SEATTLE — They dot the stands, a virtual throng of Mariners fans, in silent and perpetual vigil throughout this oddest of baseball seasons.
If you’re able to forget, for a moment, that they are made of synthetic material, and really stretch your imagination, you can almost remember what it was like when real people made real noise at T-Mobile Park. Instead, with live fans banned from attendance due to coronavirus, we get cutout replicas, more than 13,000 of them.
“In this bizarre world we’re living in, and this very different sports world, it’s kind of nice to see fans in the seats, even if they’re only a quarter of an inch thick and made of Styrofoam,” said Jim Copacino, co-founder of the agency that has long produced the Mariners’ commercials.
“Another thing — they stay ‘til the last out, right?”
People paid $30 each for the honor (with a portion going to charity). For some, it’s a lark. But for many, it’s deeply personal, the cutouts representing a beloved family member, a fond memory, a departed relative.
Oh, and lots of cherished animals, too.
To paraphrase a television show from the 1950s, there are 13,000 Styrofoam stories in the naked ballpark. Here are six of them.
Tucker was thrown a curveball in the first inning of life. He was born with hydrocephalus and spina bifida. It hasn’t dampened his spirit, however.
“I think anyone who meets Tucker, he is such a ray of light,” said his mother, Liane. “He doesn’t let anything get him down.”
Not even brain surgery. Tucker’s condition requires a drainage tube inserted in the brain, which needs to be replaced periodically. Tucker’s most recent such procedure was a year ago. One of the things that keeps him going is his beloved Mariners, with whom he is “pretty obsessed,” his mom says.
Tucker’s 9th birthday was July 27, which in the Schreckenghost family has meant a celebratory trip from their Auburn home to T-Mobile Park for a ballgame.
“This year, it was not an option,” Liane explained. “So we were trying to look for, how could we still celebrate with him and have it involve his favorite team? My husband found the cutouts and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the greatest gift for Tucker.’ So that’s what we did.”
Going to a game for a birthday treat is fun for the Schreckenghost family, which includes father Ricky and Tucker’s 6-year-old brother, Brecken. But this gift, located in the front row on the third-base side, is one that keeps on giving.
“The first time Tucker saw himself, literally a little tiny glimpse of himself on TV in one of the games, he was freaking out,” Liane said. “I think it’s such a great way for us to be able to celebrate with him. It’s really exciting when we’re watching the games to look out for his face. And it’s not just us; it’s our extended family, too. Everyone is looking forward to it. He has quite the following.”
Barbara Losey and Carl Pritchard
Kirk West wanted to do something special for the 92nd birthday of his mom, Barbara Losey, still going strong in Kelso. He remembered that Barbara had said she always wanted to take her father, Carl Pritchard, to a Mariners game. He died in 1980 before that could happen.
But West, living in Australia since he went there to teach school in 1974, saw a chance to fulfill that dream for his mother, a staunch baseball fan. Word of the cutout program filtered to him in Australia. He found a picture of his grandfather, a standout semipro pitcher in his youth, decked out in his baseball uniform. Pritchard grew up in Nebraska but moved to Kelso after serving in World War I. He went on to become a sheriff and stalwart of the community.
“They say he’s one person who has never had an enemy,” said West, a graduate of Kelso High School and Eastern Washington University. “Even the guys he locked up, they still respected him.”
Pritchard’s daughter, meanwhile, “is a very good baseball fan,” West said of his mom.
She visited West in Australia in 1981 and noisily rooted at a winter league game in Sydney. She traveled to Illinois in 2001 when West’s son, Matt, represented an Australian team, the Dingos, in the Cal Ripken League World Series. Losey is still living independently at age 92 — “she wields the garbage can across the road every Tuesday morning,” West said fondly.
So West submitted Pritchard’s picture to the Mariners, along with a photo of his mom. Now dad and daughter sit side-by-side in section 144, finally watching a ballgame together. Thirty of them, to be precise.
“We got it sorted out so they could spend the season together,” West, age 70, said from his home in Queensland, Australia, where he is studying to be a lawyer.
“She’s very happy with it, very touched. It all came at the right time. It came together perfectly.”
As account manager for the Mariners’ advertising campaign with Copacino+Fujikado, Steve Cunetta masterminded the “Sodo Mojo” slogan that still resonates with fans.
No one loved baseball more than Cunetta, who grew up a rabid Mets fan in Brooklyn and later become a devoted coach for Seattle PONY Baseball. Cunetta was a New Yorker through and through, described by Jim Copacino as a cross between George Costanza and Mr. Rogers.
“He had a heart of gold, but was kind of a quirky, semi-neurotic Brooklyn guy,” Copacino said of the Yale-educated Cunetta.
When Cunetta died of cancer in 2013 at age 55, the Mariners held a moment of silence in his honor at Safeco Field, which amused the grieving Copacino. They were close friends who shared Mariners season tickets in Section 137.
“At his memorial service a few days later,” Copacino recalled, “I said, ‘You know, the Mariners had this moment of silence for Steve at Safeco Field. It was so touching, so poignant — and so ironic; a moment of silence for a guy who never stopped talking.’ “
When the Mariners announced the cutout plans, Copacino got a call from a former colleague, Joe Gerlitz, who suggested they submit one of Cunetta. Copacino loved the idea. Gregg Greene of the Mariners thought Copacino should be there, too, and arranged for him to be seated next to his old buddy, Cunetta — reunited in Section 137.
