‘Damn Yankees’ is just a mile in Seattle from ‘Damn Mariners’

Hans Altwies as the Devil in “Damn Yankees” at the 5th Avenue Theatre

The irony of this juxtaposition is simply delicious. On Saturday, “Damn Yankees,” the memorable Faust-inspired musical about a long-suffering baseball fan’s deal with the devil, opened a month-long run in Seattle at the 5th Avenue Theatre. On the very same day and just 20 blocks to the south at Safeco Field, pitcher Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox threw a perfect game against the long-suffering Seattle Mariners.

Given that they arguably are baseball’s worst team over the past 35 years, the “damn Mariners” might have fans willing to do almost anything to improve things. Except that the Mariners don’t have very many fans anymore. Over the past decade, Mariners attendance has fallen 45%. With a 7-10 record (including a three-game sweep by the White Sox this weekend), the average paid home attendance so far this season is just 19,633. One game drew all of 11,343 beating hearts. Despite absolutely perfect weather, only 22,473 turned out on Saturday for what proved to be Humber’s outstanding, historically rare performance.

“Damn Yankees” debuted on Broadway in 1955, winning the Tony for best musical and later becoming a movie. It is based on a novel, The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant, by Douglass Wallop. (The title was changed both to make it more punchy and as a pun on Civil War rivalry.) The book/musical play/movie cleverly updated the pact-with-the-devil theme of the 16th century German legend of Faust, a professor who bargains with Satan for a good time now with possible eternal payback down the road.

In “Damn Yankees,” middle-aged Joe Boyd, a real estate agent, is a fan of the old Washington Senators. Like the Mariners, the team was one of baseball’s most dreadful franchises (as the old saying went about the Other Washington, “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League”). Boyd complains that all the team needs is one star hitter to best its old nemesis, the New York Yankees. The devil, a slick salesman-like character named Mr. Applegate, offers Boyd a deal: If he gives up his soul, Boyd will be transformed into that star.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the plot. So all I’ll say is that the Washington Senators end up having a lot better season than what the Mariners are likely to have this year.

But then again, the Senators never had a leader quite like budget-conscious Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln.  “The goal of the Mariners is not to win the World Series,” he once declared publicly. No diabolic deals for this man!

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