You gotta love it

Every time someone talks about how great SoDo—er, Safeco—Field looks, I

remember Thomas Carlyle, the cantankerous Scottish author of "The Everlasting No," and the dowager who huffed at him, "Mr. Carlyle, I accept the universe!"

"Madam, you'd better," he replied.

Safeco Field better look great, after all the money the team and the Legislature squeezed out of us to build it. And the shocking thing is, it does. I watched the M's edge out the Athletics in the tenth last week and had to admit: Baseball in the sun, on grass, with the Seattle skyline behind and real July weather above, was worth the wait. But was it worth $517 million? Or even $320 million in public funds, assuming the team doesn't extort another $60 million from us? Shut up with the questions and enjoy the game, or better yet make "NOISE!" like the readerboard says.

Don't do the Wave

Still, there are some fine things about the stadium besides the grass (which ought to be glorious, warmed as it is by the world's biggest radiator under its roots). The multiple angles and levels of the seating sections, jutting and diverging like the downtown street grid, are a blessed visual relief after the Kingdome's monotonous concentric rows. The whole jumble does more to evoke the appropriate SoDo-esque ramshackle-industrial ambience than all the corrugated roofing and exposed pipes (standard chichi-supermarket decor) above. It's lousy for trying to carry through a Wave—a ritual that seems bound to vanish with the Dome. But it makes for wonderfully varied views as you wander around. And it's made for wandering and lollygagging, with wide ramps (too bad the stairways are so perilously narrow) and lots of inviting view verandas. And when you sit—molded seats and legroom. What a concept!

The art is fun. It's a kick to see a wacky chandelier that's not Chihuly, even though the spiraling glass bats by Stable look sparse compared to the usual biomorphic Chihucopia. The biggest disappointment is the big "Safeco Field" sign, which strains too hard for nostalgic Americana. But I don't think that name would look right in any letters or colors. It's too corporate and impersonal, without the slightest whiff of fun—as befits a company that's starchy even as insurance companies go, not a baseball stadium. "SoDo Field" sounds great.

Unracked, with thirst

But for all these cozy features, and for all the money spent, the devil missed some details. You want people to leave their cars behind when they come to the game? Don't just give 'em buses (which get stuck in the traffic like cars). Give 'em bike racks, in convenient spots. The racks are all off in the parking garage, even though there's room for some between the trees and newsstands on the wide sidewalk along Royal Brougham. Bicycling fans—and even some stadium employees—are already locking their rigs to every available tree, stand, and chain-link fence.

And with so many plumbed-in food vendors, couldn't the designers have included a few more drinking fountains? I passed at least 20 food windows, many of them selling $2.50 water, before spotting a fountain by the lower level rest rooms. Ah ha, that's the idea? But movie theaters also sell overpriced drinks and provide more fountains.

And even if it's beer you want, you can die of thirst in the upper stands. We saw no hawkers save a lemonade vendor, who passed but rarely. Come back, Bill the Beer Man—all is forgiven.

The beer sales downstairs also showed an interesting pattern. You could get a draft Bud or Coors Light in a twinkle, but had to queue up 15 deep at the taps pouring Redhook ESB and Pyramid Hefeweizen. Nearly all the queuers were male, and nearly all were ordering the ESB.

Stadium-high

But the weirdest thing of all about Safeco Field is that big black thing perched atop it, dwarfing even the Kingdome next door. Not that it would have done any good (they didn't listen to us on anything else), but I wish we'd railed more on what a folly a retractable roof is in a town that lies at the north end of a Mediterranean climate belt and gets less summer rain than anywhere in the East or Midwest. As John Pastier noted in these pages two weeks ago, the roof isn't only "an absolute nonnecessity," it just about accounts for the overruns the team's tried to duck out of paying.

Still, the roof offers some diversion in slack innings: Try to figure out what it looks like. The Kingdome was easy: It looked like a giant juice squeezer. But the folded-up roof is more elusive. From inside, it's some kind of immense undersea creature—I was waiting for it to lean over and suck us all up. What creature? A skate, or manta ray, a sea slug, an octopus, a horseshoe crab? Or a dung beetle, or the mothership in Close Encounters? From outside, with its girders showing, one viewer sees a hedgehog. Too bad the Sonics aren't playing there.

On deck . . .

After so many gloomy stadium predictions have come true, it's time for new ones. Any bets on whether and when the team will declare bankruptcy to break its lease, glorious stadium notwithstanding? One disillusioned ex-sports journalist predicts that in five years, the M's will blame Seattle's 50-degree June nights for their attendance ills and demand that Safeco Field be heated, as the Kingdome was.

Crank up that radiator under the grass.

 
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