Team Spirit May Keep Mariners at Home

Seattle Mariners lose battle for American League title, but may still win new stadium war

THE Seattle Mariners may be out, but they're not down.

Despite losing out on their chances for a World Series bid, Mariners fans were cheered by news that their home team is one step closer to staying home.

Washington Gov. Mike Lowry (D) signed a $320 million plan to build a new ballpark for the team on Tuesday and said he was sure the remaining money to come from King County would be approved next week.

Without plans for a new stadium, the Mariners were to be put up for sale on Oct. 30.

The team has been losing money for several years and low turnout earlier this year dogged flagging sales even more. The new ballpark is viewed as critical for generating more revenue.

After King County voters narrowly rejected tax hikes to pay for the stadium a month ago, the state Legislature stepped up to the plate with its own plan. Under the proposal, the state and King County would each finance $127.5 million in bonds, and the state would give an additional $20 million in cash. The Mariners would be billed for $45 million. King County voters have not yet approved their portion, which would be funded with a sales-tax hike.

Many Seattle fans say the enthusiasm generated by a string of dramatic late summer victories are is that has kept the team from being auctioned off.

"Without this kind of season," the stadium plan "would have been dead already," says Bob Fairbrook, a season-ticket holder who attended all the home playoff games.

Now, while there are still plenty of voters who wouldn't care if the team left, the mood in Seattle has shifted. Mr. Fairbrook, for one, says he will "count the days until spring training."

The newfound team spirit was clear after Tuesday's game against the Cleveland Indians here. The Kingdome crowd gave the team a long standing ovation.

On one level, it was a show of appreciation for a team that had, for the first time in its 20-year history, made it into the league playoffs - one stop away from the World Series. The players have "got that gray cloud off their shoulders," said outfielder Jay Buhner after the game.

But to some observers the crowd response showed something more: that baseball is winning its way back into American hearts after a damaging strike by the players union last year.

Seattle ticket sales were hit as hard as any ballpark until the Mariners began an explosive rally last month led by power hitters such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Mr. Buhner. A series of stirring wins catapulted the team to a division title - and into the national spotlight. The Mariners' triumph over the New York Yankees in a five-game playoff thrilled audiences from coast to coast.

So this week, even though the sluggers' bats were disappointingly silent in the 4-0 loss to Cleveland, 56,000 Seattle fans cheered while some unfurled a banner that said, "Thanks for the Memories."

"It was a very strange moment," Fairbrook says. The Indians celebrated their pennant victory to a din of applause, but "we weren't clapping for them," Fairbrook says.

Finally the Mariner players emerged from the locker room to acknowledge the fans. "They're half of our team," Mariner pitcher Bob Wolcott told a television interviewer.

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