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Sunday, March 31, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

It's Opening Day -- Warming Up For The M's

Times Staff Columnist

Lou Piniella looked around the Kingdome.

"They told me the crowds weren't this big for games in 1992," said the manager of the Seattle Mariners since 1993.

Certainly they weren't as enthusiastic.

The love affair between a community and its baseball team was renewed yesterday as 11,950 fans clicked through the turnstiles just to watch batting practice.

Tonight the Mariners and Chicago White Sox open the major-league season at the Kingdome. The game - earliest opener in history - was sold out months ago.

Like a lot of people in Seattle, Blanche Sylvester became a baseball fan last fall.

At the age of 73.

Tucked under a Mariner cap and enveloped in a team T-shirt, she cheered with everyone else as Ken Griffey Jr. launched ball after ball into the rightfield stands.

"I just hope we can get to the World Series this time," she said.

The mood was a mixture of expectation and appreciation, fans like Blanche wanting more this season while other, more experienced Mariner fans are just thankful for what happened last season. And fearful a young pitching staff might mean less this season.

Blanche was so enamored with the Mariners and their drive to the American-League playoffs that she followed her heroes to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., where Piniella signed the underside of the bill of her Mariner cap.

"I'm going to be a great-grandmother soon, that and the Mariners are at the top of my list for life," she said.

"This is my life," said Kimberly Litke of Fall City, who will celebrate her 15th birthday next week with her name on the Kingdome scoreboard at a Mariner game.

"I've saved every sports section during spring training. I love the team, whether they win or lose."

The Mariners printed 5,000 programs. They were gone before the team took the field. There was no charge for admission or parking. In the neighboring exhibition hall, 3,500 servings of ice cream and cake were handed out as part of the Kingdome's 20th birthday celebration.

Kids who normally never get to sit in an $18 box seat hung over the railings begging for autographs, waving baseball gloves nearly as big as themselves.

The first cheer went up as Randy Johnson stuck his head out from the dugout. Then Griffey, his cap on backwards, made his entrance and the place had an energy and a buzz reserved for the playoffs.

"This is a great thing to do," said Gregg Mesmer, a Bainbridge Island artist, who had his young son in tow. "Every Little Leaguer from the island is here. This is just a great family atmosphere. The Mariners are showing a lot of civic class in doing this. I wish some of our other professional teams would show the same."

The Mariners had opened the Kingdome for practice before other season openers, but very few fans had bothered to show up.

Last season, in fact, they cut ticket prices in half for the strike-delayed opener and sold only 34,641. This year their were complaints that only 2,000 tickets were put on sale to the general public, the remaining going to season ticket-holders.

So the Mariners decided to have Opening Night II, their second game against the White Sox Tuesday night. They are expecting more than 40,000 fans.

"There's no place like home," said Jay Buhner, the team's star rightfielder. "We were standing out in the outfield looking up at the crowd and talking about when there weren't this many people for games early last year.

"The electricity in the crowd is amazing. It is important for us to keep it going by getting off to a good start."

Like many others, Edgar Martinez stepped onto the floor of the Kingdome for the first time since the Mariners were beaten in game six of the A.L. championship series against Cleveland.

Most of the crowd of 58,489 had waited 15 minutes that night for the team to reappear from the dugout. They applauded and many of the Marines cried.

"The feeling is still there," said Martinez. "They still believe in us, and that feels good. Real good."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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