Smiles arrive on M's Caravan

Fans welcome M's players, announcer Rick Rizzs and the mascot to town.

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Mariners relief pitcher Shawn Kelley (right) signs a bat for Emery Bennett, age 9, at Thursday's Mariners Caravan, as M's announcer Rick Rizzs (center) and pitcher Luke French (second from left) sign autographs

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Rick Rizzs speaks to the crowd during the question-and-answer session.

By KEVIN DAMORE

of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA - The Seattle Mariners Caravan made a stop on the Whitman College campus at the Sherwood Center Thursday, bringing ball players, excitement and a look forward to the 2011 Mariners season to Walla Walla.

Veteran announcer Rick Rizzs was joined by pitchers Shawn Kelley and Luke French to answer questions, sign autographs and talk with fans from around the area.

And, of course, the Mariner Moose was in the arena too.

"It's a great opportunity for us to get to see our fans from all across the state," Rizzs said of the 22-stop Caravan, which covers three states and British Columbia. "Plus, I have to say we drove here from Coeur d'Alene to here today, and that is one of the most beautiful drives."

Hundreds of Mariner enthusiasts filled the bleachers of the Sherwood Center for a quick introduction of Rizzs and the M's young pitchers before a question and answer session with the trio.

Typical topics such as Felix Hernandez's 2010 Cy Young season, whether Ken Griffey, Jr. will make an appearance at Safeco Field in 2011, and how to make it to the majors for aspiring Little Leaguers, were covered.

"Just make sure you're having fun," Kelley said as to making it to the majors. "As long as you're having fun and practicing every day then you'll get better, and then you never know."

Still, one child raised his hand to ask the question that was probably on several of his fellow young Mariner supporters' minds.

"When do we get to see the Moose?" he asked Rizzs.

Fifteen minutes later his request was rewarded when the team's furry mascot emerged to help with the team's raffle, which included prizes such as an official game-used baseball and four game tickets for a date yet to be determined.

"A lot of teams don't get to really go out and meet the fans like this because they might not reach as wide of a market, because there are other teams around their areas," French said. "The Q and A's are my favorite part."

Following the raffle, fans of all ages lined up to meet, get autographs and take pictures with Rizzs, the players and the Moose.

"I liked listening to the pitchers talk the most," said 10-year old Baryden Leavitt. "I'm excited for a new season."

At the other end of the Mariner-fan family tree is Helen Callaway of Athena, who has been a fan since the team debuted in 1977.

"I still go to spring training every year," she said, holding a picture she had taken with Rizzs in Arizona. "Last year, I got this (the picture with Rizzs) taken with him in Arizona, so it is so nice to see him again. I can't wait for a new season to start. I love the pitching duels. Watching Felix (Hernandez) pitch is the best."

"Days like today are fun," Rizzs said. "They're fun for us. They're fun for the fans. I love it. This trip is one of the best parts of our offseason."

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