“I think Steve would love it,” Copacino mused. “He sure would. He’d have something to say about it, though. He’d have an opinion that would surprise you.”
Pierre Thiry has worked for the King County Sheriff’s Department for the past 49 years. And he has done off-duty security work for the Mariners since their first game in 1977, manning a variety of posts at the Kingdome, and T-Mobile Park over the past 43 seasons.
In that job, Thiry has developed friendships with players, managers, coaches, and fellow moonlighting officers. He’s had adventures, too. It has been his job to help subdue the occasional interloper onto the field, which have ranged from a young fellow wearing wrestling shoes — and nothing else — to the infamous “Kissing Bandit,” Morganna Roberts, who trotted out to third base to plant a kiss on George Brett during the 1979 All-Star Game at the Kingdome.
“At one point in my life, I used to be fairly fast,” Thiry said cheerfully.
Once, at the Kingdome, Thiry had to apprehend a young man who ran onto the field with a knife after Randy Johnson’s division-title clinching win over the Angels in 1995. All he wanted was a piece of the turf, it turned out, but it was tense for a while.
Stationed since 2002 in the bullpen, Thiry says, “My job is to keep the players away from the fans, and the fans away from the players.”
His daughter, Lindsey Thiry, a member of 2005 national championship Washington volleyball team who now covers the Los Angeles Rams for ESPN, realized that the cutouts provided a great opportunity for her dad to be at his post for one more season — at least in spirit.
“I saw the M’s were doing this for fans,” Thiry explained in an email. “I was at home visiting my parents and could tell my dad was a bit down about … everything, but especially about not being at the ballpark. I think everyone who knows my Dad knows that he has stayed in the cop shop this long, in large part, because of his job at the stadium. He just loves talking with EVERYONE down there who will listen — fans, players, ushers — you name it. Everyone.
“So I thought the cutout would get a good laugh out of him, and that he’d probably get some fun texts or calls from folks who saw it (And that also would help cheer him up).”
Thiry got help obtaining a photo of her dad at work, and Camden Finney of the Mariners – who knew Lindsey from her days as an M’s intern – ensured that Pierre’s cutout would make it to his customary bullpen spot. And, yes, he did get plenty of texts.
“It caught me by total surprise,” he said. “My daughter might have said something, and all of a sudden, it appeared, because I got a phone call during one of games. They said, ‘Are you on the payroll today?’ It kind of went from there. It’s been fun.”
Atsuko “Mama-san” Lile
Brenda Handley, the CEO and president of Gobo Enterprises in Issaquah, purchased more than 60 cutouts — employees, friends (including Sonics legend Fred Brown and the Iron Chef, Masahuru Morimoto) and family. She felt it would help restore a small bit of normalcy to life.
Mostly, though, Handley wanted to honor and boost her mother, Atsuko Lile, known to the world — including a legion of friends at T-Mobile Park — as “Mama-san.”
The 87-year-old Lile was recently diagnosed with cancer. Handley thought the rabid Mariners fan would enjoy trying to find herself at the ballpark. And so there she is, behind home plate, depicted in an M’s cap eating popcorn out of a Mariners bucket.
The Mariners’ first home game occurred July 31 – the same day Mama-san found out that her cancer had not spread. Furthermore, doctors told her that it may be possible to reduce the tumor via chemotherapy and then remove it.
At the hospital, Lile soaked in the hopeful news at the same time she excitedly observed her cutout on TV while the Mariners played the A’s.
“She was showing all the doctors and surgeons and nurses, ‘Look, there I am at the game, eating popcorn,’ “ Handley said. “It was awesome, not just for her, but others that need some uplifting. You can’t imagine the joy that brought her and all her surgeons.”
Lile had her first chemo treatment on July 10, with the second one scheduled for Monday.
“With all the love, support and prayers, she has just been a champ, man,” Handley said.
And every time Handley turns on the Mariners game, she gets a glimpse of her mom, wearing a permanent smile.
“I take pictures of the screen to send to everybody,” Handley said. “It warms my heart, totally.”
The Nolan family of Whidbey Island bought nine cutouts, encompassing the whole extended family, plus their dog, Charlie. But it’s another of the Nolan animals that has garnered double-takes from those perusing the bleachers down the first-base line.
That would be none other than Sierra, the horse that daughter Alex Nolan rode in jumping competitions up and down the West Coast while growing up in Bellevue.
Sierra is retired from jumping now, but still a treasured member of the family. Alex felt it was only proper that she be represented at T-Mobile Park and was surprised to hear that, at least initially, Sierra was the only horse.
“I thought it would be super fun to see Sierra out there,” Alex said. “She has had quite a life, traveled all over the world. She’s actually a German Westphalian, so I think she’d probably actually be a soccer fan. I think if we could get her into baseball, though, she’d be on board.”
Alex’s brother, Connor, was instrumental in arranging the cutouts, which include their parents and grandparents as well as Connor’s girlfriend. They love the fact it’s all for a good cause. In fact, they love the entire concept.
“We just thought it was a super cool idea,” Alex said. “It’s cool to look out for them in the stands. It’s like a weird, unique thing about this moment. You go back now and look at when they had an all-women’s league because all the men were at war. This will be the kind of photo we’ll look back at say, ‘Wow, that was a terrifying moment, but look at this. This was cool.’ “
To purchase a cardboard cutout to be installed at T-Mobile Park, go to mlb.com/mariners/fans/seat-fleet
©2020 The Seattle Times