An Interview With “Baseball’s Greatest Series” Author Chris Donnelly

After receiving word of Chris Donnelly’s book on the 1995 ALDS, Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History, I wrote a quick summary of his book and printed an excerpt describing Edgar Martinez’s grand slam in game 4. I’ve followed up by asking Chris some questions about his project of researching the ALDS and writing the book on it. Here’s our exchange:

Arne: You came to this project as a Yankees fan, right? I’ve always assumed this ALDS was the province of Mariner fans, so I’m curious to find out why you decided to write about it from over in New Jersey.

Chris: I was born in 1981 so the ’95 series was the first time I had seen the Yankees make the playoffs. They have seemingly made it to the postseason every year since, but back in ’95, this was a huge deal in NYC. Plus, like many Yankee fans, Don Mattingly was by far my favorite player, so there was an overwhelming sense of relief that he finally made the postseason. The games were beyond anything baseball fans could have hoped for and despite the outcome, I often thought back upon the series and how exciting it all was. As I got older, I learned more and more about it and found there was more to the story than just the five games, so I thought it would make for a good book.

Arne: Your book’s to a large extent about the swan song of Don Mattingly. Could you talk a little bit about how he figured in the ALDS. It seems that him striking out three times against Randy Johnson in game 3 was an emotional turning point in the series.

Chris: I think for many Yankee fans, it was almost more about Don Mattingly making the playoffs and winning the World Series than about the Yankees doing so. Very few people knew for certain if he was returning after that season, so for fans, it became crucial that the Yankees win it then and there. Additionally, his performance during the series (10 hits, 6 RBI and a home run) reminded many of the dominating player he had been during the 1980s. Mattingly was the only left handed batter in the lineup against Johnson, showing Showalter’s faith in him. Unfortunately, it did not work out well for Mattingly and even Seattle fans, who had been mostly cordial to him, began taunting him after the three strikeout performance.

Arne: The N.Y. vs. Seattle baseball dynamic really got going in ’95, then it became a recurring rivalry for the next six years. And of course a lot of Mariner fans are still disgusted by Alex Rodriguez leaving town, so he’s helped make the Yankees a continuing object of dislike in the Northwest. It’s somewhat well known here that Seattle’s first name was “New York Alki,” or “New York by and by,” and Seattle still seems to emulate itself on New York City in some ways. What are your thoughts on the sports rivalry between the two cities?

Chris: From 1995 to 2001, the Yankees-Mariners was possibly the best rivalry in baseball. Most of that was driven by the Division Series, but you had dynamic players on both sides and there were always NY/Seattle connections, whether it be Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, or Luis Sojo. I think just about every city takes pride in defeating the Yankees, but especially Seattle because they had a one up on everyone because of what happened in ’95.

Arne: What take does the average Yankee fan have on the ’95 ALDS?

Chris: I don’t want to speak for all fans, but for me it’s mostly bittersweet. I think the Yankees had an excellent chance of beating the Indians in the ALCS that year and getting to the World Series. Had they done so, it would have been very difficult for Steinbrenner not to have brought back Buck Showalter and other members of the team. It was disappointing for fans that off season to slowly see their favorite players start leaving for other teams, and then to not have Mattingly return was almost unthinkable. Yet the Yankee dynasty of ’96-’01 does not happen if the Yankees don’t lose that series, so in a twisted way, you almost seem grateful that Edgar hit that double (although the pain of watching that and reliving the moment, as a Yankee fan, never goes away).

Arne: What do you think was the biggest mistake the Yankees made during ALDS to help the Mariners come back?

Chris: I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but not utilizing Mariano Rivera. It’s not a mistake because no one knew just what Rivera brought to the table. He hadn’t pitched well during the regular season, and yet he dominated Seattle in the playoffs. Had Showalter known then what we all know now (a fact Buck admits), Rivera would have been brought in sooner in Game 5, possibly pitched out of that 8th inning jam without letting the Mariners tie the game, and today we would be talking about the Tampa Bay Mariners. But it would be unfair to blame Showalter for that because no one had a clue and anyone who says otherwise is simply not telling the truth.

