Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, and Norm Charlton on ’95

On August 25, 2009, Mitch Levy of the KJR sports talk radio station interviewed Wilson, Buhner, and Charlton about the ’95 experience. About a week ago I contacted the Mariners’ front office, and they sent me a cd recording of the interview. Here, from the interview, are some key excerpts of the three players talking about different elements of ’95:

When asked “What’s your favorite year?,” Charlton replied: ’95 is the season. In ’95 we weren’t supposed to do it in the fashion in which we did it. It was a whole lot of fun. The underdog. . . and I was only here for half a season. It was a pretty good half, for everyone involved, because of the way it came about, . . . the things John Ellis did behind the scenes to keep baseball in Seattle.

Wilson: ’95 had such an impact. Not just here in Seattle, but in baseball generally, because we were coming back from the strike, and we really put baseball on the map here. I get people all the time telling me, “I wasn’t a fan until the ’95 season.” When you have that kind of impact, it’s a powerful thing.

Charlton: Everybody mixed together, everybody matched. I don’t think there was one time during that season when someone sitting on the bench was saying, “I hope Jay strikes out so I can get a chance.”

Dan Wilson on Griffey’s injury in May: Immediately when you saw Rick Griffin and Junior walking in, you knew something was wrong… his bone was almost out of his skin. But that’s when our strength came in. . . guys like Amaral holding onto his position until he came back.

Buhner: Confidence bred confidence. It didn’t matter who it was. It seemed like every night there was a new hero. You couldn’t script games to win the way we were doing.

Junior always loved to hold court, especially with the media. But he was still around, still going to do that part of it. I think he took it on himself to continue to do that.

Lou knew who he was going to count on, who he could lean on to pick up for Junior.

In response to the question of what lit a fire for the ’95 Mariners, Charlton said: I think it was the way the guys who replaced him [Griffey] picked it up, the team gelled into an actual team. Nobody really gives a damn about what they do tonight, as long as we win this game.

Wilson: I remember having a conversation with Lee Elia one of those days. I remember Lee saying, “We’re only eight games back in the wild card.” We still had a chance at that, we really do have some hope.

Buhner: There was extra hope, no doubt about it. I don’t know what it was that clicked, but we kept producing, and Anaheim kept losing.

I think our mentality whenever we lost a game was we didn’t lose tonight, we just ran out of outs.

Charlton: The wild card saved baseball in this city. We were basically out of the division race. Without it, we wouldn’t have gone out and gotten the pieces we needed to get back in the wild card race. If we wouldn’t have done that, done a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes, we were going to Tampa.

Wilson, talking about the distraction of that rumored move to Tampa: There were a lot of questions. I mean, we were in Tampa, they had a stadium down there ready for us. There were occasions when they’d bring a city, a state official into the clubhouse, and we’d shake hands. So it was there, no question. Occasionally they’d ask us to go down to Olympia and rally a little bit. But no question, we were there to play baseball.

Buhner: The only thing we could control was what we were doing on the field. We were willing to do whatever it took to save baseball. On flights we had house, apartment locaters from Tampa, wondering where are we going to live next year, where’s spring training going to be.

Buhner on the home field advantage: The Kingdome, Bill the Beer Man, that crowd noise, that played so much to our favor, that place was so loud. We were talking to other guys, they’d say holy crap, it was crazy. You throw in the fireworks, everything else.

Charlton: I came from an open air stadium in Cincinnati, the crowd was more business like, expecting you’re going to win. Here it was nuts, like a college frat party, the enclosed place, all that noise. Other guys [on other teams] would come in and say, “We’ve got no chance.”

Buhner on the atmosphere on the team during the run: We made a pact, who’s going to be the first one in the ballpark. We had so much fun. Every day, 1:00 we’re going to meet, have lunch at the ballpark. By the middle of August it was the entire team meeting at 1. Normally, you stretch at 4:15, 4:20, get to the ballpark at 3 for the most part. We had lunch, talked baseball, went out for early bp. It was just real togetherness.

