Four fans got an experience today that they will never forget. I should say actually four fans earned that experience.
If you come to the park often enough or if you spend some time in Peoria during Spring Training there is a good chance you have seen or met the Old Bats. They sit in section 342 at the Safe and their presence is announced with a large hot pink banner above their seats when they are in attendance.
The four Old Bats are Joan, Judy, Phyllis and Mary. They are huge Mariners fans and even bigger baseball fans. The group first formed in 2001 and their purpose has been to have as much fun with the baseball experience as possible. They enjoy the interaction with the players at the fence in Peoria or above the dugout in Seattle. They often have signs, anything from Japanese stop signs for Johjima and Ichiro to signs wishing players a happy birthday. They had a 27 'Us' spell out "Rauuuuuuu...l" in their section once. There are buttons as well. Birthday buttons, "In Jack We Trust" buttons, Official Old Bats "Baseball is the window to my soul" buttons, the prized "Good Egg" button, and more. In total they estimate having given out over 400 buttons to "Honorary Old Bats."
Today they had what has to be the biggest thrill of their batdom to date. Don Wakamatsu settled up on a bet he lost to them last spring in Peoria. The price? Lunch in his office.
"At Fanfest we were curious about his work habits," Joan recalls. "And we asked what time at spring training he would begin his day, how early he will be getting there. He told us, throwing down the gauntlet, much earlier than you ladies will be get there so of course we had to beat him there. And we did."
Wak remembers it a little differently.
"I lost the bet but I thought there was cheating going on there. They got insider information. I didn't know what the bet was going to be originally, but they asked me what time do you get there in the morning. I said I get there pretty early, usually 5:30. You will never beat me there."
Well they did. On the first day of spring training there they were, signs in hand at 5:30 when Wak arrived. He took note and made it a point to arrive ten minutes earlier the next day, but the Bats were one step ahead of him, again there with signs and smiles as he pulled into his parking spot. The next day they gave him a break.
"Since he was a rookie we decided to let him win one day. So the third day he got there early and we had a sign in his parking spot saying we let him win. And then on the fourth day we won again, so now the box score is "Old Bats 3, Skipper 1."
Wak had never seen anything like this from a fan before.
"All the years I have been there I always showed up when it was still dark outside and to have four ladies standing out there was a little scary (laughs) at 5 in the morning to try to beat you there, but they're wonderful."
Wak thought it was wise to concede the competition at that point. He asked the Bats what prize they wanted. They decided to shoot for the moon. Lunch with him in the clubhouse they replied after some thought. Done, Wak told them.
Unfortunately an e-mail sent to them later in the season to set up the lunch was filtered out as spam. When it was finally received months later the ladies were crushed. There was only one thing to do at this point.
"In spring training this year we did it again." Judy said. "We showed up at 4:30 the first day and we had a copy of the email and we explained it when he came in about an hour and a half later. He signed off on it, 'Good for one rain check,' and then he said as he was walking away, 'By the way, the score is 5-0, I win.'"
So Wak as manager declared himself the round two winner, but today he delivered on round one in grand scale.
The ladies were invited to his office for lunch. Wak greeted them at his door then took them on a tour of the clubhouse including the training room, weight room, food room and locker area. Then it was back to his office where they were treated to a lunch which included his famous "Ichiwings," which Ichiro has before every home game, prepared by the Mariners Chef Jeremy.
For an hour and a half the ladies talked baseball with the skipper. They also shared their story and gave him a gift of a magnet with a copy of the original e-mail that was almost lost but eventually signed off on by Wakamatsu. Why was it on a magnet?
"So if you throw it away it will stick to the side of the waste paper basket!" explained Judy.
Winning the bet and collecting the prize will be hard to top for these Superfans but they will take some time to savor the experience before moving on to their next escapade.
"Who's going to believe this? Anyone?" asked Mary. "Who is going to believe that me, from little Buckley, was going to have lunch with Don Wakamatsu?"
"Just getting to sit in the manager's office and talk baseball with him," was the highlight, Judy said. "That and seeing the pile of gear outside of Ichiro's locker. A lot of stuff. Boxes, almost as tall as me. I don't know how he finds his stuff."
Joan was happy have more time than the fun but quick exchanges with the skipper they had previously. "He was just a really normal, interesting, down-to-earth guy. He could have said no to lunch or we can do it at Chik-Fil-A for lunch but he welcomed us into his office and he treated us like we were long lost friends and it was so comfortable just sitting and eating and visiting with him. Very comfortable."
Phyllis said it was a lot to take in. "The whole experience. Walking through the clubhouse, the tour we got and seeing all the lockers crammed with gear. I have seen the lockers during Fanfest when the lockers are empty. Just the sights and scenes and just getting to spend time with Wak, it was incredible.
It was a two-way street, according to Wakamatsu.
"For them to be able to come down here and enjoy it, be away from everything else rather than a restaurant or something cheap... I thought they hadn't been down in the manager's office, I thought it was special. Jeremy our cook did a wonderful job, to be able to sit down here and just talk baseball, it was great."