The 1995 Seattle Mariners are a team that will go down in baseball history for many reasons. They were the first squad of Mariners to ever make the playoffs, for one. For another, they had the American League Cy Young Award winning pitcher, Randy Johnson, and the player with the highest batting average in the AL, Edgar Martinez. They had Ken Griffey Jr., who is already one of the greatest players ever to play the game. They caught, and ended up beating, a team that was way ahead of them to win their first division title. They won a playoff series as thrilling as any that had ever been played. These are all good reasons to have loved and been thrilled by this baseball team.
But the thing that they will most be remembered for is the Seattle fans. In the 19 years Seattle has had the Mariners, the fans have stayed away in droves. Somehow having the worst team in baseball, year after year, will do that. But this year was different. As the team kept winning and winning, in the most dramatic possible fashion, the whole city of Seattle went into a baseball frenzy. The team drew sellout crowds, and untold thousands more watched on TV. In fact, one game in this run had the highest ratings of any TV show in Seattle history. Higher than the last episode of MASH, higher than any Super Bowl, higher even than the day the Washington Huskies won the college football national title.
But this is only part of the story of our fans, and part of the story of this team. I'll get to all that in this article. But now I should start at the beginning.
Start where you want to by clicking below...At last, things start to change
THE SAD BEGINNINGS
The Mariners were born in 1976 as the result of a lawsuit. This one fact kind of defines the team's early years.
In 1969 Seattle was granted a baseball franchise, the Seattle Pilots. The team only lasted one year, however, before it was sold to Milwaukee. Governor (now Senator) Slade Gorton sued baseball, and, just as the suit was about to reach court, the baseball owners decided to give Seattle a new team that could play in the then newly built confines of the Kingdome. A group of investors were brought on board at the last minute, and brought Seattle baseball. Lots and lots of bad baseball. In fact, the early years of Seattle baseball are one long blur, or maybe yawn, punctuated by rare moments such as spitball pitcher Gaylord Perry's 300th victory, which happened when he was in a Mariners uniform.
After an initial burst of enthusiasm about having baseball in Seattle, fans stayed away in droves. It became a long running joke that the dictionary definition of unimportant was a late-season Mariners game. There were many games that drew the grand total of 5,000 fans. It was said that Seattle was not and never would be a baseball town. Unlike a place like Chicago or New York, Seattleites would never embrace losers.
Finally, in 1991, the team had its first winning season (by contrast, the Toronto Blue Jays, the team that entered the league at the same time as the Mariners, had already had some fine seasons). Exciting players were finally playing for Seattle, including brilliant shortstop Omar Vizquel, raw but exciting pitcher Randy Johnson, and the incomparable Ken Griffey Jr., who had a thrilling year of playing along side his father in the outfield.
In true Mariners fashion, though, the '92 team lost 100 games.AT LAST, THINGS START TO CHANGE
After the terrible '92 season, the Mariners made the change that I think really turned the corner for the team: they hired Lou Piniella as their manager. Piniella was a bulldog as a player, a scrapper with power. As manager he had lived up to the reputation he had as a player - he was fiesty, argumentative, a great motivator. Piniella had led a Cincinnati Reds team that swept the World Series in 1990 and it was only a fluke that he was available to manage in Seattle.
He immediately began to turn around the team, getting rid of players who could or would not perform up to his standards. He instilled a culture of winning on his team, and they responded. They finished 1993 with only the second winning season in their history.
1994 was basically more of the same. The team, predicted to win their division, stumbled out of the gate but finished very strongly. Before the strike began on August 12th, the team had won 9 of its last 10. In fact, in the very last game that took place before the strike, Ken Griffey Jr. hit a grand slam homer and the team was close to first place. But, of course, the strike came and the whole season was shot down.
