What Would Possess The Mariners To Build Safeco Field The Way They Did?

Safeco Field is a terrible ballpark for hitters.

That’s the general consensus among hitters and fans alike.  Of course, hitters should know best; they’re the ones who have to actually do their hitting there.  Fans only need to look at the dimensions, the climate in Seattle (especially in the colder portions of the calendar year), and the decade-plus worth of stats reflecting that, indeed, Safeco Field is a terrible ballpark for hitters.

Aside from changing the backdrop in centerfield so hitters are better able to see the baseball, no cosmetic changes have befallen our Crown Jewel of a baseball stadium.  The dimensions look like this:

Left Field – 331 feet
Left-Center – 390 feet
Center Field – 405 feet
Right-Center – 385 feet
Right Field – 326 feet

Add on to that the estimated height of the fences:

11 feet to 16 feet high at left-field scoreboard, 8 feet high everywhere else.

Here’s what we know:  right-handed pull hitters have a HELL of a time hitting any home runs, because the fence is too high and the distance is too far.  Left-handed pull hitters have a great advantage, because they don’t have to contend with that stupid scoreboard knocking all of their homers into doubles.  There are a couple of issues that are pretty hard to quantify, that being the cool climate makes sending balls into orbit exceedingly more difficult than on our infrequent warmer days.  The other is:  hitters seem to believe that balls fly farther when the roof is closed.

I don’t know how much I believe either of those first two points – I tend to be of the opinion that the Safeco Field Mystique is in a lot of these hitters’ heads – but many smarter people than I have made such claims, so I guess I’ll agree to disagree on this.

The fact remains:  Safeco Field is a bear.  Everyone is cuckoo to find out WHEN the Mariners are going to realize the folly of their ways and move the fences in?  After all, how are we going to bring in an impact bat (that this team so desperately needs) without over-paying for every single one, because nobody wants to play 81 games here every year?

An interesting add-on to that argument would be this:  how many potentially budding careers has Safeco Field killed by being so enormous?  Who’s to say that some of these young hitting prospects wouldn’t still be with us and producing at a high level if they were breaking into the Major Leagues in the Kingdome?  Or Coors Field?  Or some other bandbox?  I know there are extenuating circumstances on this one, but might Mike Morse have become our everyday left fielder (or third baseman) had he had a chance to play in a smaller stadium for Seattle?

I don’t know if I like this campaign to move the fences in, though.  I like the fact that, in baseball, every stadium is unique.  It gives baseball the kind of charm you don’t get from football or basketball.  I like that you can build a stadium and then build your team to FIT that stadium.  You can’t say that about any other sport.

Likewise, I like low-scoring pitching duels.  Sure, I like the occasional 13 to 11 game as much as the next guy, especially when we’re talking about lots of doubles and dingers.  But, for my money, give me 8 innings of 1-run, 10 strikeout ball and I’ll be a happy fan.

I like how the Mariners can scrimp and save on starting pitching – bringing up guys who might not be the most-talented left handers in the bunch – because they know that Safeco Field will gobble up a good percentage of would-be home runs.  I like watching breathlessly athletic outfielders make incredible over-the-shoulder catches because they have the room (and the ability) to chase down long fly balls.

And, doggone it!  I just plain like Safeco Field!  As is.

Plus, I don’t like kowtowing to the vocal majority (or the even more vocal minority).  I’m a stubborn old sot in that regard.

Regardless, what I find more interesting is WHY the Mariners agreed to build it this way in the first place.

First and foremost, you have to look at the calibre of teams the Mariners were fielding at the time Safeco Field was being imagined.  Those Mariners teams of the mid-to-late 90’s (from 1995 – 1999) were some of the most productive offensive teams in the history of Major League Baseball.  Hell, we set the record for home runs in 1997!  It might’ve been foolhardy to let yourself believe those kinds of numbers would be around forever, but could you really blame management at the time?

Conversely, the pitching on those teams – especially our ever-imploding bullpens – were average to downright terrible, depending on who you had.  Remember, at the time Randy Johnson was on his way out.  He wouldn’t get to enjoy the fruits of Safeco Field’s ample bosom until he returned as an opponent.  In his stead, we had Jamie Moyer, and a bunch of other Jamie Moyer types.  Soft-tossing innings eaters.

This team needed HELP!  And, if management couldn’t bring them in (or draft them), then they’d damn sure make it so the stadium did what they couldn’t.

In short, the Mariners went from one massive extreme to the other.  The Kingdome couldn’t have been more opposite to what Safeco Field eventually became when it was built.  If you’re a Mariners team playing in the Kingdome, how are you going to bring in big-time free agent pitching talent?  What would be their incentive, besides truckloads of money?  You’d have to over-pay for them just like you now have to over-pay for hitters.

The one saving grace the Mariners built into this stadium was the right field porch.  326 feet, nice low fence, perfect for Ken Griffey Jr. (and pull-hitters like Ken Griffey Jr.).  Of course, the fact that Griffey quickly demanded a trade after the stadium was finished was the ultimate slap in the face to an ownership group who created these dimensions to enhance Griffey’s greatness.  It didn’t matter that they built it specifically for their greatest star (of course, it DID matter that the Kingdome’s fences were about 14 feet closer in right field).

The irony in all this is, given the climate and everything else, you could argue that moving the fences in by 10 feet wouldn’t harm Safeco as a pitcher’s park all that much.  But, then again, what do I know?

I do know that they built it the way they built it, and they may or may not change it depending on how well they’re able to compete going forward (both on the field, and in the free agent market).  As it stands, I don’t recall getting any discounts from pitchers who may or may not be clamoring to pitch in Seattle.  The consensus just might be:  NOBODY wants to play for Seattle (for cheap) because we’re so damn far away from everybody’s families.  Why does Seattle hate the family so much?

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