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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A Conversation With Mariners Announcer Tom Hutyler: Pronounciation, Acoustics, and the ’95 Season

Tom Hutyler has been the Mariners’ public address announcer since 1987: he’s the man who announces the players at Safeco, and he did the same at the Kingdome when the Mariners played there. I recently talked with him about the 1995 season and some of the technical aspects of announcing for the Mariners. Here’s part one of our conversation (see part two here):

Arne: With the strike having just ended, were the fans a little surly at the start of the 1995 season? Did they boo the players more often? Or maybe there just weren’t as many people at the games?

Tom: The fans were not really surly. There was a little bit of skepticism. Fans who were spending their money on baseball, they felt betrayed. For Joe Average there was that sense of “Why do I need to feel sorry for these millionaires?” There was an attitude against the team, a feeling of betrayal.

Arne: When did the fans first get really involved in the season? Was it when Griffey hit his homer in August against the Yankees?

Tom: Yes, that was the pivot point, when people started to think this could really happen. A lot of players in the background, people like Doug Strange, not your everyday players, they picked up the slack. And they turned to gold, those players who weren’t regulars. Then there were those trades for Coleman, Benes; they were really critical also.

Arne: In your approach to announcing the games, do you try to keep yourself detached from the action, to be more of a professional, and not so much of a fan?

Tom: You’ll notice, if you’ve been to Safeco, there’s a decidedly different way in which I announce the batters for the Mariners and the visitors. But I try to be professional, to respect the sanctity of baseball, and not treat the game as a sideshow. I want to be entertaining and clear. Having said that, when I announced the games in 1995 it was very difficult for us to maintain our decorum as broadcasters. We were very excited during the games. I don’t know if people noticed, but between pitches I’d be pacing around the booth, trying to settle myself down.

Arne: Was the job of announcing harder in the Kingdome because of the acoustics of being indoors; would you hear echoes?

Tom: Oh, there was a tremendous echo in the Kingdome. It was most difficult to get used to, a real distraction. When small crowds were at a game, you’d hear your voice bounce off the walls, and the echoes would be bouncing around as you said the player’s name. I’d say, “Number 24, Ken Griffey, Jr.,” and “four” would come back to me as I said “june-yuhr.” When the Kingdome was a shell and they were preparing to take it down, someone said my voice was still lingering in the corners.

I don’t know if it was because the Kingdome wasn’t acoustically sound, or if that’s just the nature of domes. Maybe there have been technological advances to resolve those things. But there were pockets in the Kingdome where people said they couldn’t hear me at all or it sounded like I was right next to them.

Arne: It seems there were two real sustained, memorable ovations in the ’95 season, and one was Randy Johnson coming into game 5 against the Yankees.

Tom: From the booth, we’d seen Randy warming up down in the bullpen, and as he started heading onto the field, we cued up “Welcome to the Jungle.” The fans were starting to cheer, and it was a question of how to time it, and getting the energy into announcing his name. As he was coming in you had the swelling of the crowd noise, and you try to capture that emotion in your voice.

Arne: And then there was that long ovation at the end of Indians series.

Tom: I just let it go, didn’t say anything, then finally said something quiet, like “It’s been a great ride, hasn’t it?” I remember the applause, it was really emotional. It almost spoke to the innocence of Seattle, not having gone through the playoffs or a championship game before. Everybody-all of the players-were touched by that ovation. It showed how appreciative fans were of the team. It was spontaneous, so you don’t bother it. I normally do a game recap, but there was no way to do that, no need for music or talking. People were celebrating, even grieving almost. When I’m watching a game on tv I sometimes get irritated by the announcers: there’s no need to tell us what we just saw as viewers. The senses get it.

Arne: How much contact do you have with the Mariners players and coaches?

Tom: Not as much as I used to. I have more outside responsibilities now: I work at KOMO. Before, there were some players I just naturally had more of a relationship with: David Valle, Mark Langston, Harold Reynolds, Alvin Davis. Griffey would sign bats for some charity auctions I did. But it hasn’t been as close over the last few years.

Arne: Do you get players asking you to change the way you pronounce their names or just the way you say their names?

