Bright and early tomorrow morning, a 53-foot truck will pull into the tunnel outside the Mariners' clubhouse at Safeco Field, where 10 pallets full of gear awaits. After about 90 minutes of loading, the truck will hit the road, headed south to Arizona.

Forget about Groundhog's Day and Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow or not. This annual truck-loading ritual is a surefire method of predicting that spring training is just around the corner.

"All winter long, you're making contact with the new guys, getting bat orders, shoe orders,'' said Ted Walsh, the Mariners' equipment manager. "When you load the truck, it means there's no turning back. Now we're starting for real.''

When Walsh worked several years in Cleveland for the Indians, the equipment truck leaving for spring training was a big media event, as it is in other cities, like Boston. It's much more low-key in Seattle, perhaps because the winter weather isn't quite as severe. Nevertheless, this tangible symbolism of spring training being right around the corner -- pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13 -- should bring a smile to anyone zipping up their jackets this week.

The Mariners' truck should arrive at the Mariners' spring complex in Peoria, Arizona next Monday, and will get unloaded on Tuesday. Every year, the equipment staff has a pool to guess the weight of all the equipment in the truck at the weigh station; last year, it came in at 26,000 pounds. That includes uniforms, trainers gear, weight equipment, merchandising gear, paper products, and supplies from the front office staff, along with various miscellaneous items.

"People think it's all bats and balls, but that stuff is pretty much shipped right there (to Peoria),'' Walsh said. "The bats are already sitting in Arizona. I've got some hodge-podge of bats, but the new bats and balls are all sent to Arizona.''

On Tuesday, the equipment all will be unloaded and placed in the middle of the Peoria clubhouse.

"You grab a box and figure out where it goes,'' Walsh said. "It's like moving into a house.''

And in this case, every Mariner fan is moving vicariously along with them.

Larry Stone-Seattle Times