An Interview With Andy Benes About His 1995 Mariners Season

Randy Johnson and Norm Charlton seem to dominate most fans’ memories of the pitchers on the 1995 Mariners; some remember Jeff Nelson, or Chris Bosio, or Bob Wolcott for his start against the Indians to begin the ALCS. But Andy Benes and Tim Belcher, two in-season additions via trade who were two-fifths of the rotation starting in August, didn’t remain with the team after 1995, and don’t get much attention from fans. I recently got in touch with Benes, looking to add an interview of a player to this site’s project of looking back at the ’95 Mariners. I was also hoping for a different perspective on the season, from a player who hadn’t been part of the team’s pre-’95 struggles and doesn’t get asked about his Mariners experience often.

Benes lives west of St. Louis and is involved with the Cardinals’ community and charity programs. That reflects his two stints with the Cardinals after 1995, and fits in pretty well with his spending the first 20 or so years of his life in Evansville, Indiana, along the Ohio River near the Illinois line. He also helps coach the Westminster Christian Academy baseball and softball teams, hosts an annual golf tournament to benefit the school, and he and his wife, Jennifer (married for 26 years), have six children. The two youngest are adopted from Central Russia. After breaking off his studies at the University of Evansville to play baseball, Benes recently finished a degree in business from St. Louis University.

Here are the thoughts and memories Andy shared about 1995.

What was your response to getting sent to Seattle? The team’s history wasn’t impressive, but it had talent. Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez were having remarkable seasons, and Griffey was going to come back soon. Did you think you had a chance of making the playoffs, even though the Mariners were just around .500 at the end of July?

I was surprised that Seattle was my destination. I had heard that I may get traded to many different places, but Seattle was not discussed. I really did not follow the American League much at all because there was no interleague play at that point. The team was very, very good and extremely talented. The GM told me that Seattle was just several games out of the Wild Card hunt, but 11 or 12 games behind the California Angels.

The team definitely knew that the playoffs were a real possibility and anything short of that would have been disappointing.

I’ve heard Mariners players say they had a unique chemistry in ’95, a strong togetherness and focus, and that helped sparked the run at the pennant. Did you sense that spirit among the players when you joined the Mariners, and on into October?

The chemistry was unbelievable. They all truly cared about each other and played the game in an unselfish way. I had not experienced that in my big league career to that point. It seemed like there was a different hero every night. I don’t think teams can win consistently without some type of cohesion, and this team had it. They genuinely liked each other and hung out together away from the ballpark. I think that was a culture set from the leaders (Buhner, Bosio, etc.). The Refuse to Lose motto was very appropriate for this team because there was a genuine belief that destiny was on the M’s side and nothing was going to get in the way.

Looking at your stats with the M’s, you had some up and down starts for the first month, but then had four very good starts in a row in September as the team went into the division lead. Was there any clear catalyst for that change? Was it mainly a question of adjusting to a new league and the Kingdome and other new ballparks?

The American and National Leagues at that point were very different. The teams were built differently with the use of the DH and more runs were scored. As I remember, I either pitched well and won or not very well at all. Not too many games in between. I kind of found my groove and pitched well down the stretch. I enjoyed watching the rest of the staff pitch as well and the guys were so good to me. Randy, Bosio, and Belcher really took me under their wings and made me feel welcome. I could just be one of the guys and not have the pressure of being the #1 guy in the rotation as a young pitcher. It was awesome to watch the veteran guys pitch and they really helped me with the hitters.

I also had the luxury of knowing our team was a great offensive team and would score a bunch of runs. That was a foreign concept for me as I came from having the worst run support in the NL for 6 years. I remember Jay Buhner coming up to me before my first start and saying, “just keep us within 6 runs in the first 5 innings, and we will figure out a way to win.” I hadn’t ever had six runs scored for me in a game, so I thought, “wow, this could be fun.”

I’m not sure how many fans remember your start in game 5 of the ALDS, given all the drama that happened after you left the game. It looks like you were on for the first three innings, facing the minimum nine Yankee batters, then battled through the rest of the start. What are your memories of the game, first pitching and then watching the late-game drama?