Buhner on the playoff vs. the Angels: I remember, the Kingdome parking lot, it’s packed at 1:00.  We had that trump card [Randy Johnson].

If you’re not nervous, something’s wrong with you. The biggest celebration I’d ever had was when Jimmy Lefebvre was the manager, the year [1991] we first finished above .500. There was a champagne toast. I’m thinking, “You’re crapping me, we’re celebrating finishing above .500?”

Wilson: We had Randy on the hill, we were very confident in his abilities. Lou, before the ballgame, giving a pretty good speech, the playoff he’d been through [in 1978 with the Yankees], it put us at ease, to know we’re not the first.

Buhner: Piniella, normally he didn’t say a whole lot. He’d let his veterans police the clubhouse, he was real great about that. When he did say something it got everyone’s attention.

When I saw Mark Langston, at home plate, slamming the barrel of Sojo’s bat down, we knew we’d pretty much beat them mentally. That was the nail in the coffin.

On the Yankees series, Charlton said: It would’ve been nice to not have to play a playoff. We would have had set up Randy in New York, for game 1. That crippled us, in terms of the rotation.

Buhner said: We were still riding so high, had that adrenaline rush [coming into the Yankees series]. I know I was tired when the third game happened. Once I came off that cloud a little bit, I was exhausted [for the third game].

Wilson I think coming home, everyone knew we had Randy, we were going to come back. We had the dome.

Buhner: The Yankees knew Randy was coming, they had a big task on their hands. We still believed we were going to win it.

Wilson: Johnson, he was a guy that could dominate a ballgame. In ’95 he had the physical tools, intimidation, he was in it mentally, locked in. He stayed mentally strong, then again in the playoffs, mentally was so tough.

It was his mental concentration, he was intimidating to catch, let alone hit; he’d throw it by you, or he was going to throw a slider at your back foot.

And on game 5, Buhner said: When he [Randy] walked down to the bullpen, the whole place went absolutely nuts.

I was nervous [before game 5], so many things are going through your head, don’t want this to end, you’re thinking this is the greatest time of my life. The game was such a blur, get myself ready, get to the ballpark, get going.

Wilson: I do remember Randy’s entrance, what that meant for the guys, to see him come in.

Buhner on Edgar’s double: I think they [the Yankees] were scared to death about that. They knew Edgar was going to put the play in play, hit the ball hard, it was just a question of where.

I’ve never seen, I mean it’s a ball down the line, goodness gracious, to watch him, on a ball down the line that was a smoker, and it comes right to the left fielder, it comes right up to Gerald Williams, who had a great arm, and Junior’s still safe, by four-five steps, it’s unbelievable.

Wilson: Wolcott being 17 feet off the ground, and the guys kind of split off, some going out to second, to Edgar, peeling off from Junior.

And Charlton on the Cleveland series: They were a pretty good ballclub, and we were pretty spent, our rotation, the pitching, that Yankees series, it did a lot of damage to our club.

Then one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen happened: we go into the locker room, nobody’s left. Piniella gave a little speech, we hear the crowd, and we all came back out onto the field, nobody gone. It was like a rock concert, the fans, like they kept their lighters going, for one last song.

And finally, a few miscellaneous comments from these three.

Buhner on Piniella’s impact on the Mariners: Lou brought credibility, accountability. Lou was not afraid to pull the trigger. He challenged everyone.

Charlton on how he felt about relieving for Randy Johnson: It was more of a challenge coming in after Randy, because hitters were facing that same kind of velocity [from me]; they didn’t have to adjust. It was much easier coming in after Bosio, Benes: guys changing speed, right handers.

Buhner: After the season ended, my thought was, “Let’s get back out there, I want to get right up to the buildup immediately.” That experience, the playoffs, that’s why you bust your butt so hard all winter, to get back to that moment.