Arne: I’ve always thought Yankee fans have a grudge against Randy Johnson because of his feats in the ALDS and the ’01 World Series, and because he then didn’t do too well in New York. Do you agree?

Chris: Again, I don’t want to speak for all fans, but I think that is probably fair. What is odd about that is that the Yankees actually performed very well historically against Johnson during the regular season. I don’t have the exact stats, but I believe few teams did better. But when it came playoff time, he simply dominated them in two separate years. Johnson came to NY with high expectations and, in the minds of fans anyway, never lived up to them.

Arne: How did the interviews for the book go? Who did you talk to, what did they say, and what were your impressions of them?

Chris: I spoke to approximately 70 people for the book. They ranged from umpires, to team personnel, people who had been on the teams in the ’80s, and of course, the coaches, managers and players who were there in ’95. Just about everyone was very supportive of the concept and for those who took part in the series, they all loved talking about the experience (even the Yankees). On the NY side, many of those guys had great memories of their teammates and coaches, many of whom they never played with again after the Game 5 loss. For Seattle, most of the players simply couldn’t stop talking about what a great experience it was and how Seattle baseball really came to life that year.

Arne: Along the same lines, which Mariner players and/or officials were the most interesting to research and to interview?

Chris: Researching the Mariners’ early history was fun because, frankly, the team was so bad. They were just so many oddities that I kept discovering, like Wills trying to make the batter’s box bigger, or a guy who gave up a home run on the first pitch he threw in the majors. Everyone I interviewed, and I sincerely mean this, was fantastic. No one hesitated to share stories or memories. Jay Buhner and Chris Bosio stick out most of all because I spent the most time with them. They are both open and frank guys who not only shared stories of the series, but also gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for little aspects of the game (how to pitch certain hitters, what to do against a David Cone slider, etc.).

Arne: The trade of Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson after the ’95 season was, along with the trade of Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe two years later, one of the great Mariner missteps that kept the team from doing more with its amazing talent in the ’90s. Did you have the chance to talk with Nelson and/or Martinez about the trade? Also, did any of the Mariners officials you talked with describe the reasoning behind it?

Chris: While I was able to interview more than half of the players who took part in the series, unfortunately, Tino and Jeff Nelson were not among them. Obviously, from the Yankees side, the trade became necessary once Don Mattingly made clear he was not returning for 1996.

Arne: There were so many themes and subtexts to the Mariners/Yankees rivalry in the ’90s and early ’00s, with all the players, and Piniella, having experience with both teams in their careers, and the re-emergence of the Yankees as a team good enough to be worthy of rooting against even if you were three thousand miles away. What was the attitude toward those Mariner teams in and around New York City?

Chris: I think Yankee fans always held a resentment against the Mariners for what happened in ’95, at least until the 2000 and or 2001 seasons. The Kingdome always seemed to be a nightmare for the Yankees, and players like Junior, Edgar and Randy Johnson were easy for New Yorkers to pick out as villains because they handled the Yankees well. After the 2000 and ’01 ALCS, I think that bitterness died away, not just because the Yankees won those series, but because so many of the key players were gone from both teams.

Arne: Stepping away from the ’95 ALDS for a final question, how do you remember the ’01 ALCS? It’s obviously overshadowed by that year’s World Series, but that was such a uniquely important and moving time, to have playoff baseball about 10 miles north of the World Trade Center site.

Chris: That entire playoff run for the Yankees was obviously a special moment in New York. It seemed like the one time when people, at least not collectively for a change, weren’t praying for the Yankees not to win again. The Yankees played many fantastic games that postseason, including Game 4 against Seattle, and to be able to clinch the League Championship at home meant a lot to the city that year. Additionally, at least from the fans’ perspective, the Yankees were trying to prevent the 116-win Mariners from eclipsing the ’98 Yankees as perhaps the greatest single season team in history, so to beat them and maintain that aura was especially satisfying.