What a pressure packed game. I remember the Kingdome was rocking and everyone in Seattle was on fire for the M’s. It was my turn and I was excited and nervous to have the ball. I really do not remember that much about the time I was in the game. I believe I gave up 4 runs on 4 hits thru 7 against a good Yankees team.

I remember wondering why David Cone was left in the game as long as he was. He eventually walked in the tying run in the bottom of the 8th. Then it got exciting. The Big Unit came in after throwing a complete game two days earlier. It was insane. That is about the only way to describe it. He wanted the ball and all of his teammates wanted him to finish. He pitched well and then came the heroics of Cora, Junior, and Edgar. Seeing Griffey Jr. score from first on that double in the corner was as good as it gets in baseball. What a game. What a privilege to be a part of it.

How do you think of your time with the Mariners at this point, 17 years later? Are there strong memories of those 11 or 12 weeks?

It was a special time in my career as I got to compete in the playoffs for the first time. I am thankful for the faith the organization placed in me and have fond memories of my time there. I am especially thankful to have played with such a close knit group of guys who would do anything to win. They embraced me as one of their own for the time I was there and that is a testament of their character.

johnsonbenes This picture of Johnson, Andy, and a Mariners trainer, I believe, was taken at a road game vs. the Angels in early August of ’95, just after he joined the team.

Some Data/Trivia About the ’95 Season

A few days ago I looked through the Mariners’ media guide for 1996 and came up with some pieces of information about the ’95 season I thought people might be interested in. So, here they are:

The smallest home crowd was 9,769, vs. Oakland, on June 27.

The largest home crowd was 54,573, vs. Oakland, on September 23.

The Mariner with the most RBI in a game was Mike Blowers, with 8 vs. Boston on May 24.

The team made its most errors in a game, 5, vs. Toronto on July 13.

The Mariners most runs scored in a game was 15, four different times: Tuesday, May 2, Wednesday, May 24, Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6.

The Mariners’ most steals in a game was 5, on May 29 vs. New York.

The longest hitting streak was 14 games, by Edgar Martinez, from August 13-26. Edgar also had a 37-game streak of getting on base.

Edgar’s OBP peaked at .504 on August 25, and at the end of August, he was hitting .369 with an OBP of .501 and slugging percentage of .661.

He played seven games at a position besides designated hitter (third base in four games, first base in three games; and he made an error at each position).

Felix Fermin was the worst Mariner hitter, by a sizable margin: he had 39 hits in 200 at-bats, for a .195 average, and his six doubles gave him a .225 slugging percentage. He also drew six walks, for a .232 OBP: his OPS+ was 20. Fermin started 60 games at shortstop and second base: ’95 was his last full year in the majors.

The longest losing streak for a pitcher was Dave Fleming’s 6, from May 5 through June 19.

The most consecutive scoreless innings for a starter was 18, by Randy Johnson from August 16 to September 8.

The most consecutive scoreless innings for a reliever was 15 2/3rd, by Jeff Nelson from July 3 to August 1.

The Mariners were 52-30 on turf and 27-36 on grass fields in 1995.

The Mariners threw eight shutouts, six of them when Randy Johnson started the game.

The team was 33-40 in one-run and two-run games.

The best record against another team was 10-3 vs. Texas; the worst record was 5-7 vs. Boston and the Royals.

Seattle was 9-4 vs. New York (6-1 at the Kingdome). For the entire season (counting the ALDS), the Mariners were 12-6 vs. the Yankees, with six of the 12 wins coming in the team’s last at-bat.

Attendance in August was 310,114, over 13 games at the Kingdome, for an average of 23,854.

Attendance in September was 449,736, over 14 games at the Kingdome, for an average of 32,124.

The last day of especially low attendance was 12,102 for a game on Tuesday, Sept. 12, vs. the Twins.

Kingdome attendance was still only 26,524 on Wednesday, Sept. 20 vs. the Rangers, but it doubled the next day to 51,500, with the Mariners tied for the division lead and playing the Angels at the Dome.

