SEATTLE gears up for All-Star hoopla

Saturday, July 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Ah, to be a Seattle baseball fan nowadays.

The Mariners are off to one of the best starts in baseball history and feature the hottest new player in the majors. As if that wasn't enough, the city now gets the All-Star game and the worldwide attention that comes with it.

Life couldn't be much better.

``This is a magical time in Seattle,'' says fan Ryan Montgomery, a 23-year-old law student at Washington. ``I don't think you could've picked a better year for it. They've got an amazing record, and they've got Ichiro. The guy has electrified the city.''

International sensation Ichiro Suzuki became the first rookie in history to lead the All-Star voting. The right-fielder, who also leads the majors in hits, is one of four Mariners starters and two pitchers in the All-Star game.

The city can't wait for it to start Tuesday night.

All-Star signs hang on virtually every downtown block and in store and bar windows, enormous banners surround the Seattle Mariners' gleaming new stadium, and business is booming at the team store.

Washington Mutual bank has unveiled a ``Welcome All-Stars'' billboard written in Japanese in recognition of the Mariners' popularity in Japan, thanks in part to Suzuki and relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki.

``It's been a good rebirth for the city as far as baseball craziness goes,'' Mariners infielder Ed Sprague says. ``It's everywhere you go. They are just talking about it, the way the team is playing and how everything is going.''

The Mariners' season has been a bright spot in an otherwise rough year for Seattle. The region still is repairing damage caused by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in February. And Boeing Co., the city's largest employer, announced in May it is moving its headquarters to Chicago later this year.

But who cares? The Mariners, whose 61-23 record going into the weekend was the best in the majors, could be going to the World Series.

``Pretty much, everything is very, very good right now,'' Seattle center fielder Mike Cameron says. ``It's very fun to be a part of it. I'm really excited for the people in Seattle because they've had some down times for a while and this is something to be very proud about.''

For years, the Mariners needed almost an entire season to win 60 games, a mark they've already passed this year. Even as the team improved in the '90s, there was trouble. It lost three superstars _ Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez _ and few people expected the Mariners to contend this soon.

Instead, they've become the best team of the 2001 season, and they welcome back Johnson and Rodriguez to the All-Star game without really missing them at all.

In the Mariners team store, supervisor Gerry Lopez and crew have been gearing up to be as busy as ever for the game. The staff of 30 will grow to 50 through the All-Star festivities. Employees worked several late nights to transform the 10,000-square-foot store from Mariners merchandise to All-Star apparel.

Hundreds of All-Star jerseys _ most of which have Mariners' names on the backs _ arrived Tuesday.

``If you're a baseball fan in this organization or not, you should be proud that we're hosting the game,'' Lopez says. ``We have an understanding that people from all over the country and world will be here, so if we get tired, we have to suck it up and take care of our people. ... This is a major league baseball thing, so we should shine for them, too.''

Even fans without tickets to the game are into the All-Star spirit.

``It's really cool we actually got four Mariners on the All-Star team this year and that it's going to be here,'' says 10-year-old Mason Catt of suburban Newcastle, who was touring the stadium with a YMCA day camp. ``I want them to win.''

At the Pyramid Alehouse across the street from 2-year-old Safeco Field, about 70 employees will work extended shifts through the All-Star activities.

``The All-Star game is a draw anywhere,'' says Teresa Morgan, manager at the popular pregame pub. ``But it's extra exciting to have hometown players.''

The Seattle/King County Convention and Visitors Bureau predicts the city will make more than $17 million on the All-Star game.

``It's really a dream season,'' Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale says. ``If a script writer had tried to see this as a plot for a movie, I don't think anyone would've thought it would happen.

``And it's a chance to show off our beautiful city to the world. There's nothing quite like Seattle in the summer. It's just an amazing place to be.''

Especially when your team is winning.