Including roof at Safeco Field was good call, despite the protests – The Seattle Times

The first time the retractable roof at Safeco Field opened during the stadium’s grand opening on July 15, 1999, the Seattle Symphony marked the gravity of the moment by playing, live, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as the theme from the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The sellout crowd oohed and aahed at the engineering marvel — 11,000 tons of corrugated metal, gypsum board and PVC membrane by some miracle sliding into its nesting place high atop right field in 10 or so tidy minutes.
That was more than 23 years ago. The opening and closing of the roof has happened so many hundreds, indeed thousands, of times since then that it barely registers a glance anymore. It’s easy to forget the wonderment and rapt attention that greeted its movements in those early days. It’s even easier to forget the bitter controversy that surrounded the decision to include a roof on the Mariners’ new ballpark project in the first place.
These thoughts came to mind as the World Series began in Houston on Friday. It was pouring rain that day in southeast Texas, but there was no concern about a rainout because Houston’s ballpark, Minute Maid Park, also has a retractable roof, one of seven in the major leagues. And if the Mariners had somehow gotten by the Astros and Yankees and made it to the World Series (you can always dream), the wet, gloomy Seattle forecast would not have been a problem — something that the roofless Phillies, eyeing a rain-filled forecast for next week’s games in Philadelphia, cannot say.
It got me reflecting on the quarter-century-old decision to put in the roof on what is now called T-Mobile Park. The funding package that eventually was approved by the state legislature in 1995, after a failed ballot measure and epic political wrangling, included two requirements: that the stadium be built in Seattle, and that it have a retractable roof.
The Mariners wanted the roof because they felt it was the only way to ensure fans from distant locales — their regional fan base spread south into Oregon and north into British Columbia — that if they purchased a ticket and made the trek to the ballpark, the game wouldn’t be rained out.
Yes, it was a bit ironic that inclusion of the roof was a deal-breaker, because the Mariners’ raison d’être for a new ballpark was their contention that they were losing so much money playing in the dreary, enclosed Kingdome that they would have to sell the team without one, presumably to new owners who would move the team out of town. But the Mariners felt a retractable roof gave them the sensibility of an outdoor stadium and the security of a dome.
There was, however, a very vocal contingent who railed against a roof and advocated for an open-air ballpark. They thought it was unnecessary given the favorable weather during the majority of the baseball season, aesthetically displeasing, and far too expensive. A 1995 story in The Seattle Times began:
Architects think the roof as envisioned is ugly. Politicians worry about future repairs. Pioneer Square residents fear its bulk would overwhelm the area.

And many baseball fans think it’s unnecessary. In an informal, call-in poll by The Seattle Times this summer, readers preferred an outdoor ballpark to a retractable-roof stadium by a 2-1 ratio.

Newspaper columnists, sports-talk-show hosts and a group of baseball-loving local architects are all lobbying for an open-air stadium.
I’m not here to re-litigate those issues (though they were right about future repairs; in 2018, the Metropolitan King County Council approved $135 million in taxpayer funds for repairs at T-Mobile Park, including wear and tear on the roof and its apparatus).
But I think it’s telling that you don’t hear much (or any) talk these days about the roof being a boondoggle, an eyesore or an extravagance. It’s an accepted part of the Seattle baseball experience, and I think most people have come to appreciate the fact that it’s always there to ensure a game will be played, regardless of weather.
Yes, there’s less rain in the summer months than Seattle’s reputation would lead people to believe. Of the seven retractable-roof stadiums in MLB, T-Mobile’s roof is closed less often than any of them — by a wide margin. In 2022, for instance, the Astros have played just four games, including playoffs, with the roof open — mainly to spare fans from the oppressive heat. The Mariners, conversely, in 2022 had their roof fully open 63 times and fully closed 14 times, while the roof moved during the game four times. Overall, the roof at Safeco/T-Mobile has been fully open 1,387 out of 1,772 total games played — 78%.
The beauty of Seattle’s roof — which added an estimated $67 million to the cost of the ballpark — and what distinguishes it, is that it was designed to act as an umbrella, not a full enclosure that seals out the outside world. There is still the essence of outdoor baseball when it is fully engaged. And when it’s open, as it is most of the time, the guts of the roof are stashed so unobtrusively that one gets all the perks — and quirks — of an open-air field.
I reached out this week to Douglas Kelbaugh, a former University of Washington professor of architecture and urban planning who served as an adviser to the Public Facilities District during the stadium planning. Kelbaugh was a vocal opponent to putting a roof on the prospective ballpark. I was curious to see what he thought now. Kelbaugh had moved on to the University of Michigan by the time Safeco opened, but having recently moved back to the Seattle area in retirement, his viewpoint shifted.
“I remember thinking what a stupid idea,’’ he said. “It doesn’t really rain that much here compared to other major-league cities. And it is so expensive. … And so I did speak out against it. I probably wrote some articles.
“Then I left town for 21 years. We moved back about three years ago to Seattle. And I’ve gone to quite a few Mariner games, maybe a dozen in the last three years. And I couldn’t have gotten it worse, or more wrong, than I did. I think the roof is a great idea. It wasn’t cheap, but I’ve been to some games where it was essential. I mean, I prefer it with the roof open, obviously, but it’s not that bad.”
John Palmer is an architect who supervised the stadium construction on behalf of Mariners owners in his role as vice president of ballpark planning for the M’s. He had experience with numerous stadium projects, including Camden Yards, which was regarded at the time as the gold standard of the retro stadium movement. On the day of Safeco’s opening, Palmer told a Seattle Times reporter: “I think it’s going to be the cutting edge of covered stadiums. It’s going to be the Camden Yards of the covereds.”
Reached this week, Palmer said his opinion hasn’t changed.
“I still get a kick out of it. Unlike some of the other ones that have since been built, it was always envisioned as an umbrella, if you will, over an open-air stadium. It was the whole Elysian Fields heritage of baseball. The game was never meant to be played in a dome. There was never meant to be a wall in the outfield. The foul lines went to infinity. The ball, if it got past the outfielders, just rolls forever.
“Then it became urbanized and the walls had to go up, but it’s all part of that whole tradition. Being in the Northwest, this is an active community. If it rains, no big deal. Just put up the umbrella and keep playing.”
Some 23 years later, they’re still playing, rain or shine. And that retractable roof sure comes in handy.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


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