Attendance was higher for the three Oakland games in late September, which was a weekend series, than for the two-game Angels series in the middle of the week that followed the A’s series.

The Mariners had 43 comeback wins in the regular season, 12 of them in September, and made comebacks in 8 of the last 11 wins.

The 182 homers in ’95 set a new club record.

August 2 was the only time that the Mariners were 13 games back, but they were 12.5 games back on August 16, and 11.5 games back as late as August 24.

The Mariners were 17-5 in their last 22 games.

Raul Ibanez was the team’s minor league player of the year for ’95; Bob Wolcott was the minor league pitcher of the year.

The Mariners were 25-11 after August 23; the Angels were 12-23 over the same time.

The team made up six games on the Angels in 13 days, from August 24 to September 6, despite going just 7-5.

For the season, the Mariners had eight home games that drew under 12,000; another 14 drew under 15,000.

On the other hand, nine home games drew over 40,000, and four of the last six home games drew over 50,000.

The Mariners were 27-3 in the Big Unit’s starts, and 52-63 in all other games.

Johnson (18-2) set an A.L. record for best winning percentage in a season in ’95 (minimum 20 decisions), breaking Ron Guidry’s .893 mark (25-3) for the ‘78 Yankees.

He also set a then-major league mark for Ks per 9 innings with a ratio of 12.35, breaking Nolan Ryan’s 11.48 mark in 1987 with Houston.

Johnson equaled a career-high in pitches with his 160-pitch complete game at Cleveland on July 7.

He had 14 games in which he allowed one run or no runs.

Nineteen different times Johnson threw over 120 pitches in a game, including each of his last five starts.

Johnson was 7-0 with a 1.45 ERA for his final 10 starts.

Joey Cora was the lead-off hitter in 43 games.

Norm Charlton was the A.L. pitcher of the month for September.

Charlton became the closer in late August; he had a .89 ERA in his last 19 games.

Charlton had his first save in two years on August 3 of ’95.

The Mariners’ team ERA in June was 5.44; the team went 11-17 that month.

Blowers had three grand slams in 15 days in August; Buhner had two grand slams that month too.

Here are some more items, this time from the 1995 post-season media guide:
Buhner set a new MLB record for the highest single-season RBI to hits ratio, at 121 to 123: 40 of the 123 hits were homers.

Randy Johnson missed three starts in August and early September, and was second on the M’s in starts, with 30: Bosio made 31 starts.

Griffey was playing in late ’95 with seven screws and a metal plate in his wrist.

Edgar was 18 for 46 against the Yankees in the ’95 regular season, with 7 homers and 20 RBI in 13 games.

Jeff Nelson spent seven full years in the minors before joining the M’s in 1992.

The M’s hit 10 grand slams in ’95, and had 8 shutouts. Their home attendance, 1,640,992, was lower than their road attendance, 1,777,159. They only lost 1 game to the Yankees at the Kingdome all year.

Johnson’s 294 strikeouts were more than triple the second-best M’s pitcher, Bosio, who had 96 Ks.

The M’s had 43 come-from-behind wins in ’95, 12 of them in September, and 8 of their last 11 wins were comeback jobs. They had 16 wins in their last at-bat, two of them from Chad Kreuter singles.

The M’s David Arias (now known as David Ortiz, or Big Papi) led all Mariners rookie league players with a .332 average, 37 RBIs in 48 games, and an OBP of .403. He played mostly at first, and stole two bases.

Other notable M’s minor-leaguers in 1995 who didn’t play for the Seattle club included Derek Lowe, Jose Cruz, Jr., Shawn Buhner, Jay’s brother, Raul Ibanez, Craig Griffey, Ken’s brother, Jason Varitek, and Don Wakamatsu.

Finally, a list of some players you probably don’t remember being on the 1995 team: Chad Kreuter, Gary Thurman, Greg Pirkl, Arquimedez Pozo, Warren Newson, Marc Newfield, Bill Risley, Bob Wells, Darren Bragg, Rafael Carmona, Tim Harikkala, Jim Mecir, Jim Converse, Dave Fleming, Steve Frey, John Cummings, Tim Davis, Kevin King.

