Ben Steele '98: Selling SoDo mojo

By Greg Scheiderer

There may not be a person in the Northwest who ranks higher on the job satisfaction scale than Ben Steele ’98. He gets paid to think about baseball and cook up crazy situations in which to put his heroes, the Seattle Mariners. Then he makes those daydreams come to life.

Doing ads for a baseball team wasn’t necessarily his game plan, but Steele’s career path runs straight down the first base line. He knew he wanted to be a writer, and he grew up as a baseball fan in Boise, Idaho, rooting for the Mariners, the closest major league team. When those interests converged in the right place at the right time, Steele found himself at the heart of one of the most popular advertising campaigns hereabouts since Ivar Haglund urged Puget Sounders to “keep clam” and the wild Rainiers ran free.

Steele caught the advertising bug in Boise, doing freelance work for the Elgin-Syferd-Drake agency. While at Puget Sound majoring in creative writing, he scored an internship at McCann Erickson, the Seattle firm that had the Mariner account at the time. It was there that Steele met Jim Copacino, a veteran of 13 seasons of Mariner advertising. It turned out to be a key contact.

Copacino left McCann Erickson early in 1998 and teamed with Betti Fujikado to form a new agency. He brought the Mariners along as the founding account for Copacino.

Steele interviewed with Copacino when he graduated that May. The firm wasn’t quite ready to hire, so Steele spent the summer in the bullpen doing freelance work writing video game reviews for Nintendo. By October, Copacino was ready to add a writer, and Steele got the call because he could write and because he was a big baseball fan.

“Starting that year and for the last four seasons I’ve been on the Mariners team, and for the last two years I’ve been the lead writer,” Steele said. He was the sixth or seventh employee hired by Copacino’s firm, which now has about 30.

Producing six or seven Mariners commercials is a year-round job. Copacino writers jot down script ideas whenever they pop into their heads. The creative effort begins in earnest in October, when they start sifting through hundreds of brainstorms.

Eventually they crank out between 60 and 70 scripts. By the first of the year they throw out half of those, and pitch the remaining 30 or 35 to the Mariners. Working with club officials, they boil the list down to the seven they’d like to produce. Finally, they take the chosen scripts to the guys with veto power: the players. Will Bret Boone accept the mantle of leadership passed along from retired, bald-pated outfielder Jay Buhner and agree to have his head shaved for “Boonie Buzz Night?” Steele said invariably the answer is yes.

The M’s defy the common perception of professional athletes as spoiled, self-centered millionaires, he said. “The team is full of smart, good guys, just guys you can really like, which isn’t true of every baseball team,” he said. “Dan Wilson, Jamie Moyer, and Jay Buhner really stand out as guys who are good actors, too. It’s amazing; you can put lines in those guys’ mouths and they really deliver them well.”

With approved scripts in hand, the Copacino team follows the Mariners to Arizona in February, and an intensive week of taping commercials follows. Steele said that, while the players have work to do, they’re generous with their time.

“They’re down there in spring training to get ready to play baseball, and we take three, four, sometimes five hours out of their day to do the ads,” Steele noted. “I think they get a little kick out of it even if they wouldn’t always admit it. They get to be celebrities in a different way for a while.”

Steele’s favorite spot from this year’s batch is “The Challenge.” In 2001 the Mariners won 116 games to equal the major league record held by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. In “The Challenge” the aught-six Cubs turn up in Arizona, Field of Dreams-style, intent on a grudge match to defend their top standing. It’s not much of a ball game, though—all the challengers are well over 100 years old.

The “punch” line of the spot demonstrates that, for all the months of script writing and planning, there’s room for spur-of-the-moment creativity. As the players go through the post-game high- five line, a sportsmanship ritual born in little league, one of the ancient Cubs sucker-punches Mariner first baseman John Olerud in the gut.

“It was an ad-lib between the actor and the director, and they surprised John with it,” recalled Steele. “John reacted beautifully. I think we used the first take. It looks very real and it’s very funny.”

Steele is married to Mindy Iwen ’97, and his younger sister, Julie Steele, graduated from Puget Sound in 2000. Another alumna, Lindsay Herman ’98, also works at Copacino.