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.”

THE BEST SIX WEEKS OF MY LIFE

“I’m sitting here in Pioneer Square, and I’m eating a Luis Sojo Burger. This is unbelievable. I think I’m going to cry. And I better take it all in, because I know this will never happen again in my lifetime.”

For those of you who weren’t there in 1995, you will never understand what that season meant to the city of Seattle and to the people who grew up following the Mariners. Because I’m not exaggerating when I say this. That season changed everything. EVERYTHING. Everything that is good or bad about Mariners baseball all came about because of those epic six weeks in 1995. If the Mariners hadn’t made that playoff run, in the manner that they did, at the time that they did, I doubt they would even still be here today.

My backstory as a Mariner fan is a little bit more personal than most. You see, I wasn’t one of those “The New M’s!” fans who jumped on the bandwagon when Ken Griffey Jr. showed up in 1989. Nor was I was one of the “Refuse to Lose” fans who suddenly showed up in 1995. No way, sir. I was a diehard. My brother and I were Junior Mariners going all the way back to 1981.

I was 7 years old in 1981. And that was the first summer that my parents signed me up to be a “Junior Mariner.” Have you ever heard of the Junior Mariner program? Of course you haven’t. The Mariners only had about 7,000 fans a game back then. They were the most ridiculous franchise on the face of the Earth. But my mom signed me up to be a Junior Mariner in 1981, which meant I got a package in the mail containing a crappy plastic batting helmet, a 99 cent batting glove, and free tickets to 8 games during the 1981 season.

Oh, and they weren’t the good games, mind you.

No way.

The Junior Mariner (aka free) games were the ones against the A’s, the Rangers, the Indians, and the Twins. Good lord. Did you ever watch a game between the 1981 Mariners and the 1981 Twins? Of course you didn’t, no one did. I swear, they had so few fans in the stands those nights that they probably would have let me pitch.

So anyway, that’s my backstory. I grew up as a Junior Mariner, my family attended between 20-30 games in the Kingdome every year of the 80’s, and I grew up learning to love a team that in no way was ever going to amount to anything. Seriously, do you know what the highlight of my childhood was as a Mariners fan? The fact that one time we scored 7 runs in an inning against the Yankees. I had never seen this before. Seven runs in an inning? By the Mariners? This feat boggled my mind.

Remember, Al Cowens was considered our “cleanup” hitter back then. As an 80’s Mariner fan, you learned not to expect much.

Through it all– good and bad– I was there in the Kingdome for everything. I sat behind the stupid plexiglass in left field. I fell in love with players like Todd Cruz. I thought Mickey Brantley was going to end up in the Hall of Fame. I convinced myself that you could field a contender with players like Greg “Pee Wee” Briley. Heck, I still say that 1989-90 Erik Hanson was one of the best pitchers of all time.

Year in and year out, I was there, and I loved my Mariners. I followed them with a passion. I was so passionate about them, in fact, that after a particularly frustrating loss in 1989– followed by me smashing a bat into a wall– my mom suggested I might want to attend some sort of anger counseling class. She said my life depended far too much on if the Mariners won or lost that night. And do you know what? She was right. I literally had days of my life where I was pissed off just because Mike Schooler blew a save in the 9th the night before. The Mariners were all I ever thought about when I was a teenager.

As you can guess, I had an unhappy childhood.
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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