Our story for 1995

We were living in Leavenworth and I can remember that entire fall like it was yesterday. I think the first thing I remember was driving south to teach a seminar in the Tri-Cities and coming home in the afternoon with one of those mid-week Mariner matinees on the radio and Dave and Rick talking about Refuse to Lose. It was mid-September and they were putting the post-season tickets on sale the next day. Unfortunately, I had another another seminar to teach–this one in Wenatchee. My kids (at that time my son was 16 and my daughter 14) were in school so there was no way for them to buy tickets. My wife (at the time) hated baseball with a passion but it has always been a way for me and my kids to connect. Even today, 14 years later, my son and I e-mail about the Mariners on a daily basis. We still do games together. My daughter a little less, but it’s one of the few things we have in common and we still find the time to do at least one game each year.

So how was I going to get tickets. We had made the trip over from Leavenworth six or seven times that summer. We had grown totally distraught early in the year when Junior broke his wrist and we had watched unbelieving as the rest of the team sucked it up and played better than they ever had. I knew that we just had to be in the stands if they went to the playoffs.

So, I was standing in front of about 200 people in an East Wenatchee auditorium when tickets went on sale at 10:00 am. I told my audience we would take a short break while I made a phone call. I dialed and prayed. Ten minutes came and went and I was still on hold, 20 minutes and the crowd I was teaching had filed back in. I was still on hold but I had to start speaking again. So I handed my cell phone (it was huge compared to what we all use today) to someone in the first row and I told them to let me know if anyone picked up. About 10 minutes later someone did. I excused myself and told the crowd I had to take a phone call again and I was sorry, got on with the ticket agent and scored three tickets in the 2nd deck right over Junior in centerfield.

When I got off the phone no one in the audience of 200+ could figure out why I was jumping up and down and screaming until someone said, “You just got playoff tickets? Didn’t you?” I admitted that I had and the crowd started applauding. It was beyond cool.

Jump forward a few weeks to the night of the one game playoff against California. I wasn’t able to get tickets to that game. I was sure we would have it won long before that (because I was a total believer) but a good friend went and we sat in the pizza parlor he owned in Leavenworth (me and my kids) and watched that game. When they finally won we went nuts.

But the next two games were two of the worst of my life. Watching the games from Yankee Stadium with my kids as we lost both of them and knowing that if you couldn’t get Jay (still my all-time favorite baseball player) to win for you in Yankee Stadium then maybe things were over. It made me hate the Yankees and that bastard Jim Leyritz more than any group of people before or since. I still hate the Yankees. Maybe the Mariners were just too tired. Maybe my kids and I would only get to use one of those precious tickets I had bought in front of 200 audience members.

So two days later, I went to my kids schools and picked them up around noon and we made the drive to the Dome (sorry, I have always capitalized it–it was kind of shrine to me) and watched them win. OMG! It was incredible. We did Refuse to Lose. We got lost leaving the Dome that night but we didn’t care–we had won. Did I mention I had one of the worst colds of my life. So here I am driving over Snoqualmie Pass twice a day for three days and not able to take any cold medication. My kids and I talked more in those three days of traveling than we ever had before. (I guess five days if you count the Cleveland games).

The next day my kids went to school and I went to work. Thankfully I work for myself so I could go in at 4:30 am and get my days work done and then I picked them up again at noon and we headed west. The second night was even more unbelievable than the first. When Edgar makes the Hall, it should be more about that game than about The Double. A three run homer and a grand salami. Our seats were just above where that ball (the salami) went out and we couldn’t see it go. (Remember how bad the sight lines were in the Dome looking down from the upper decks.) We had to wait for the rest of the Dome to go NUTS when the ball went out to know he had done it.