Wilson on the years after ‘95: What had happened that season lessened the blow when those guys [Johnson, Griffey, Rodriguez] left. We understood that we can still win. All of us realized the winning wasn’t necessarily over just because those guys left.

Buhner: Baseball, it’s a business, even if you don’t want to see it that way. Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do [trade players]. Randy, he was my roommate the first couple of years with the Mariners, and you never want to see your buds leave, but that’s what you’ve gotta do, it’s a business.

Buhner on Edgar Martinez: He spoke with his bat. Edgar, he never wanted the spotlight, ever; he was always very uncomfortable being there, being involved, being around the spotlight.

Jay Buhner, Mike Blowers, and Dave Valle on the ’95 Mariners

On the afternoon of January 30, during the first day of the Mariners FanFest for 2010, Buhner, Blowers, and Valle participated in a discussion and question and answer session with Dave Sims and the Mariner fans. A fan asked about their best moments as a player. I took out my pen to record their answers as best as I could because I knew what was probably coming. Here’s what I jotted down as they talked.

Buhner said: “1995, it’s the season that saved baseball in the Northwest. The greatest thing was the different spirit of the team as we made the run. It was contagious. We couldn’t be surprised at winning; we found all the ways to win. And Anaheim was continuing to lose; they were finding all the ways to lose. The Kingdome was the funnest place to go. The camaraderie: we’d all go into the stadium at 1, everyone eating lunch, hanging around afternoons before the games. We were a family. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. It was like a first love.”

Blowers: “Going off what Jay said, yeah, that ’95 season was the funnest. Watching Junior fly around 3rd base; in the Kingdome the dugout was at field level, so we could see it clearly, and just roared out onto the field when he slid into home. Any of the personal accomplishments I had; they don’t top that moment.”

Valle: “I’d spent 14 years with the Mariners, but in ’95, it was the first season I was with the Rangers. And we came into town [in mid-September] and got swept 3 games in that series in Seattle. In the visitor’s clubhouse that series, we heard the screams of fans coming down the ramps, banging on concrete. They were so excited. I never heard that as a Mariner. That excitement, unabashed love.”

Buhner: “All that you see here now is because of that ’95 team. I’ll always be in contact with those guys. It was pretty special, no doubt about that.”

Bill James’ Opinions of the 1995 Mariners

For no reason other than because I was interested, I recently poked around the Seattle Times archives and found a few articles from 1995 that feature Bill James. For the more sabermetric-oriented readers who happen by this site, I thought I’d string together some excerpts and give a sense of what the leading “baseball guru,” as one Times reporter called him, thought of the Mariners at the start, in the middle, and at the end of 1995.

Early in 1995, the Times ran some excerpts from Bill James’ player-ratings book. He said this about Ken Griffey Jr.: “In my humble opinion, not extremely fast, and not a Gold Glove outfielder.”

This about Randy Johnson: “You need to appreciate this man, if you’re a baseball fan, because you’re never going to see another one like him. . . . He’s now 31 and missed a couple of starts with a tired arm, but I expect him to be an effective pitcher for another 10 years. He needs to win 20 (in a season) to be a Hall of Fame candidate.”

This about Dave Fleming: “It is almost impossible to sustain success on 4.5 strikeouts per game. He might occasionally have a good season, but I doubt that 1995 will be one of them.”

And this about Dan Wilson: “Threw out 32 percent (22 of 69) of runners attempting to steal, ranking him fifth in the league. That is basically all that he does well.”

Then, after Junior suffered his injury jumping into the Kingdome wall in late May, Bob Sherwin talked to James, who said: “It’s astonishing how little it changes a team when it loses its best player. Not to deny Griffey’s greatness as a player, but no matter who it is, on the average, a team will have a normal decline of three to seven games.