Tom: You know, it’s something I’m surprised more announcers don’t do. They’ll assume a name is pronounced a certain way based on how they’ve heard others say it. The more professional way is to just ask the players “How do you pronounce your name?” It can be tricky with the names of Latino players especially. For Raul Ibanez, once I got his name down I’d say “Rauuuuull Ibanez,” stretching out the name.

The Yankees pitcher, Mike Mussina: I’d always heard his name pronounced “Muh-seen-a,” then one day I went in and asked him, and he said he pronounces it with an “e”-”Mess-seen-a.” For Ichiro, of course he has just the first name on his uniform, and people wonder why I say the full name, Ichiro Suzuki. Well, I asked him how he wanted me to do it, and he said “Ichiro Suzuki.” He wants that.

Players don’t tend to notice so much the way I say their names. The bigger thing with them is the music we play. Some will send up cds to the booth and say, “I want this played.”

There was one catcher a few years ago who, well don’t quote me on exactly who it was, but in the year when there were all those bad Mariners catchers. He’d call up to the booth between innings and say, “Why didn’t you play this? Why did you play that?” And you’d wonder, “Shouldn’t you be paying attention to the game and not the music? Isn’t this why you’re hitting .200?”

Different players like country, hip-hop, rock. One player wanted nothing for his at-bats: he didn’t like the distraction of the music.

(continue to part two)

A Few Questions About the 1995 Mariners for Mike Pagliarulo

I recently had the chance to talk with Mike Pagliarulo, who’s probably better known as a Yankee third baseman in the mid-to-late ’80s than as a Texas Ranger, but he played for the Rangers in 1995, his last season in the majors. I took the opportunity to ask some questions about his impression of the 1995 Mariners as a player with Texas.

Arne: I wondered what you saw in the Mariners that year, and then in September as they made their comeback, whether there was a sense of them having changed from earlier in the season.

Mike: Yes, we had, in the final series there in Texas, we stopped the Mariners from winning the division, won the last two games against them. Johnny Oates, God bless his soul, he was our manager. The Mariners, they were a very well-balanced team, power from the right side, the left side, good pitching, ran the bases very well, they really knew how to play the game. They had dangerous hitters, could score a bunch of runs in a minute.

Arne: What was it like facing Randy Johnson, someone who, at 6-10, he’d be throwing the ball a half-foot higher up than most pitchers. Was it hard to change your eye level and pick up his pitches?

Mike: You have to change, make an adjustment according to the different pitchers, so you’ll see the ball better out of his hand. With a left-hander like Johnson, I’d try to hit everything off the left-field wall. You had to have a plan for the opposition.

Randy was very deceptive, with a lower arm slot, you fought to pick up the ball. There was always a battle going on, facing him. I’d come up, struggle to see how the ball’s moving, and all of a sudden I’d be saying hey, what the heck, what happened, I’m down 0-1, 0-2.

Arne: That year, you were playing against Lou Piniella, one of your former managers with the Yankees. Could you say something about his qualities as a manager?

Mike: He’s a super guy, just one of the greatest. He’s one of the most brilliant men at teaching hitting mechanics. It was fascinating to play for him with the Yankees. I was fortunate to get the chance to learn from him.

I added a final question about Ichiro. It’s off the 1995 topic, but Pagliarulo played in Japan in 1994, when Ichiro was just beginning to star in the Japan league, and has gone on to run a player evaluation company called Baseline Report that specializes in determining how Japanese players will do in the U.S.

Arne: I remember in 2001 a lot of people were expecting Ichiro to be a mediocre major-leaguer.

Mike: Not us.

Arne: And then he went on to win the MVP. What’s your opinion of why Ichiro was able to transfer over from Japan to the U.S. so smoothly? Is part of the reason simply that the very best baseball players are more able to adjust their skills to a different style of baseball?

Mike: There are certain characteristics about a Japanese player’s personality-the thinking is a little odd, or they’re disciplined, they’re a little weird, unique, their style’s a little different, they move their body a certain way, talking about the mechanics of hitting. All that helps the player adjust to playing here. In Japan the players tend to be low-key, the coaching makes everyone do things the same way, but in the U.S. pitchers have different motions, and you have to adjust to all of them.