That third night. Oh geez! I still get tears in my eyes when I think of it. Nothing makes me emotional like that game. Up and down, up and down. The whole night. Still today, I count it as one of the five best days in my life, maybe top three. I remember so much of it. And when Joey pulled off that wonderful bunt and then Griff pushed him on to third we just knew that there was no way we were going to lose. It wasn’t possible. I don’t care if Babe Ruth (or any other of the Yankee legends of the past) had come back from the dead and pitched that inning or got to bat first in the next one, we knew there was no way we could lose. If you were there when you saw Edgar come up, you knew too. There was no way for us to lose. We didn’t even have to refuse at that point. It was destiny.

I can still see that swing in my mind. It was so sweet. That ball bounding into left field. It didn’t even look like it was hit that hard. But we knew we were tied. I was watching the ball and my son grabbed my arm and screamed that Junior was going for it. OMG! I had never, NOT EVER, seen him run that fast. Even after a fly ball in centerfield. When he scored—pandemonium.

If you were there and as into the Mariners as we were you will understand when I say that I am sitting here in my kitchen right now, typing this, with tears streaming down my face. That was it. I could die happy. Now don’t get me wrong. I lead a GREAT life. I have remarried (to a woman who likes baseball) and I have moved to Redmond so I don’t have the Leavenworth drive to get to Safeco and my kids have grown and are two of the best people you could ever want to meet but that night was beyond special. That night stands out. It is perhaps my most vivid memory. And not just the game. The exhilarating drive home with my kids. I look back now at those five games (the three with the Yankees and the two with Cleveland) and the trips to and from the Dome and I think that’s when we truly connected. We had been close before but my son and I found a common ground that we have kept going for all these years. And it’s a memory that I can replay over and over again of the best of times with my kids. For that I am truly thankful.

I want to mention the other two games. Well, really only one. For the life of me, I can’t remember the first game with Cleveland. I remember that Hershiser pitched for them and that we had a young kid on the mound who loaded the bases in the first and then got out of the jam but I can’t remember his name. Was it Dave Fleming? (My son would know but it’s too early to call him.) [It was Bob Wolcott.] I do remember that, of course, Cleveland won. And I remember they won the next night too. And that we were done. But you know what? If you are like me, that last night…when it was over…that was the second best night of the playoffs. Sure Joey cried in the dugout while Alex comforted him but if you were there you remember that we in the stands didn’t Refuse to Lose, we refused to leave. We screamed, cheered, applauded and just kept going until the team came out. My kids and I had a two and a half hour drive to go home after a loss but we stayed for almost an hour until they came out and we thanked them for what was perhaps the best month of baseball in the history of the game.

I grew up in Southern Cal. I learned baseball from Vin Scully listening to Dodger games on my bedside radio after my parents had told me to go to bed. Before 1995, the best game in baseball history had been the night Gibson hit the home run off Eckersley to win the first game of the World Series in 1988. And then my boys in blue going on to win in just five games from the Mighty A’s. Well September and October of 1995 made that look like little league. It was magic. Truly magic. Thank you so much for putting this site together. It made me write this down which I have never done before.

By DrKoob

The ’95 Mariners and the Tacoma Rainiers: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez

This is part II 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 III of the interview can be seen here and here.

Arne: What impact did the Mariners’ run have on the Rainiers?

Kevin: The comeback really started in September. By that time the Rainiers’ season was pretty much done, so we didn’t feed off the Mariners success.

I was at Ripken’s game against the Angels, where he broke the record for consecutive games played. The O’s beat them three straight games, and you looked up and the M’s were 8, 7.5 games back, so that was kind of interesting. And then they were right back in it. The Mariners organization was so unprepared for the playoffs, in terms of tickets, figuring out how to handle the logistics of the process. For the 1-game playoff they called our staff and we went up to their offices and were bundling tickets together. There were some great disasters along the way, but we got our tickets done, then went to the game. I remember Sojo’s line drive, seeing the ball skip past J.T. Snow. Then being down in the clubhouse. We got prepared for the Yankees series.

