BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
The Kingdome, officially the King County Multipurpose Domed Stadium, opened in Seattle on March 27, 1976. Before being demolished on March 26, 2000, it served as the home for professional sports franchises in baseball, basketball, football and soccer.
Western Washington University, then Western Washington State College, made two appearances in the massive concrete structure, both coming in the second year of its existence, by teams in two different sports.
On Apr. 6, 1977, the Seattle Mariners played the California Angels in the first major league game at the Kingdome. But few people realize that the Mariners didn’t play the first baseball game under the dome. That distinction belonged to Western and Seattle University which competed in a college contest four days earlier.
The non-publicized, almost secret event was a dry run for the Kingdome. Seattle U. notched an 8-1 victory in the game, which gave stadium personnel a chance to work out the kinks prior to Opening Day for the Mariners.
Most of the impetus for the game came from the famed O’Brien brothers, who were both outstanding basketball players at Seattle U. Johnny O’Brien was the first employee of the Kingdome, while Eddie was the Chieftains’ athletic director at that time.
“Johnny wanted to do a dress rehearsal and wanted to know if we would move a game,” said Eddie O’Brien many years later. “We already had a game scheduled with Western for about that time, so we moved that one.”
Only a few hundred fans, mostly parents and friends, were allowed in to see the contest, but the game was fully staffed by ushers, scoreboard operators and other personnel. Everything was run as if a true game was being played, right down to public address announcements, the grounds crew grooming the infield in the fifth inning, batting averages updated on the scoreboard for every at bat, and the post-game buffet.
“We were treated like major leaguers,” said Western outfielder Dave Storrer, who tripled in the game. “But we sure weren’t major league.”
The Chieftains were the Mariners on the scoreboard, the Vikings played as the visiting Angels. The game also featured the first use of replays on the Big Screen.
“In the first or second inning, I threw a guy out trying to steal second,” said Mike Locker, the Western catcher. “He was called safe. I wanted to see the replay, and there it was. I had nailed him big time. The umpire just shrugged and said, ‘What can I do?’ Now, you see the replays all the time on television, but that’s the only one I’ve ever been involved in.”
Anytime a fly ball was hit, the fielder who made the catch would be questioned after the inning about how the lighting was.
The teams were given free tickets to the Mariners’ Opening Day contest.
The beginning of the Kingdome came near the end of baseball history for both Western and Seattle U. Western discontinued its baseball program in 1981. Seattle U. dropped the sport in 1986.
The only person from that 17-17-2 Western team to reach the major leagues was head coach Ralph Dickenson, who was an assistant hitting coach with the Houston Astros in 2014. Prior to that, he had spent time in the minor league systems of the Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals and New York Yankees as well as at Washington State University, 35 years in all.
Dickenson was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1969 and had a six-year minor league career as both an outfielder and pitcher.
Four league all-stars on that Western squad were outfielder Kelly Smith, first baseman Jim Emerson and the brother pitcher-catcher combo of Frank and Vito Lucarelli, respectively.
Smith transferred to Washington State in 1979 when Dickenson became a Cougars’ assistant coach. In 1980, Smith led the Pac-10 conference with a .418 batting average, stole 30 bases and scored 69 runs in 48 games.
Smith, also a standout defensively, was named a third-team All-American and was selected in the 13th round of the professional draft. During a four-year career in the San Francisco Giants’ organization, he worked up to Triple A, the final stop before the major leagues.
A few months later, two of those Western baseball players, Mike Locker and outfielder Tom Harmon, were members of a Viking football team that competed in the Kingdome.
With advance ticket sales going poorly for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division I football national championship scheduled for the Dome on Dec. 10, 1977, organizers asked if the second annual NAIA District 1 title game, slated for mid-November, could be switched and played right after that national contest.
Western and Pacific Lutheran University quickly agreed.
The two head coaches, Western’s Boyde Long and PLU’s Frosty Westering, each had very little hair. That led to a photo appearing in the Tacoma News Tribune featuring them in front of the Kingdome scratching their mostly bald heads with the caption, “Two Domes meet in the Dome.”
“It has got to be the highlight of a lifetime for every player on this team,” said Long in announcing the schedule change. “I’m just glad we’re back (in the district contest), but to play in the Kingdome, that’s fantastic.”
When football practice began in September, Western was coming off a 48-28 win over PLU in the first District 1 championship in 1976. The Vikings had visions of playing for the national title in the Kingdome. But those hopes were quickly squashed with losses in their first two games.
However, Western bounced back to win its final four regular season games for a 6-3 record and got the nod to once again play PLU, which was 7-2.
But it was not to be the Vikings’ day at the Kingdome as All-America running back Pat Locker, suffering from a severe bout of the flu, netted only eight yards on six carries, and freshman quarterback Dave Blue threw six interceptions in a 24-0 loss.
Three of those interceptions were made by PLU linebacker John Zamberlin, who went on to play six seasons in the NFL, two with Kansas City and four with New England.
The co-captains of that Western team were offensive guard Scott Stokes and linebacker Jim Sterk. Both were later inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame as were Pat Locker, who in 1979 became the first collegiate player in Pacific Northwest history to run for 4,000 career yards, and wide receiver Hoyt Gier, who finished his career with at least one catch in all 37 games played.
Harmon came up with his fifth pass interception of the year in the district contest and was in on a dozen tackles for the Vikings.
The NAIA national game was called the Apple Bowl, not to be confused with the Apple Cup game between the University of Washington and Washington State University.
Abilene Christian TX won the first and only Apple Bowl by defeating Southwestern Oklahoma State, 24-7, before a crowd of 12,980. The District 1 title game, which had an attendance of 5,000, was never played again.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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