Once the strike ended in the spring of 1995 and the team returned to the field, expectations were high again. The team had a brilliant starting pitcher in Randy Johnson, arguably the finest all-around player in the major leagues in Ken Griffey Jr., and a plethora of other players who seemed poised to hit their prime. It was to be a brilliant season all around, but nobody knew the struggles this team would have to go through to achieve their eventual glory.STRUGGLES, THEN SUCCESS
The 1995 season began with a ton of promise. The team jumped out of the gate hot, and quickly entered into a pattern of winning more than losing. The M's, however, quickly found themselves behind the California Angels. The Angels, the surprise of the league, were using a combination of solid pitching and exciting young hitters to open a nice lead in the American League West. By the All-Star break, in mid-summer, the team had a double-digit league on both the Mariners and Texas Rangers. Fans were wondering which AL team was more of a juggernaut - the Angels or the Cleveland Indians (the team that eventually represented the AL in the World Series - but I'm getting ahead of myself)
In mid-May, about a month into the season, tragedy struck the Mariners. Griffey shattered his wrist catching a ball against the center field fence. Seattle's worst fears were coming true: Griffey, felt to be the key to the team contending, would be out of the lineup for three months.
In a way, though, the injury was a blessing in disguise. No longer expecting Griffey to spark every rally and start all the scoring, other players stepped up. Jay Buhner, the team's right fielder, began to find his groove and ended up knocking out 40 home runs in '95. First baseman Tino Martinez began to live up to his considerable potential and flirted with hitting .300 all season. And designated hitter Edgar Martinez (no relation to Tino) had a brilliant year. All season long he went no more than 9 at bats without a hit, and led the team in walks. Edgar ended up leading the AL in batting average. And, perhaps most importantly, pitcher Randy Johnson turned into a completely dominant pitcher. He became the perfect ace of a pitching staff. Johnson could be counted on to stop any losing streak, to shut the opposition down cold each time he faced them.
A team-record four Mariners made the All-Star team. Despite his injury, Griffey was voted the starting center fielder for the team. Johnson was named as the AL's starting pitcher, and both of the Martinez boys were chosen as reserve players.
Despite all this individual success, the team hovered around a .500 record for most of the time Griffey was out. The Mariners' pitching was suspect, and, more importantly, the Mariners hitters were just not getting timely hits to drive in runs in crucial situations. At one point Seattle found itself 13 1/2 games behind the Angels in their division.
The only thing that kept team management from dismantling the team and planning for the eternal "next year" was that 1995 was the first year the major leagues had instituted a "wild card" system, where the team with the best record that had not won its division would make the playoffs. The Mariners were in contention for the Wild Card, so, far from tearing the team apart, team management decided to add several players, several crucial elements, that might get the Mariners into the playoffs. Three players were key. Vince Coleman filled several holes in the lineup. The team had no solid leadoff hitter, who could get on base and threaten to steal at any moment. Coleman was that sort of player. Also he played left field, a traditional dead spot on the team, and had playoff experience. The M's also added Andy Benes, a pitcher with considerable potential who, it was felt, would give the Mariners a strong one-two pitching punch. The final key addition was the most important. Norm Charlton had pitched for Piniella's World Series-winning Reds team and in 1990 was a solid closer. After an injury and surgery, he was given up on by the Phillies. Piniella took a chance of Charlton and he worked out beautifully, not squandering leads as a previous pitcher had.
So all the pieces were in place. All the team needed was a spark to really light their fires.