Anyway, the impact on us was 100% positive. It created a lot of interest in baseball, a front page story, the first story of the day on tv. It generated buzz for us. We sell baseball, not really stars or victory, the race for the pennant. It’s a brand-affordable family entertainment-and the Mariners created excitement, a new reason for people to check out our game. The comeback got baseball to take off, there was so much more energy. Some people said, “Doesn’t it take away attention for the Rainiers?” but no, it just expanded awareness of us. And we were selling tickets at different price points, so people who didn’t want to spend the money for the Kingdome could go to Cheney. It hurt us more when the Sonics were playing the Bulls, say, in the playoffs in spring. Then everybody’d stay home and watch the game.

Arne: And I saw Griffey came down to Tacoma for a rehab game in August, right before the comeback started.

Kevin: There was a big power struggle between Griffey and the M’s management. Woody Woodward. Griffey wanted to go to AA, the Port City team. His brother Craig was playing there, but the Mariners said no, you’re going to be in Seattle with our trainers to rehab and play in Tacoma. We’re not going to have you play until you’re ready.

He came down to Tacoma for a few days, but just took batting practice, fielding, throwing and therapy on his wrist. The media saw him leave. The next day he came down, did his treatment, left, snubbed the reporters. They weren’t happy about it. On Sunday morning he did therapy on his wrist. Griffey talked to our manager, Steve Smith, about playing. He said, “If I play today can I just be the designated hitter,” Steve said he should talk to Woody and make sure. Junior said, “Don’t worry about Woody, just put me in at DH.”  Steve wasn’t sure, he thought he should call up the Mariners. Junior just said, “They can talk to me about it.” He had his bodyguard go up to the Kingdome and get his stuff.

It was 11:00 Sunday morning, and we’re saying hmm., we need to get some people aware of this. The Mariners were in Kansas City, it was a day game. So we called the press box and talked to Kevin Cremin, the producer. They said, “Griffey’s in the lineup” on radio, TV, and the phones just go off the hook. He was the biggest thing around, and all the media were calling, trying to cover the game. There wasn’t any bigger, more surreal moment. The game wasn’t quite a sell-out. Griffey had three pretty bad at bats, he struck out, popped up to the pitcher, grounded out.

Now, 50,000 people say they saw the first Tacoma game, and 50,000 people say they saw Griffey play for the Rainiers. He could come back this year, pull a hamstring or something, play for the Rainiers. Later on it was a highlight for Tacoma baseball: we could say we were the team for players like Griffey, Martinez, Buhner. It wasn’t just the same old AAA baseball. We probably could’ve benefitted more from the Mariners.

The people in Everett say the same thing about the ’95 season. They were cultivating brand new fans too. That offseason, at Thanksgiving, my grandma, my mom, they were asking me about the Mariners for the first time. Young kids were talking about the Mariners. It was fun to be a Mariners fans, and there hadn’t been much of a product to create interest before.

Arne: Alex Rodriguez must have been the best offensive player on the team. You probably could see that he was going to be a star even then.

Kevin: He was a real phenom. The first time you saw A-Rod he was 17, playing for Calgary, and I said, “That’s something special.” You could see he was in the league of a lot of big-time guys. There’s a high school next to the stadium and we’d joke in the pressbox that he should be in high school and playing against Shelton not Edmonton. Neither team could get him out.

He was such a special player. It’s so hard to understand all this stuff about the performance enhancing drugs, knowing how hard he worked. He was a great player, but he really, really, really worked hard at it. He was very likeable, not phony, not saying look at me. Level-headed. I think Scott Boras was a great guiding influence.

The pattern was for a player to use the drugs to get him over the top, or if he injured to help him recover, or as a short cut. I’m inclined to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt. At the time, steroids policy was very loose, relaxed: basically it was “Don’t get caught in an airport with the stuff.” There wasn’t any penalty for steroids, and even when they did the tests, there wasn’t any punishment, I guess the tests were observational, to collect data.

There were a couple times Rodriguez would go on an 8-game road series against someone and get 6 homers, 13, 14 RBI in the series. He went to and from Seattle four times in ’95, and he didn’t sulk after he came back down, he didn’t say, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing.” You just knew there was something special there.