David Cone on the Doug Strange Walk and Randy Johnson in Game Five

David Cone’s performance in game five of the ’95 ALDS gets some extended discussion in A Pitcher’s Story, the 2001 book he collaborated on with Roger Angell. In the book, Angell describes the Mariners’ run as “a populist triumph that kept the Seattle franchise in town” as well as “a huge boost for the new and widely disparaged extra tier of playoff games . . .  and a television godsend for baseball itself at the end of two unhappy, strike-shortened seasons.”

Cone reflects on his split-finger fastball to Doug Strange for ball four, a bases-loaded walk that let in the tying run in the eighth inning of game 5.  He says: “It took me forever to get over that. I couldn’t sleep. I almost didn’t go out of my house for a couple of weeks after. I’d thrown a hundred and forty-six pitches in the game up to that point, and I had nothing left, but I was still sure that was the right call. I just didn’t execute. Maybe I’m stubborn, but I have this conviction that I should be able to deliver any pitch in any situation.

“I’ll never forget that flight home. My catcher, Mike Stanley, kept telling me it was his fault for calling the pitch, but I wouldn’t let him get away with it. Buck Showalter, the manager, must have known that he was finished with the Yankees after the loss, and Donnie Mattingly is somewhere else in the plane, going home for good and knowing that he’s never going to play in a World Series. I’d let them all down.”

A little bit later in A Pitcher’s Story, Cone talks about Randy Johnson’s performance in the ALDS, specifically Randy coming in to relieve in game 5. Cone:  “I can’t say enough good things about the man who can perform like that when the price is so high.”

Cone adds: “This was the game I’d come out of, after that base on balls. I’m in the dugout, thinking how I’d let the team down, but when Randy Johnson comes in I stopped being an opponent. What Randy did-that disregard for long-term effects-is what real players do. I was proud of him. He had back trouble the next year and had to go on the D.L., and there may be a connection, but you don’t think of that at the time. What we knew, watching him, was that he’d already beat us on a four-hitter and here he is back again after only one day of rest, ready to pitch some more, because he was their best. I was in awe, watching.

“Here’s a man about to become a free agent who could name his own price anywhere, and he pitches on like that, regardless of the risk to his career. This came on the heels of a bitter strike, when the players had been hammered in public opinion. I think America began to change its mind about players right there. Sitting in the dugout, I applauded him as a fan.”

As for Cone’s 147 pitches in game 5, he says: “I’d have thrown two hundred and forty-seven to win that game.”

Edgar At The Bat

Edgar at the Bat: A Tale of Salvation

With Apologies to Ernest L. Thayer and Casey At The Bat

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mariner Nine that day;
The score stood 4 to 4 as the eleventh inning began its play.
And when Kelley scored for the Yankees, and the Unit was to blame
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to wail in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope that springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought if only Joey or Junior could get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money then with Edgar at the bat.

So Joey preceded Edgar, as did Junior and his Rake,
And the former was a banjo and the latter had had a break;
So upon that stricken multitude the rally cap was the hat
For there was a chance of runners on with Edgar coming to the bat.

And Joey laid down a bunt single, to the wonderment of all,
And Griffey, kept hopes alive and tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the fans saw what had occurred,
Hysteria reigned across the Dome, and many an eye was blurred.

Then from sixty thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through Snoqualmie Valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon THE mountain and it recoiled upon the flat,
For Edgar, mighty Edgar was advancing to the bat.

There was an ease in Edgar’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was a pride in Edgar’s bearing and a smile on Edgar’s face.
And when responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Edgar at the bat.

A hundred thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Many thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Edgar’s eye, a smile curled Edgar’s lip.

And now the leather covered sphere came hurling through the air,
And Edgar stood a watching it in coiled readiness there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my pitch,” said Edgar. “Strike one.” the umpire said.

From the Dome seats black with people, went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone in the stand;
And it’s likely they have killed him had not Sweet Lou raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity Pinella’s visage shown;
He stilled the raising tumult; he bade the game go on.
He signaled to the umpire, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Edgar saw, read, and swung before the umpire could say “Strike two!”

