Randy Johnson Looking Back at 1995

These are excerpts from two interviews Johnson gave in 1996 and 2010 that touched on the ’95 season. The first originally appeared in Nolan Ryan’s Pro Baseball Yearbook 1996 and was reprinted with permission in the Mariners Magazine for the start of the ’96 season, which is where I found it.

Johnson: It was a year that any ballplayer would dream of having, in terms of being part of something so successful and also to be counted on so much. I’m used to being counted on to go out and do my job every fifth day during the regular season. But as a competitor, I always wondered what it would be like to be counted on in the postseason.

So it was great last season to get to the postseason and to pitch in games that were all do-or-die in nature-the one-game playoff against California, then being down two games to the Yankees and then the games against Cleveland. Any competitor loves to be in that situation, and it’s a level that I’ve never been to. I hope I can grow from having experienced it and can go into this season with more confidence than I’ve ever had. . . .

You all know the history of the Mariners. I’ve been there seven years, and we’ve only finished over .500 three times now. As a competitor or a fan of the team, you try not to think about the lack of success, but it’s there. That’s what made it so magical to watch one guy after another come off the bench and deliver a game-winning pinch hit or a clutch performance in relief. We had chemistry last year more so than in the past. That type of chemistry sometimes is more important than going out and signing the most expensive players, because it all comes down to how well the players play together, not what they make. . . .

I now realize that after having some successful years and pitching well when I needed to pitch well, that the expectations are going to be there. For example, when I pitched well during the regular season and in the one-game playoff against the Angels, it got to the point against the Yankees and Cleveland in do-or-die situations that people would say, ‘Don’t worry, we have Randy on the mound.’ So you go to the mound with a little extra weight on your shoulders because of other people’s expectations. And in the back of your head you think, ‘Well, I’ve done it before, but I am only human as well.’ . . .

The Cy Young means the reward for all my hard work and the dedication that I put forth even before the 1995 season started. There were other people who were deserving, but it felt great to get it because I had worked so hard to become a pitcher, not just a thrower.

It was a nice honor. It’s something I never thought about. My main objective was to become the best pitcher that I could be, so I could fulfill the promise I made to my dad and to myself. If winning the Cy Young means that I was the best pitcher in the American League last year, then I want to continue to be that.

You asked me a question earlier about whether I thought I was at my peak or could I get better. That’s a tough question, because you never know. The most games I ever won was 19, when I went 19-8 (1993). Last year, I was 18-2, which was much better percentage-wise. But was I a better pitcher?

And, Johnson speaking at a press conference before throwing out the first pitch of the 2010 season at Safeco Field (as transcribed by Seattle Times reporter Larry Stone and printed on his blog):

Who would have known…some of the reporters who covered me, would you have ever thought I was a candidate for 300 games? When it was in front of me, I felt I owed it to myself and everywhere I’ve been to try to do that. . . .

Seattle, obviously, professionally and personally, has always had a great deal of meaning. To be part of the history of this franchise at probably the biggest time of the franchise, when the team was floundering and possibly on its way out. Remember back to ’95, this team was looking at maybe being relocated to Florida. The team doing what it did, and the fans supporting us the way they did. That’s one reason this new stadium is here. To be a part of that, I look back and see all the memories. Some of the players I played with, I stayed in touch with a few. Scott Bradley, I just ran into Jay, had a few battles along the way with Junior. Edgar, I congratulated him with his name being on the ballot for Hall of Fame. It really says a lot about the players that were here at that time. It’s really unheard of to have that many talented players, like Omar Vizquel. I have a lot of positive memories, myself developing and being able to watch those players develop.

From a professional standpoint, I learned how to pitch (in Seattle). I was given the opportunity. This was a team until ’95 hadn’t finished .500. So they had the flexibility to be able to let myself go out there and all the other pitchers win, lose or draw, and get back out there five days later.

Back then, that was acceptable. Now, it’s like, the team’s gotta win now. There is not a lot of time to develop a pitcher at the major league level because everybody wants to win. So I kind of learned, as we all did, kind of on the fly. I learned how to pitch here essentially. I got the foundation of that and a lot of other teams got to benefit from that. I continued to go on and learn more in other areas, but for nine years or however long I was here, I really kind of learned how to pitch and came into my own. . . .

That [1995] was the first opportunity to be in the postseason. That ranks right up there. I mean, not knowing what to expect. Obviously, I do vividly kind of remember the last game of the ’95 season, we were in Arlington and we were boarding the plane and we were told that the California Angels had lost and we had the won that game. We had the same record and there was going to be a one game playoff in the Kingdome. The opportunity to pitch that game. I remember pitching against Mark. There’s a lot of memories here. Now I’m pitching against Mark Langston, the player I got traded for. This stuff is all pretty book-worthy or real bad movie worthy. If you think about it, to pitch a one-game playoff against Mark, and the team goes on win the division and then we go the playoffs. No one in this franchise nor I had ever experienced that. That was great stuff.

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.

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.”

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.”

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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Randy Johnson at Safeco

Randy Johnson’s start at Safeco Field last Friday night for San Francisco was probably his last in Seattle.  I got to the game early, hoping for a Felix Hernandez bobblehead (which didn’t happen), but also to see Johnson warm up before the game. I figured it was the last chance I’d have, and a lot of others figured the same way: the crowd was five or six deep all along the Giants’ bullpen.  We didn’t get to see the bid for 300 wins that was supposed to make Friday’s game uniquely compelling, but standing in the crowd pressed up against the pen, waiting for the Big Unit to make his appearance, that didn’t really seem to matter. Most everybody was there because of what Johnson had done in Seattle, not because the cumulative digits with Houston, Arizona, etc. had turned over enough times to put him within grasp of the 300-victory club.