“Every eight runs translate into one extra game in the standings. So if you take away Griffey’s 100 RBI, that’s about 12 games. Of course, his replacement is not going to drive in zero runs. He might drive in 50. That means you could possibly lose six games in the standings.

“The best way to put it is that no one player is a team. You’re not going to win if you’re a lousy team.”

Finally, after the season ended, the Times reported that “Bill James, baseball’s premier statistical analyst,” was warning fans bathing in the afterglow about what he called “regression to the mean. It’s a widely known and commonly studied phenomenon in statistics, and I’ve written about something similar in baseball players. Whereas people tend to project in terms of momentum, the far more important thing to consider is resistance.”

He added: “I think that when Edgar Martinez retires and you look back on his career, you’re probably going to say 1995 was his best year, but you won’t say, ‘Wow, wasn’t that something? He must have gotten every break that year.’ “

James had this to say about Jay Buhner:  “I’ve always thought of Buhner as a 30-homer, 100-RBI type of guy. Maybe he’ll drive in 20 less runs next year, but that’s not a big deal.”

And this about Tino Martinez: “I’ve never expected him to have this kind of year, and I really question that he is that good. And a very large percentage of fluke years are at the age of 27.”

This was his summary prediction about the two Martinezes, Griffey, and Buhner: “Let’s assume all three of those guys go back to normal years next year, but you have Ken Griffey Jr. healthy. Do you come out ahead or behind? You probably come out ahead.”

The Times asked James, “What about all those other career years Mariner hitters had? Nine reached career highs in homers. Six in RBI. Seven in runs scored. Five regulars had career-best averages.”

James’ response: “I don’t see the Mariners as a team that won because a lot of guys had career years. Maybe Dan Wilson had a career year.”

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

One Fan’s Memory

What a season that was … I too have been remembering those days lately as we fight through this terrible season.

When Kevin brought up the My Oh My video, it reminded me of the first time I saw it. I actually got two copies for Christmas that year and I put one in on Christmas morning. While loving every part of the video, there’s a portion in which Lou is talking about the fans’ impact on the success of the team and it shows a few shots of fans during games and that was when I saw it. The Buhner Boys, as we were called. We had just graduated high school the prior June and were having the greatest summer ever, attending as many Mariner games as our low budget could afford. Obviously we sat in the bleachers each time. There was one game where we decided to paint our chests to spell out “B-U-H-N-E-R-!” We originally had six guys and then another came so we added the “!” at the end. I remember the game for Tino Martinez’s homerun, getting to be on the big screen, and the overall atmosphere in the dome was one we had never experienced. Even the upper level seats were full. Anyway, a shot of us at that game popped up on the My Oh My video for half a second and I remember freaking out and calling all my buddies. I obviously still have the video as a tribute to my ½ second of fame.

By Tony Williams

How A Yankees Fan Became a Mariners Fan

I moved to Seattle in 1989, and, upon attending a game at the Kingdump, my first reaction was to turn to the person I was with and ask, “Do the games here really count?”

I grew up in New York, and spent scads of my summer free time at Yankee Stadium. Don’t get me wrong; I grew up with the horrible Yankees teams of the 1960s — Horace Clarke, Jerry Kenney, Fritz Peterson, Mike Kekich, Buddy Barker. Yes, I saw Mickey Mantle play, but his legs were shot by then, and maybe his liver was, too (although I still remember him hitting two home runs on Old-Timers Day, only to have the Yankees fall 3-2). Like Seattle fans, I remember Jim Bouton — but I remember him coming into a Yankees game in relief in 1967, where the world champion Orioles blew out the Yankees 14-2, and it was so bad that my 9-year-old self began to cry. I hated George Steinbrenner from the moment he bought the team, practically — he cut injured Mel Stottlemyre, my favorite player, in spring training so he wouldn’t be obliged to pay him a full year’s salary. And I remember what it was like in 1972 when the Yankees stopped stinking so badly, and actually began to compete for the pennant again. Then Steinbrenner treated Dave Winfield like dirt — all Winfield did was have the best 1980s of any player on the planet.

