Everett Field Where Rookies First Fuel Their Dreams

EVERETT - From where the shortstop paws at the infield dirt - real dirt - you can see snow-streaked Mount Pilchuck over the center-field fence. You can smell freshly mowed grass and see shadows crossing the outfield.

For the Northwest League opener between the Everett Giants and the Bellingham Mariners, last night was a glowing continuation of the weekend, with sunshine and without parkas, the fun of just being outside and living the way normal people do.

And yet for the eyes of the players, kids from hot, humid climates, the focus was not on a mountain, but on a huge sign for ``Seattle'' spanning an on ramp to nearby Interstate 5. The Kingdome. The big leagues. So near, yet so far.

``I'm not here to be in the lap of luxury,'' said John Jackson, a former USC All-America wide receiver and now a center fielder for the Everett Giants. ``I'm here to learn how to play major-league baseball.

``I'm ready to ride the bus. I'm ready to pay my dues.''

But baseball's bushes aren't exactly as remote, as folksy, as earthy as they've been painted on the silver screen. Not at least in the Northwest, in the shadow of a major-league franchise and with young, aggressive ownership in both Everett and Bellingham.

These are the 1990s, when minor-league teams can make money, where at both Everett and Bellingham this year they've brought in VIP-type seating. Where in Everett, at least, they have an espresso bar and ``soup du jour'' - last night's was minestrone - at the concession stand.

Tonight, the teams will play in Bellingham in the opener there. Jeff Smulyan, the owner of the parent Seattle club, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch; and his consort, Monica Hart, the TV anchor, allegedly has been enlisted to sing the national anthem.

She might not have the everlasting impact of the new nylon netting behind the plate - replacing a rusted wire screen - but she represents the kind of promotional energy running through the entire Mariner organization, the kind of odd look at the game that will produce a ``guaranteed no-hitter night.''

``There's an enthusiasm here that reflects what is going on in Seattle,'' said Jerry Walker, 36, owner of the Bellingham Mariners.

Walker gave up a real-estate business in Everett two years ago to buy a baseball team. He said his Bellingham staff has gone from a part-timer to seven full-timers, and season-ticket sales have grown from seven to 130.

While Walker admitted there were times when he wondered if being affiliated with the Mariners - indeed wearing their uniforms - was a promotional handicap, he now likes his ballclub being called the ``Baby M's,'' and being known as the cradle of Ken Griffey Jr. and where Monica Hart sang the national anthem.

When it works - and it did last night - outdoor baseball in the Northwest is as perfect as a picnic. With its 1,000 new seats behind the plate - seats with arms and without splinters - the Everett park continues to improve not only in comfort, but also in appearance.

There were so many fans last night that it was nearly impossible to get a cup of soup. Fans even sat on blankets on a grassy knoll down the right-field line, a lounging-room-only crowd of 3,126.

Smulyan and Woody Woodward, Mariner general manager, were in the stands, as was Jim Beattie, the former Mariner pitcher who now directs the club's farm system.

And there were Mariners to watch. Jim Magill, a 6-foot-10-inch pitcher, allowed the Giants four hits through five innings, showing surprising control and cool for a 21-year-old blessed and cursed with the size rivaled only by Randy Johnson in the majors.

Beattie wanted to talk about designated-hitter Fred McNair and shortstop Lipso Nava (the latter who made a couple of outstanding plays in the opener). Manager P.J. Carey tossed in the name of right-fielder Sean Twitty as a player to watch.

For the Giants, Jackson has rare rookie-league name recognition, the career leader in virtually every pass-receiving statistic for USC and a poor man's Bo Jackson.

Despite his prowess at USC, Jackson was not selected in the NFL draft.

``I think it's more important how you look on paper than in a game,'' he said. ``I guess I just wasn't quite big enough or fast enough.''

While playing baseball this spring for the Trojans, Jackson couldn't forget football, accepted an invitation to attend a mini-camp with the Phoenix Cardinals and subsequently signed as a free agent.

Then he was selected in the sixth round of the baseball draft by the San Francisco Giants.

``It seemed an obvious choice,'' he said sitting on the Everett Giant bench before the game. ``Go with the sport that drafted you. But I'd done well in the mini-camp, and the Phoenix coaches were encouraging.''

So Jackson negotiated a contract with the Giants that will allow him to do both. He will play in Everett until mid-July, when he will report to the Phoenix training camp.

``I don't plan to get cut by Phoenix,'' he said, ``so I hope I won't play baseball until January.''

The truth is Jackson is trying to hang on in both sports, giving himself whatever chance he can to continue as a professional. To get to the big leagues as either a football or baseball player.

But to dismiss minor-league baseball as a clumsy audition for the majors is to miss a delightful opportunity to be close enough to see and hear the players, to ask for an autograph and get it, to pull a blanket around you as the sun sets and the chill sets in.

From Bellingham to Tacoma, we have the rare opportunity to see baseball played indoors and outdoors, at the rookie, Class AAA and major-league levels. Last night there was more intensity - the fans stomping on the new aluminum stands as the Giants charged ahead in the sixth inning with five runs - than at many Mariner games.

And it was fun to be outside.

But if any spring should have convinced us that baseball needs a dome to be played and enjoyed around here, it was this one. Half the Mariner games in April and May would have been rained out and the other half miserable had they been played outside.

We should be thankful for what we've got, which in Seattle, Everett, Tacoma and Bellingham, is quite a lot.