Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pugetopolis' first year in the big leagues

This summer I've been working on a project for the Museum of History and Industry taking a look at Seattle's modern history, that is the events and trends of the past 30-40 years. One of the themes that keeps coming up is Seattle's yearning to be a "big league" city, a phrase used before "world class" city came into vogue during the '90s and '00s.

Our big league status has been in flux of late: We lost our NBA franchise, the Seattle Supersonics, to Oklahoma City, but we gained a major soccer team with the popular Sounders. Turns out that part of major-leagueness is flux: Look at cities like New York and Los Angeles and you see that teams come and go. There's nothing permanent in the changing world of sports, where careers can be over in an instant, where teams can appear and vanish within a heartbeat.

An example of the latter is the Seattle Pilots, our one-year wonders and first major league baseball franchise that played here in 1969, only to go belly up and find themselves reincarnated at the Milwaukee Brewers. I wrote about this for Crosscut this week because on August 29, there will be a Pilots reunion of sorts in Bellevue, Seattle and at Safeco Field. Those of us who are old enough have been remembering Woodstock and the moon landing this summer, but for me, the big event was the coming of the Pilots. My dad and I went to the opening game against the Chicago White Sox at Sick's Stadium and it was a big deal for father-son relations.

Pilots (and former Yankees) pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a classic baseball memoir about his year with the team, and in it he captured some of the difficulties a sports franchise in Seattle would have, one being that it is so beautiful and so ideal as a jumping off place for outdoor activities, that sports might have a hard time getting a grip here. In his book, Ball Four, he describes how Seattle's natural setting could be both a distraction and a consolation to Pilots players.

"That's the great thing about our ballpark," he writes of Sick's Stadium. "When a home run hit off of you disappears over the fence your eye catches a glimpse of the majesty of Mt. Rainier and some of that bad feeling goes away," he says of dealing with the pressures of baseball. In Seattle, nature itself is Big League, and it's tough for anything to compete with it.

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