The day that started the magic was August 24, 1995. A day that will always be remembered by Mariners fans as the day things began to change. Coming into that game, the Mariners were one game under .500, and 11 1/2 games behind the Angels. They were even four games behind Texas in the Wild Card chase. And this game did not began as an auspicious occasion. Andy Benes, the supposedly big pick-up, was rocked by hot New York Yankee bats. The Yanks had six runs off Benes by the fourth inning. It looked to be another day of futility. But the Mariners bats came alive. By the bottom of the eighth, powered by a home run by Edgar Martinez, the M's pulled to within one run. Vince Coleman, another big pick-up, reached base and eventually scored in the bottom of the 9th. And the game was tied. Ken Griffey Jr., barely back in action after his injury, stepped to the plate, and on the first pitch - *bam* the Mariners had won it! Griffey was mobbed at the plate and the excitement began.REFUSE TO LOSE
This was the beginning of one of the most amazing stretch drives in the history of baseball. The Mariners went on to win 25 of their last 36 games, an tremendous feat made even more unbelievable by the way they won some of those games. On September 13th, Jay Buhner hit a three-run homer to destroy the Kansas City Royals, who at that point led the Wild Card chase. On September 16th, light-hitting Dan Wilson slugged a game-winning homer in the 9th to defeat the White Sox. Three days later, Doug Strange, am unheralded utility infielder, pinch hit the tying runs against Texas, a tie broken in the 11th by Griffey.
A slogan began to appear around town. It was a summation of what the Mariners were all about in 1995: Refuse to Lose. No matter how deep their deficit seemed to be, the Mariners seemed to always catch up. More importantly, the team was catching up not only with the Wild Card race, but with the collapsing Angels, who were losing game after game in an astounding choke job. And the Seattle fans, who normally could not care less about baseball in August and September, began to turn out in record numbers. The day after the M's took over a tie for the division lead (Sept. 20th, a game that the whole family went to, and only 20,000+ attended), the team began drawing like crazy. Over the last 12 days of the season, no game drew fewer than 42,000 fans - an amazing total. The city was abuzz with Mariner mania. And the team kept feeding the frenzy.
That weekend, on September 22nd, the Mariners fell down 6-0 to the A's, a team that has dominated Seattle through the years. But, in typical 1995 Mariners fashion, the team mounted an amazing comeback. Coleman, who has never been a longball hitter, knocked out his first ever grand slam and the place went crazy. Alex Diaz, another basically unknown pinch-hitter, knocked in the winning runs and the place, yes, went crazy. And, hey, guess what happened the next day? The M's won a see-saw game against those same A's in the bottom of the 9th off a home run by Tino described by announcer Dave Neihaus as "perhaps the most amazing game in their history!!!" Of course he didn't know what was to follow."EVERYBODY SCORES!!!!"
The best was yet to come. The regular season ended in a tie between the Mariners and Angels. This forced the rarity of all rarities, a one-game playoff to determine the division winner. The game was to be played on Monday afternoon, and tickets went on sale right after the Angels won their last game of the year. I waited out in the rain for two hours to get tickets even though I didn't know for sure I could get the day off work. There was no way I could miss the game that would basically shut the whole city down.
I got a decent seat for a game that would live up to its hype. The Mariners sent Randy Johnson, the eventual Cy Young award winner for best pitcher in the AL, up against former Mariner and current Angel ace Mark Langston. Both pitchers were brilliant early. Langston allowed only one run through the first five innings, and Johnson threw a perfect game - not a single base runner - until the sixth inning. Then, in the Mariner half of the 7th inning, Seattle loaded the bases for shortstop Luis Sojo. Announcer Rick Rizzs captured the moment brilliantly in his play-by-play, so here it is: "Here's the pitch. Swing, and it's a ground ball, and [Rizzs's voice raises to a fever pitch] it gets on by Snow. Down the right field line into the bullpen. Here comes Blowers. Here comes Tino. Here comes Joey. The throw to the plate is cut off. The relay by Langston gets by Allanson. Cora scores! Here comes Sojo! Everybody scores!!! Sojo comes in!!!" At that point, the Kingdome became the loudest place I have ever been in my life. It was like a 747 in there, the place was filled with white noise. It was going to happen!
Johnson ended up pitching a complete game, and Mariners won 9-1 and the Kingdome went crazy. Thousands of fans rushed on the field to scoop up dirt and savor the moment. Nobody wanted to leave. And so, it was on to New York to face the Wild Card winning Yankees.THE YANKEES, AND STILL MORE EXCITEMENT
The five-game series between the Mariners and Yankees might be remembered as one of the greatest playoff series ever. Fan emotions went on an amazing roller coaster that ended up with perhaps the greatest sports moment I've ever seen.