This wasn’t the playoffs or a crucial late-season game, but the excitement around the bullpen was at that sort of level as Johnson first tossed the ball in the outfield, then slid open the gate and made his way into the pen.  Really meaningful Mariner games have been scarce ever since 2001, but Randy was going to give us one even if he got ejected in the first inning. No matter what happened in the game, this would be our last chance to see him up close, so it’s no wonder the stairs leading down to the bullpen were jammed, you saw cameras everywhere, and we craned our necks through the crowd to get a better glimpse. Not even the dour and usually efficient Safeco ushers were able to really manage this crowd.

As Randy threw, one guy who looked a bit like Jay Buhner kept yelling “Randeeee!,” hoping for a wave or glance from Johnson; he didn’t give it. We’ve all heard about the Big Unit’s game face, but I’d never seen it up close.  Separated by a few rows of people, what comes across most clearly is what he doesn’t do: look over at us or the field, or up at the sky, or into the stands, or say anything, sniff the air, take care of an itch, motion at anything other than the catcher.  It’s just him, the ball, the pitching motion, and a catcher’s glove. The “Randeeee!” guy said as much to me when I admitted that yes, I wanted the Unit to win and leave Seattle with a bang. I think we were all hoping for at least a 10-strikeout game, and with luck, a no-hitter.  The Mariners could make up the loss sometime later: getting a game closer to .500 in late May just wasn’t as important as Randy Johnson coming back and delivering something memorable for his audience.

Johnson stopped throwing, faced the bullpen wall, took his cap off. It took a second for me to realize it was time for the national anthem. I felt sheepish for paying really too much attention to just some warmup throws, put away the camera, tried to regain some perspective. A few people around the bullpen kept taking shots of Johnson as the anthem played.

Up in the left field stands, there was an old lady with ’95 on the back of her blue Mariners cap in the row beneath me, some quiet Giants fans on both sides, some rowdier Mariners and Giants fans farther off to the side. When Aaron Rowand hit his leadoff homer our way, I noticed the vendors with their orange shirts were practically silent Giants supporters, adding to the already sizable mix of Giants’ colors at the ballpark.

Randy came in with a 94 mph fastball in the first inning, then he walked Adrian Beltre after getting an 0-2 count and closed the first with a swinging strikeout of Wladimir Balentien. It felt a little like old times: the dangerously fast and erratic Big Unit of the early ’90s was trying to re-emerge. Through five innings, Randy was still a little erratic, striking out six, but sometimes missing with his slider way outside and low to lefties, and taking a while to get hitters out. He’d thrown about 90 pitches. The Mariners were just getting singles, including one silly bloop over Johnson’s head by Kenji Johjima that might have gone 80 feet, but no one could catch.

In the bottom of the sixth, it became obvious this wasn’t the 30-year-old Unit, or even the 40-year-old Unit: he went to 3-2 counts on Russell Branyan and Jose Lopez, took 10 pitches to strike out Branyan after getting a 1-2 count, and had Lopez eke a single through the infield on his eighth pitch after getting an 0-2 count. These were guys he would have struck out quickly a few years ago. He’d thrown about 115 pitches, and just wasn’t getting the ball by hitters. Randy still has some speed, he’s still effective, he’s still pretty durable: but he’s not Cy Young material anymore.

He left the game to unanimous cheers, lifted his left arm to acknowledge them as he crossed into foul territory, and settled into the dugout. We might have brought him back out with renewed applause, but an NBA highlight flashed on the screen, and the moment was over.

For whatever reason, the Mariners didn’t do anything to acknowledge Johnson’s career with the team, unless that came before I got to Safeco: no highlights on the video screen, no call for applause from the fans, no first pitch thrown out by Dan Wilson or another player from the ’90s Mariner teams. That didn’t seem right, but maybe the ownership still resents him leaving town, and anyway he’s been gone long enough that they figured it wasn’t necessary. Still, when I looked from the left field stands toward the street, there was a banner attached to a lamppost with Wilson leaping into Johnson’s arms after defeating the Angels in the ’95 division playoff.

So exactly what does all this have to do with 1995? Well, I didn’t go to any of Randy Johnson’s three earlier returns to Seattle, with the Diamondbacks in 1999 and then twice with the Yankees, in 2005 and 2006, so I don’t know how those ones compare. But it’s obvious the Big Unit’s fans are still legion in Puget Sound, more than a decade after he left town.

This time was different, I think, simply because of the distance time provides. Randy’s practically at the end of his career, with quite a few more wins after leaving Seattle than he had with the Mariners; kids born in 1995 will be going to high school in the fall; the Kingdome’s a fading memory. There must be a few people still accusing Johnson of malingering in 1998 or just upset that he didn’t stay on with Seattle. But the people who were at Safeco on Friday to see Johnson pitch were paying tribute to what he’d done for their lives as baseball fans by carrying the Mariners in ’95 and pitching a lot of memorable games for the team in his 10 years at the Kingdome. He gave us those memories, and now was coming back one last time to revitalize them by simply showing up on the mound: that’s all he had to do.

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