Oh, somewhere in this favored town the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing at Safeco, and Seattle hearts are light.
And everywhere folks are laughing, and everywhere children shout;
For there still is joy in Marinerville—cause mighty Edgar did NOT strike out.

Bud Orr
Baseball Boyz Banquet 2003

The ’95 Mariners and the Tacoma Rainiers: Bill Krueger and Edgar’s Double

This is part III of an interview with Kevin Kalal, a long-time member of the Tacoma Rainiers’ front office, about the ’95 Mariners and that year’s Tacoma Rainiers. Parts I and II of this interview can be seen here and here.

Arne: Do you have any particular memory of the Mariners’ ’95 run?

Kevin: There is one thing, a game I guess no one remembers, but it was one of those wins crucial to getting the Mariners in that playoff.

Bill Krueger pitched 10 games with us, and then one day someone got injured or maybe a starter got blown out of a game early [it was Randy Johnson missing a start because of a shoulder injury]. And the Mariners called to have him come down as a spot starter, and he had a huge game against the A’s down in Oakland. I remember I always thought that win, so unexpected, that it was such a huge game to getting the Mariners the tie with the Angels, but it never got played up in the media. The Mariners’ thought well, he’s 37, let’s run him out here, see what happens. And he threw a lights out game, so it was an unexpected win. I always think about that stuff, but nobody really remembers the game. It was on August 6, a 15-8 win, it was a Sunday afternoon getaway game. They were 11 games back. He pitched 5 2/3rds innings, gave up two runs and beat Todd Stottlemyre who was having a strong year.

Arne: Did you go to any of the playoff games?

Kevin: I didn’t go to the Yankees games. I went over to Washington State to visit friends and watch a football game. During game 3 I was watching a volleyball game. Then there was game 4, Edgar’s grand slam after the football game. For game 5, I was driving home, on a Sunday afternoon, and as I hit Snoqualmie Pass the radio signal went out. It was the seventh inning, and I thought “I won’t check again until I get home.” I figured it would be over by then. So I got home and it’s the 8th inning. Then I went out to pay my rent at the front office before it closed on Sunday evening and as I was walking back I hear a bunch of yelling and screaming. The Double, and I missed it. I went to two of the Indians games. I have champagne bottles from the celebrations after the Angels playoff and the Yankees series.

You know, in ’01 it was the same thing, the same excitement. What are the M’s doing? Everyone wanted to know, even after they’d clinched the division. And we were really good too, we tied for the PCL title, an 85-65 record. It was still a split season then, but they didn’t have a playoff because of 9/11. That year was the pinnacle of a collective effort throughout the organization. We had all worked together for years and years and years, everyone at all levels of the team, and it came to that point. When Bill Bavazi came in as the general manager the organization started to change fairly dramatically. A lot of the key front office personnel and player development staff started leaving the organization.

(go to part one of this interview)

Steve Kelley on the ALDS

With the rumors of Ken Griffey Jr.’s return to Seattle swirling, I wrote to Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times to ask if he’d be willing to share any of his thoughts about the ’95 season. He quickly responded with some of his recollections of the ALDS against the Yankees:

I think of everything in that series as magical. The O.J. verdict came down in the morning before Game 1. The Mariners lost both those games in New York. Tim Belcher attacked a TV camera in the hallway outside the Mariners clubhouse after game two. The great run seemed over. And then everything happened perfectly when the team came back to Seattle.

There were so many years when I was certain Seattle wasn’t going to be a baseball town. That was the game, not NBA basketball, I thought would leave the city. But to feel the emotion in the building and to listen to the sounds of those games, it still gives me chills. As for Junior on Martinez’s double. I remember writing something along the lines that it was the best piece of base-running I’d ever seen. He cut the corners on those bags so perfectly and turned what should have been a close play at the plate into an easy slide and celebration.