The Yankees won the first two games at Yankee Stadium. The second game was a nail-biting, thrilling 15 inning game that was won in the rain on a home run by Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz. This put the Mariners with their backs against the wall, having to win all three remaining games in order to keep playing.
Of course, Johnson pitched game three. And of course, he pitched a victory.
Game four started out as a nightmare. The Yankees jumped all over Mariners starter Chris Bosio, tagging him for five runs. But the brilliant Edgar Martinez saw that that lead would not last, with one of the most amazing single game performances in playoff history. He keyed a four-run third inning with a three-run homer, and followed that up in the eight inning with a grand slam - seven runs batted in in one game, an amazing feat. The Mariners went on to win the game 11-8, and there was a feeling that this team really would refuse to lose, that someone, somewhere, was smiling down on them.
All that was left now was the fifth game of the series. The winner went on to play Cleveland in the American League Championship Series, while the loser went home. It was the fourth time within six days the Mariners faced a game they had to win. This one turned out to be the most memorable of all. It started out, again, with the Mariners falling behind. Former Cy Young award winner David Cone had a 4-2 lead after seven innings, and seemed to be cruising to a victory. Griffey narrowed it to 4-3 in the eight with his fifth home run of the series. Then something inexplicable happened. Still in the eighth, Cone loaded the bases. He was clearly exhausted, having thrown over 140 pitches - a very high total. Yankee manager Buck Showalter kept Cone in, perhaps hoping his extraordinary control of his pitches would create a double play. Instead, he loaded the count to pinch hitter Doug Strange and then walked him. The game was tied.
It was into extra innings they went. Piniella decided to pitch Randy Johnson in the 9th inning and stayed with him. Johnson had only pitched n relief once before in his career to that point, and was only pitching on one day's rest. But Piniella, a great "hunch" manager, decided to use him. Johnson shut the Yanks down in the 9th and 10th, but allowed a run in the top of the 11th inning. All the pressure was on the Mariners now.
Then came the greatest moment I can ever remember seeing in sports. Better than anything in my 29 years. Excuse me while I gush even more than usual. Pitching for the Yankees in relief was another Cy Young winner, Jack McDowell. First up for the Mariners in the 11th was little Joey Cora, a spark plug of a player who plays with tremendous passion. Cora dropped a perfect bunt down the first base line, eluded the tag of first baseman Don Mattingly, and stood at first. The din at the Kingdome began to rise. Next up was Griffey, who had already hit five home runs in the series. He tomahawked a high McDowell fastball and suddenly there were men at first and third, no out. Coming to bat was Edgar Martinez, who hit an astonishing .571 in the series. On his third pitch, McDowell threw a slider inside and Edgar knocked it to left. In came Cora, with Griffey motoring like a jet plane around the bases. The throw came in, it was late, and the place erupted in excitement. Players mobbed Griffey and Martinez and the place went crazy. For the fourth time in a row, the Mariners had come back to play another day. The energy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, were infectious. Liisa and I were so loud in our cheering after this turn of events that our kids, noisy people that they are, told us to be quiet.
THE INDIANS, AND SEATTLE'S FINEST MOMENT
Well, I wish I could say the series against the Indians went as well as the one versus New York. Not that there weren't some great moments - there were, and I'll get to those, and the greatest moment of all. But the Indians were a good team. They won 100 games and lost only 44. Their hitters were amazing and their pitching solid. On paper, this series should have been a rout.
But baseball isn't like other sports, where you can predict outcomes before the game. There could never be a Buffalo Bills in baseball, because eventually something amazing would happen and they would break through. Or, as Michael Rawdon well knows with his beloved Boston Red Sox, every time they lost it would be a great new drama.