All the booing against him when he went to Texas, it wasn’t really fair. He’s the only one who got that treatment, when Griffey and Johnson, their exits were pretty bitter too, but they haven’t felt the unwelcomeness that Alex is saddled with. He wasn’t making big money and then gets the $252 million from Texas. You’re supposed to blame him for that?

A-Rod had a German Shepherd here and he was living in an apartment complex. Over the year the puppy had a field day in the apartment which didn’t sit very well with the landlord at the end of the year. The complex manager was quite upset and we had to come over and explain and tell him what happened. And the guy who ran the complex said, “Who is this Alex Rodriguez?”

I have fond memories of Alex as a player and person. There are a lot of players with 1/10th his talent who think they have 10 times the talent.

(go on to part three)

A Wonderfully Strange Season

A great baseball season, the kind of joyride that turns a so-so team into a champion and makes a football city into a baseball city, has to have players that come out of nowhere.

Players like Doug Strange.

Some Mariner fans, in looking back on the magical 1995 season that transformed a moribund franchise into a city’s heartbeat, will think of Ken Griffey, Jr. Others will cite Edgar. Still others, Randy Johnson. Seattle women couldn’t stop professing their love for Joey Cora during the mad dash to the team’s first-ever division title and playoff appearance. While all those players led the charge for the M’s, the season that saved baseball in Seattle–and taught a city how to appreciate the unique drama of a pennant race–could not have unfolded without the help of bench players who stepped out of the shadows to take everyone by surprise. Few figures fit this description better than the man who became Seattle’s other version of “The Stranger.”

On the night of Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1995, a small crowd of just 20,410 die-hards found their way to the Kingdome for the Mariners’ game against the Texas Rangers. This, despite the fact that the M’s had fought to within two games of the A.L. West-leading California Angels. While it was true that the Mariner franchise had known nothing but losing, the fact still remained that Lou Piniella’s boys were in a full-fledged race to the finish. With just under two weeks of ball left to be played, a two-game deficit was minimal. Had the Angels led the hometown team by 5 or 6, the small crowd would have been understandable. But two? Not at all. Even on September 19, Seattle didn’t believe.

Doug Strange was the one who began to create believers. It was this unknown player who generated the sense that one of the most hapless and helpless baseball organizations of all time could write a new and very different chapter in the history books.

But before talking about the deeds of this baseball journeyman, it’s worth saying, for the record, that through eight and a half innings on that Tuesday night in the big dome, the M’s lived up to–or rather, down to–the reputation that preceded them. Listless at the plate in key situations, the Mariners trailed Texas, 4-2, going into the bottom of the ninth. With Ranger closer Jeff Russell–an All-Star in his best days–taking the bump for the visitors, it seemed that the good guys wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the Angels’ loss in Oakland. California was trying to give away the West to the M’s, but Lou’s Crew didn’t seem ready to take the gift.

As the bottom of the ninth began, some of the bleacher creatures in right field, in the lower bowl behind the elevated light-blue scoreboard wall, were already filing out of the ballpark and heading for home. Even many of the believers didn’t really have that much faith. It was hard so see that kind of a sight, but one must acknowledge that if you’ve never endured a pennant race involving the team you care about, the mysterious ways of baseball seem elusive. Sticking around until the last man is out, and until the magic number is zero, doesn’t seem logical to the fans who have never tasted baseball’s late-season twists and turns. When you’ve only known losing, it’s hard to see the rewards that can emerge with just a little more perseverance… and the heroics of someone you’ve never really paid attention to.

Yes, it was understandable that part of the paid crowd wouldn’t want to see Jeff Russell slam the door on the M’s and halt the team’s forward momentum. The years 1977 through 1994 had given Seattle baseball fans nothing but misery, so why should the script have been expected to be any different in this final half-inning of a familiar and disappointing ballgame? After all, here were the three men due up for the M’s: Alex Diaz, Warren Newsom, and Strange. Not exactly Griffey, Edgar and Jay Buhner. The Seattleites who stayed home committed a head-scratching act.

The ones who left in the bottom of the ninth? They lacked faith, but they had a certain amount of intelligence behind their decision.

