didn’t see the Space Needle as we approached the stadium because my apartment was closer to the stadium than it was. But we were in Seattle, so I didn’t need to use the landmark that I used to. And we went to the same parking garage that we did that first game. And I saw the same chandelier made of glass bats. And the sun still went through and around and off the bats, filling the entrance and warming me and my sister. And the Mariners still played. And my sister and I sat and watched and stood and yelled. It was like the first time. The awe that I felt when watching the game was unchanging, still connected.