Game one of the Cleveland series was one of those amazing moments that can only serve to deepen a fan's appreciation of the game. Cleveland sent 40-year-old Dennis Martinez to the mound. Martinez is a rock-solid pitcher, a veteran who has vast stores of knowledge to deploy. The Mariners countered with the only thing they could come up with: rookie Bob Wolcott, a 22-year-old with precious few games - only seven - under his belt. Guess who won? Wolcott, of course.
Not that he didn't give a bit of a scare. Obviously incredibly nervous, Wolcott walked the first three Cleveland batters he faced in the first inning. The usually deafening Kingdome was dead silent, expecting disaster as Wolcott faced slugger Albert Belle. Belle had smacked 50 home runs during the season, and was a leading candidate for Most Valuable Player honors. So what does Wolcott do? Strike him out, of course. Next up was Eddie Murray, proud owner of 3000 hits. Wolcott gets him to pop out. Suddenly magic is happening. Next up was hard-hitting Jim Thome. He smacks a line drive between first and second but little sparkplug Joey Cora is there to make a great catch and suddenly, somehow, Wolcott got out of it. He only ended up giving up two runs in seven innings' work, and, seemingly in an instant, the Mariners led the series 1-0.
In game two, Orel Hershiser, one of the greatest post-season pitchers ever and a probable Hall of Famer, shut down the Mariners with brilliant control, and the Indians won 5-2. Then came game three in Cleveland. Randy Johnson was on the mound once again. He didn't have his greatest stuff - the fatigue of all this pressure started to bear down on him - but the game turned not on Johnson but on Jay Buhner, the Mariners' fine right fielder, on his bat and his glove. Leading off the second, Buhner homered off Indians pitcher Charles Nagy for a quick 1-0 lead. But he lost the lead in the 8th inning by losing track of a ball in the lights, allowing runners on base and eventually two runs to score. Buhner had his chance for redemption in the 11th inning and capitalized on it, slamming a mammoth three-run homer and giving the team a lead. I love this quote from Buhner that night: "When I missed that ball and they came on to tie us 2-2, I came close to crying. When I hit the home run, I almost cried again."
After game three, game four was a huge let down. Mariners pitcher Andy Benes was battered early and often, and Indians pitcher Ken Hill completely shut down Seattle's hitting. The final score was 7-0 and it seemed even more lopsided than that. Game five, the last in Cleveland, was another tense, close game, ultimately won by Cleveland and Hershiser again. Suddenly it seemed the series had turned around. The Indians needed only to win once in Seattle to go on to the World Series while the Mariners had to go to the well two more times and pull out miracle victories.
In the end, exhaustion set in. The Mariners had played at such a high level for so long that they were simply spent. Randy Johnson threw again in a must-win situation - his fourth in two weeks - and pitched decently but not great. The Mariners bats couldn't pull out the magic yet one more time, and the magic carpet ride was over.
But there was still one more chapter to be written, one more thing to transcend the sports side of it. That was the response by the fans after the 6th game. Instead of leaving in silence, or booing their team's rather lackluster play in the final game, as fans in other cities might, the 57,000 at the Kingdome stayed. And cheered for the team. They savored their memories. They thanked the group that had brought so much joy and excitement to this town. Almost every fan stayed to cheer for the team. Manager Lou Piniella and some of the players fought off tears. Piniella later said that in all his years in baseball (and he's been a player and manager since 1969) he had never seen a moment like that. It was amazing. I don't think I've ever felt so proud of my city. All the energy, all the passion, all the sheer fun that had been brought to Seattle by this treasure that we had ignored for 19 years finally showed up in that magical moment of catharsis. So what if they couldn't quite make it. This still was one hell of a ride.WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR!
Now, of course, it's all over. The team will be at least a little bit different next year, and of course the expectations will all be different. If they don't repeat as division champions, people will be disappointed. Let's hope that next year they can make it all the way to the World Series! In the meantime I'll savor these memories. Thanks for indulging me!