Interview With Bob Condotta

Bob Condotta is now the Seattle Times’ reporter on the University of Washington sports beat, covering men’s basketball and football. But back in ’95 he was covering the Mariners for the old Bellevue Journal-American, attending most of their games at the Kingdome, the final regular season series in Texas, and all of their playoff games. I wrote to him after seeing a posting that mentioned the ’95 Mariners during his relief appearance on Geoff Baker’s Mariners blog earlier this year. The eventual result was the following interview about the season.

Q: What were your feelings about the Mariners and major league baseball in general coming into the ’95 season, after the strike ended? And, did the Mariners’ comeback change your attitude?

A: I was a little less jaded back then and so happy to have a job reporting on sports in the Seattle area, which had always been my dream, that I didn’t really let the strike influence my feelings about anything all that much. I knew it would be an exciting and pivotal year for the Mariners as a franchise, and since I wanted the team to stay, I hoped it would turn out well. So once the strike ended and they were back playing ball, I quickly forgot about it and just focused on the season at hand.

I remember that there were a lot of mixed feelings at the Kingdome on Opening Night among fans — I think that’s the last Mariners’ opener that didn’t sell out — but I was just glad to have baseball back. I might not feel that way if the same thing happened now (the NBA is close to losing me forever over its handling of the Sonics’ situation) but I did back then. So that said, how the season evolved really didn’t bring me back to baseball since I came back pretty quickly anyway at that time.

Q: Which game do you see as the most remarkable/most memorable one of the Mariners’ regular season?

A: Like a lot of people who were there — and there really weren’t that many as the official attendance was 17,618 — I’d say the Aug. 24 game against the Yankees at home when Griffey hit a game-winning home run. Most view that game as the beginning of the streak that brought the team back and saved baseball in Seattle. My personal memory of it is that I almost missed the game. I was also assigned to do a Seahawks story that day so I was at their practice in the early afternoon and decided at the last minute to try to get to the Kingdome for the M’s game, as well — it was a 3:30 (or right around there) first pitch. I’ve seen hundreds of games since then and barely remember any of them.

But I have all kinds of vivid memories of that game (some of which I’m sure may be a little embellished with time) — Andy Benes getting hammered early and Piniella leaving him out there; Vince Coleman almost striking out with two outs in the ninth, then drawing a walk and stealing second and third; Cora hitting that little liner that Tony Fernandez misplayed; and then Griffey’s never-a-doubt home run. I won’t say I had any idea that day that what ended up happening would happen. But I did know that something was happening.

Q: Could you compare Edgar, Randy, and Junior. Which of the three was the best Mariner of ’95, and which do you have the most appreciation for now as a major leaguer, and as a Mariner?

A: I must confess that I covered mostly just home games in 1995 and then never was a regular Mariners beat writer again. The Journal-American covered only home games then (except we went on the road for the last series and the playoffs and a lot of spring training) so I never got close to any of the players the way the regular guys did. So I don’t necessarily have great personal insight into those guys that would be a lot different than the everyday fan.

Edgar was the consummate professional in every way, from the way he dealt with the media to the way he approached his at-bats. He always was respectful and tried to answer your questions. Johnson was incredibly dominant that season, but even then some of his prickly personality came out. I remember a game in July when he pitched well and the team won, but he didn’t get the win because Bobby Ayala blew the save (imagine that?) only to have the Mariners win it in the bottom of the ninth. Despite the team’s win, Johnson seemed unhappy afterward, talking about how frustrating it was to pitch like that yet get nothing for it — that had happened to him a few times that season. I’m one of those who thinks the way his Mariner career ended puts a pretty big smudge on his legacy. On the other hand, that season wouldn’t have happened without him, so he deserves a lot of gratitude, as well.

As for Griffey, everybody knows he missed much of that season and batted only .258 for the year. But I’d forgotten a little bit just how great he was in the playoffs that year. It seems like everybody always focuses on how incredible Edgar was. Yet Griffey hit .391 with five homers in the series against the Yankees, and .333 with another homer against the Indians. If he’d ever been on the right time, I have no doubt Griffey could have been a Mr. October, since that was the only time he ever really had that chance. Not sure I can pick a “best” of that season — take out any of them and the season doesn’t happen. And for overall contribution to the Mariners, I couldn’t pick between Griffey and Martinez. To me, they are the two most-defining players in franchise history, which is why it’s so fitting that they were the two key players in the defining moment in franchise history.