So when I came to Seattle, my loyalties were still with the Yankees.

It got no better when the 1994 season was destroyed by the strike. I actually had season tickets to the Mariners in 1992; I bought them with some of the money I inherited after my father died. I knew my father would appreciate that; he was the main reason I was a baseball fan. But when the strike ended baseball, I vowed never to pay for a baseball ticket again. (The fact that the ceiling tiles had fallen in the Kingdump, sending the Mariners out to play nothing but road games like the team in Philip Roth’s THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, didn’t help, either.)

And I made it through the 1995 season, not expecting much after Griffey injured himself, and watching the team sit at the mark of mediocrity for much of the year.

But then the Mariners began to win — stunningly, improbably, spectacularly. Each night a different player was the hero, whether it was Tino Martinez or Joey Cora, or Norm Charlton resuscitating his seemingly dead career. Jay Buhner — it was me, not George Costanza, who first yelled, ‘Why did you trade Jay Buhner?’ — urged the Mariners to play on to win the division and not to limp into the Wild Card. And then Griffey came back and put the team on his back.

And yet, I was only listening to the games on the radio, only occasionally catching them on TV.

But when it looked like the Mariners might actually make the playoffs, I went and ordered playoff tickets. I believe I ordered them in sets of three. Somewhere, on an old computer, I still have a very big TIFF file of the entire sheet. (I also have the sheet from 1996, when they missed the playoffs.) I took the day off to watch the Mariners/Angels playoff game on television. Mariners fans may love Dave Niehaus (as I loved Phil Rizzuto, who also had difficulty dealing with what was actually happening on the field), but to me, the signature call of the 1995 season was Rick Rizzs calling Luis Sojo’s double, concluding with his haggard, “Everybody scores!”

And then, before the Mariners could even get home, they were down 2-0 to the Yankees.

And the series turned around. Clutch hits were contagious. And I remember the feeling, standing way up in the upper deck behind home plate, believing firmly that the game was not over when the fifth game went to extra innings, even after Randy Johnson gave up the lead. The Kingdump was known for keeping noise in (although my main recollection was, as a new spectator, shouting something derisive at a visiting player, and HEARING THE TAUNT ECHO throughout the building), but what I remember the second-most about that game was the never-ending waves of the decks jouncing and bouncing as newly born Mariners fans — I don’t think there had been fans prior to August of 1995 — shouted and screamed and jumped and jumped. And when Edgar stroked that double, and Griffey came tearing around third — well, that may indeed have been the most exciting game I’ve ever attended. Fans chanted for minutes after Griffey touched the plate, stood for minutes before leaving, and it was as loud OUTSIDE the Kingdump as it was within.

But still, my favorite memory is of Game 6 of the ALCS. The Mariners actually led the Series 2-1, but fell in the final three games, sending Cleveland on to the World Series to lose to the Braves. When it became obvious that the game would probably end with the Mariners losing, I turned to my seatmate, and said, “I hope that the fans give the Mariners a round of applause for this great effort.” I know that in New York something like that could never happen, not at least for the Steinbrenner Yankees.

And so, when the final out was made, I was pleased. The crowd stood and shouted approbation and applauded. That would have been enough.

But.

Even as Joey Cora cried in the dugout, there was no sign that the applause would end. Seattle fans got it that night. They understood that they had witnessed six weeks of baseball that have rarely been equaled in the sport. (Maybe last year’s Rockies matched the streak the ’95 Mariners put on, except that the Rockies did it for two fewer weeks.)

That moment is the moment I treasure the most from 1995. Yes, I remember many great moments, and, sadly, the older I get, there are some I no longer actually remember. But standing in that stadium, knowing that the Mariners had given the city of Seattle everything a baseball team can give a community, and knowing that the community got it — that was heaven in a real sense.

By Mike Flynn