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Monday, July 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bob Condotta
It may seem as if the roof has fallen on the Mariners this season.
But as bad as 2004 has been, it can't touch what happened 10 years ago today, when the roof literally fell on the Mariners.
On July 19, 1994, at 4:35 p.m., Mariners players preparing for a game that night against the Baltimore Orioles looked up to see parts of the Kingdome roof later identified as 26-pound ceiling tiles crashing down.
Mike Blowers, a former third baseman and now one of the team's radio broadcasters, was stretching in the outfield when he heard a tile hit the seats.
"We just heard a big crash and somebody said something about one of the tiles falling," Blowers recalled. "We sat out there for what seemed like a couple of minutes until someone had the bright idea that you know what? those things are pretty big and maybe we should get inside."
Thus was set in motion one of the more bizarre chapters in Mariners history, one that threatened the future of baseball in Seattle while maybe helping to save it.
"It was the longest road trip, the biggest laundry bill and the most suitcases," Edgar Martinez said with a smile this week. Martinez and catcher Dan Wilson are the only current Mariners who were part of that team.
The incident also further inflamed the debate about the Kingdome's suitability as a baseball facility and the Mariners' quest for a new stadium.
"There was a lot of uncertainty," Martinez said.
Clouding it all was baseball's labor situation. A strike called on Aug. 12 canceled the rest of the season and was all that prevented the Mariners from staying on the road for more than two months.
"I think time has erased how really tough that all was," said Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus, who was standing behind the batting cages getting ready to interview manager Lou Piniella when the first tile hit.
Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said this week that he still harbors ill feelings toward King County for the incident. A decision to powerwash the roof of the dome was blamed for waterlogging the wood and cement tiles and causing them to fall.
"It was terrible that it occurred at all because it didn't have to," Armstrong said. "Two people lost their lives, and it cost the county a lot of money."
Two repair workers were killed Aug. 17, 1994, in a crane accident inside the Kingdome. The repair bill totaled $51 million.
Armstrong was quoted then as saying the falling tiles and the inability to use the Kingdome made the Mariners the "laughingstock" of baseball.
"There were a lot of people at the time who thought baseball couldn't make it here, and they were saying, 'See, this is another example of how bad baseball is in Seattle,' " Armstrong said last week.
But in a strange way, the falling tiles and the subsequent road trip they necessitated helped save baseball in Seattle.
After the magnitude of the problem with the roof became apparent it wasn't fixed until late October two remaining home games against Baltimore, as well as one with Boston, were postponed.
Options such as playing home games at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium and Vancouver's BC Place or playing at a neutral site such as Anaheim or Oakland were explored and dismissed, mostly because the players association decided its members shouldn't play anywhere but at major-league parks.
So the Mariners, who had played on the road in 10 of the previous 15 games before the tiles fell, packed up and left town again.
They won two of their first three in a hurriedly scheduled series in Boston. The Red Sox decided to make all seats $10, which Niehaus said led to some especially rowdy crowds.
"You had a lot of people sitting in seats they normally couldn't get into," Niehaus said.
But Seattle then lost seven in a row, including the finale against the Red Sox and three each in Detroit and Chicago.
The players had a meeting after one of the losses in Chicago and agreed that the team might as well make the best of it.
Looming over it all was the players' strike the Aug. 12 walk date was set while the Mariners were in Detroit.
But in the midst of all that chaos, or maybe because of it, the Mariners' young foundation of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner and Martinez began to come together.
"From a team standpoint, it might have been the best thing that happened to us," Blowers said of the long road trip. "We really got to know each other a heck of a lot better. A lot of us ended up becoming really great friends during that time. Usually on the road, three or four guys might go out together. But it seemed like, on that trip, we had a bunch of times when we would all go out basically as a team. You rarely see that, and it was really cool."
The Mariners then won three in a row in Anaheim, two of three in Kansas City and three more in Texas.
In a year when every American League West team finished 10 games below .500, the Mariners headed to Oakland on Aug. 11 just 2-1/2 games behind division-leading Texas.
The Mariners won again that night their ninth victory in 10 games an 8-1 defeat of the A's in the final game played before the strike began.
"Everybody wanted to keep playing," Blowers said. "If we had had to stay on the road the rest of the year, guys would have gladly done it."
Most around the club think the Mariners might have won the division if the season had continued. "If it had, 1994 might have been our '95," Armstrong said.
But the strike sent everyone home, not to return until the following April. When they did, however, Blowers sensed a different feeling: "We were a lot closer as a group."
And that, he thinks, had a lot to do with the miracle run of 1995, that propelled the Mariners into the AL Championship Series and all but kept baseball in Seattle.
"I think it really set up what was to come the following year," Blowers said.
Any other legacy of the falling tiles, however, is harder to determine.
The legislative action that built Safeco Field was due largely to the good feeling of the '95 season and likely would have happened whether or not the tiles had fallen.
"But certainly it didn't help those who were arguing against a new stadium, that's for sure," said Lee Pelekoudas, the team's head of baseball administration.
If anything, the tile incident might have had more impact on the Seahawks' future. The team had to play two exhibitions and three regular-season games at Husky Stadium while the ceiling was repaired, and then-owner Ken Behring stepped up his call for a new football-only stadium.
With Safeco Field having recently passed its five-year anniversary and the Kingdome long demolished, the falling tiles have almost been forgotten.
Even Norm Lacher, 64, had forgotten the date until reminded last week. That night, Lacher had seats 1 through 4 in row 17, section 111 right where the tiles had fallen.
Lacher joked at the time that he "should go buy lottery tickets" and find out if the luck would carry over.
"Nothing's happened since then, so I guess it didn't follow me," he said. "Maybe I'm waiting for a piece of Safeco Field to fall just near me or something."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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