Griffey, Rounding Third

I wrote this recollection of the 1995 ALDS between the Mariners and Yankees back in the summer of 2001. I was trying to put the strengthening Mariners-Yankees rivalry in a broader context while also recalling the ALDS and Edgar’s double. I was also hoping we’d see another Seattle-New York series in October, when the two teams would add a new chapter to the rivalry. They did, but the circumstances had changed immensely in the meantime. The piece was originally published in the print edition of MISC., a short time before the September 11 attacks. Here it is:

Six years have passed since October, 1995, and it would seem that nothing so recent qualifies as a legend. But, the Mariners-Yankees playoff series of that month is already a memory of wonderful brilliance. That series was a classic proving ground for the Mariners; it also had a broader, heavily symbolic importance for Seattle and the Puget Sound. Like so many sporting events, it provided a crystallized summary of the status and culture of the two cities represented on the playing field.

Seattle was the upstart: a city roughly as old as Central Park, and a team only 18 years old. At that point, the Mariners had scarcely emerged from the sub-.500 region and its accompanying status as perhaps baseball’s worst team. Seattle’s national and global identity was still largely as the home of Boeing. But, the city had put aside its grunge capital status, well over a year after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Starbucks and Microsoft were beginning to expand from mere brands into multinational corporate behemoths. And, the local Internet boom had started, with RealNetworks and Amazon just beginning to build names for themselves, and Microsoft initializing its efforts to become a dominant power on the Web.

The Mariners’ late-season run was a rough emblem of that new Seattle: the team that had fumbled through the ’80s shocked its fans by actually coming back to win the division. During that effort, Randy Johnson established himself as a real hero: his amazing pitching delivered the team into a playoff with the Angels, where he then pitched a shutout to clinch the division.

Then, of course, there was New York. Rightly or not, it is seen as the center of America, to such an extent that it sometimes seems as though New Yorkers are proudly ignorant of anything south or west of Philadelphia. As America’s unofficial capital, it was a unique challenge for the Mariners and Seattle. The Yankees were, and are, the sports symbol of New York’s elitism: the team with the biggest personalities, most famous stars-even cultural icons, and above all, the team that won, and was expected to win.

Even after nearly 15 years without making the playoffs, the Yankees were an intrinsic, deeply historic threat to anyone they faced in the postseason. They had dominated baseball throughout the century, just as Manhattan had dominated American capitalism. Their resurgence in the mid-’90s paralleled the surging growth of Wall Street, the great bull market, and the rise of a safer, even richer New York under the Giuliani administration.

But, the Mariners did win, despite all that symbolism. Looking back on that series now, after so many changes, provokes a strange feeling. With Johnson, Griffey, and Rodriguez gone in acrimonious departures, and players like Mike Blowers only fairly distant memories, it’s hard to really recall that team. But, that series still, at least until this season, represents Seattle’s greatest baseball moment. The vague memories of Griffey and Martinez’s heroics throughout the series are crystallized into the last play of game 5. Edgar lined the ball down the left field line, and as it bounded into the corner, Joey Cora (remember him?) scored the tying run from third, then turned to beckon The Kid home. And Griffey did come home, sliding across the plate as the throw came in a bit too late, and jumping up with a look of absolute glee on his face before being immersed in a sea of Mariners.

Now, the Yankees-Mariners matchup has become as sharp a rivalry as can be imagined between two teams 3000 miles apart. The two teams are thoroughly cross-pollinated (Lou Piniella the former Yankee player and manager, Jay Buhner the Yankee outfielder traded early in his career, Jeff Nelson the once-Yankee and twice-Mariner, and Tino Martinez, who moved to New York after that 1995 season), and New York is, today, even more of a colossus. It recovered from its lost opportunity in 1995 to win 4 of 5 World Series, establishing a new Yankee dynasty even as the Mariners were stopped short twice, including last year’s loss to New York. Even in this year’s mid-August visit to Yankee Stadium, when the Mariners’ dominance over baseball was firmly established, the New York press still assumed they were the upstarts needing to prove themselves, while the Yankees were the team expected to win the Series, again. It seemed absolutely fitting for Mike Cameron, Griffey’s replacement, to win the final and deciding game of that series by slugging two home runs and driving in eight runs.

By Arne Christensen