After Diaz walked and Newsom struck out, it didn’t seem that anything big was going to happen.

Enter Strange.

The same player who had only one home run all season; who used to play for the very same Texas Rangers; and whose physical frame screams “slap hitter”, giving you reason to roar with approval if he merely punched a bloop single into the opposite field, stepped to the dish and drilled a Russell fastball into the very same right field bleachers that had begun to empty out a few minutes earlier. With one strike of lightning from a light-hitting utility player, the Mariners had tied the game at 4-all. Norm Charlton would hold the fort in extra innings, and when Griffey hit an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th, Seattle had begun–truly begun–its mad love affair with a baseball team.

The 5-4 victory kept the train rolling for an M’s team that would lose only once over the next ten days. Precisely because of that Tuesday-night mini-miracle against Texas, the Kingdome crowds swelled for the remainder of the season. The final three home games–in a weekend set against Oakland–drew more than 150,000 fans combined. The one-game playoff against the Angels–made famous by Luis Sojo’s game-breaking three-run triple, followed by the sight of former Mariner Mark Langston falling to the ground in a theatrical but real sign of ultimate defeat–drew 52,693, despite the fact that Seattle citizens knew of the event less than 24 hours before it actually started.

Yes, the Mariners played great baseball (they had to) since the middle of August to ultimately catch, pass, and then finally overcome the Angels in that glorious 1995 season. But if serious Mariner fans want to discuss the moment the city began to fall in love with its baseball team, it’s fair to say that Doug Strange’s home run off Jeff Russell, on Sept. 19, 1995, was the first kiss of heaven in a love affair that burned with passion through the 116-win season of 2001.

As a side note, Mr. Strange would be heard from again in 1995. In Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees, his ice-veins eighth-inning walk with the bases loaded tied the game and knocked out a gritty David Cone. A season from the gods was built on the backs of the Randy Johnsons and the Griffeys of the baseball world, but as is the case with any great playoff run in America’s national pastime, guys like Doug Strange have to contribute when called upon. A man whose career didn’t become terribly special found its One Shining Moment during the 1995 season. Fans of the Seattle Mariners need to be forever grateful that Doug Strange saved his very best for the year that gave Major League Baseball new life in the Pacific Northwest.

By Matt Zemek, National Staff Columnist, College Football News
Seattle Resident, 1994-2008
Seattle University, Class of 1998
Attendee of the Sept. 19, 1995 game, plus several other games in that stretch run, including the one-game playoff

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

What I remember when I was at game five

I was seventeen-years-old when the Mariners clinched the division in 1995.  I rarely follow baseball in this day and age but I was an avid fan of our Mariners and baseball in general.  My mother worked for a Fortune 500 accounting company in Seattle so she was given tickets to game five. Center-right of home plate, about 20 rows back.  I don’t remember the entire game but I remember the atmosphere.  Everybody was going crazy.  Regardless of what was happening there was an air of inevitability in the air; absolutely electric.

Then, bottom of the ninth, Edgar Martinez came to bat and drilled a pitch over the left fielder and into the wall.  I believe that RBI drove in Griffey but that doesn’t matter, what matters is the single best moment in my life as a baseball fan.

I remember the second Martinez tattooed that ball, as the ball travelled past the left-side and left field fans, there was this wave following the ball as it drifted over the left fielder.  The Kingdome had to go but I’m telling you that between the Sonics, the Seahawks and the Mariners there was never a louder indoor moment in my experience.  I couldn’t hear for nearly two hours after the game but it didn’t matter.

I got near Martinez before the game while he was waiting to take a few swings at batting practice, literally within 15 feet or so.  I said, matter of factly, “Gonna win the series for us?” and he simply said, “Ok.”  It was awesome cause he had that smile that told me not to keep my hopes up.

I had a stroke nearly seven years ago and I have lost and never recovered almost my entire teen and adolescent memory but I’ll never forget that day and I’ll miss going to the Kingdome and watching how crazy the ball travelled through that air conditioned outfield.

By Aaron Rogers