For the Seattle baseball fan, the weekend is about nostalgia. Ken Griffey Jr. will be inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame. Many who know him, many who watched him play in Seattle, will gather to celebrate Saturday at sold-out Safeco Field the most spectacular baseball career the region has witnessed.
To aid the flashback, I have excepted here a part of my 2002 book on the Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which chronicled the rise of the most futile franchise in U.S. pro sports to a place — then — of respect and success. The chapter on the turnaround season of 1995 included some moment-by-moment drama of the franchise’s signature moment — Game 5 of the American League Division Series with the Yankees.
I know: The Mariners’ endless replays of “The Double,” along with Root Sports’ endless reruns, have reduced the episode into an exercise in pathos, because nothing in the subsequent 18 years has topped it.
But there was so much more to that game and that series than the 10-second video highlight. It was baseball at its majestic best, as thrilling an 11 innings as ever were played anywhere, anytime, full of rich characters and incredible tension.
So please get a coffee or a drink, unhitch from the world-weary cynicism, get a favorite chair and take a few minutes to revisit the pinnacle moment in Mariners history. For those of you new to the area or to baseball, or too young to remember, you will learn why people who experienced it mist up in the re-telling.
The story picks up after the Mariners won two in the Kingdome to tie the series at 2-2 and force the decisive fifth game.
Out of Left Field: Seven Days in October
For the series decider the Yanks sent to the mound veteran David Cone, who won Game 1 with eight survivable innings (six hits, six walks, four runs), to match up against Andy Benes, the Game 2 loser, who gave up three runs in five innings. Cone began the season in Toronto before coming to New York, and did nothing to discourage his big-game reputation through seven innings. He held the potent Mariners offense to eight hits while the Yanks pulled out to a 4-2 lead, thanks to a two-run homer by Paul O’Neill in the fourth and a two-run double by Don Mattingly in the sixth.
After striking out six of the nine previous hitters, Cone in the eighth was gassed. Ken Griffey got to him first, sending a fastball into the second deck in right field for his record-tying fifth homer of the series, to cut the lead to 4-3.
After Edgar Martinez grounded out, Tino Martinez walked and Jay Buhner singled. Piniella sent up two pinch hitters, Alex Diaz and Doug Strange. Each worked one of the game’s best pitchers for a walk, the latter on a 3-2 forkball that barely missed low, forcing in the tying run.
Finally, Yankees manager Buck Showalter pulled Cone after an unusually high number of pitches, 147, signalling that the Yankees’ bullpen was as depleted as the Mariners’. While Mariano Rivera finished the inning without further damage, another extra-inning game loomed. But manager Lou Piniella was in the dugout, contemplating the diabolical. Before the game, he approached Randy Johnson, his ace who was supposedly unavailable.
“I’m not sure we’ll need you,” the manager said. “But if I need to get the crowd into the game, if it’s close . . . By having you walk out there, whether we use you or not, will really get this place alive.”
“I’ll do whatever you need,” Johnson said. “I’ll take the walk, and you can use me.”
The Clint Eastwood Moment
Between the seventh and eighth innings, Johnson gathered up his gear in the dugout, then walked to the bullpen down the left field line. The crowd nearest the dugout noticed right away, and burst into mad cheers. Then the buzz began to grow, sweeping the building. Was it possible? Was the Big Unit, after just a single day’s rest in his Game 3 victory, actually going to pitch in relief?
As Norm Charlton, who relieved Benes for the last out of the seventh and pitched a scoreless eighth, began warming up on the mound for the ninth, Johnson slipped off his warm-up jacket in the bullpen.
“I thought it was a scare tactic,” said Buhner, watching from right field. “Then you heard Randy hit the catcher’s glove in the pen – crack! crack! The crowd started going ape-shit.”
After Charlton allowed the first two batters aboard, Piniella came out to fetch his exhausted closer and gave the signal for Johnson. Around the Kingdome, fists pumped, eyes bulged, voices howled, and mouths dried.
Clint Eastwood-style, the gunslinger ambled in slowly, the only quiet figure in the decibel festival.
“It was an extremely emotional moment,” said Dave Niehaus, who was describing the drama from the radio booth. “When he walked to the pen, everyone stood and cheered. Then he came into the game . . . It was one of the signature moments in Mariners history.”
Despite trotting out the three best hitters in their lineup, the Yankees had no chance. Wade Boggs struck out, and Bernie Williams and O’Neill popped out to end the inning. As Johnson walked off the mound, western Washington seismologists bent over their machines for a second look.
The Yankees answer: Black Jack
But in terms of theater, New York would take second to no team. As soon as Johnson entered the game, Showalter, having seen closer John Wetteland battered senseless by the Mariners, sent down to the pen his own gunslinger. Black Jack McDowell, who lost the Game 3 duel with Johnson, was ready to answer the tactic. After Rivera picked up the first out in the bottom of the ninth, McDowell was called upon, and he dispatched the Mariners as readily as Johnson did the Yanks.
Extra innings, extra drama, extra audio. It would become only the fifth postseason series in baseball history to be decided in overtime.
Cone, the ’94 Cy Young winner as the AL’s best pitcher, was slack-jawed at the developments. Johnson, who would win the ’95 award, and McDowell, the ’93 winner, were taking high risks with their valuable arms. Coming back on such short rest ratcheted up the chance for injury. The stakes, apparently, were worth it.
“Randy and Jack – what can you say?” Cone marveled later. “Those guys are putting their careers on the line. Any one pitch could have blown out their careers.”
The pitchers sailed through the tenth inning, Johnson striking out the side – his last pitch recorded at 99 mph. But in the 11th, the Unit’s emotional tank ran empty. Leading off for the Yankees, Mike Stanley walked and was sacrificed to second, from where he scored on Randy Velarde’s single. Johnson, pitching for the third time in seven days, then retired the side. But the 5-4 deficit momentarily sucked serious wind out of Puget Sound.
Joey, Junior and Edgar
But as was the case throughout a stupefying season, there was always another chance and another way. This time, rather than the Mariners’ usual Paul Bunyan act, they went the Tweety Bird route. Joey Cora, the little second baseman who homered unexpectedly earlier in the game, was aware that McDowell, a former teammate with the Chicago White Sox, was not the most agile of pitchers. Cora surprised the Yankees and Piniella – “I had no idea,” Piniella said – when he squirted a leadoff bunt down the first-base line that forced McDowell to come a long way. Running almost out of the baseline, Cora eluded the tag of first baseman Mattingly and flopped safely on first base. An emotional wind was back.
Up came Griffey, exuding confidence from a spectacular series debut on the national stage. He ripped a high fastball to center for a single that advanced Cora to third. That brought to the plate the last man in the world the Yankees wanted to see in that spot – Edgar Martinez.
The player whose reputation within baseball far outstripped his public profile was about to reverse that order, with what Piniella would describe later as “the hit, the run, the game, the series, and the season that saved baseball in Seattle.”
Anonymity suited Martinez well. Although he won his first batting title in 1992, he had little recognition outside Seattle. “It has a lot to do with my personality,” he once said. “I just try to do my job and stay quiet. I do what I’m told, and not cause problems. “
That sort of approach won over a lot more teammates and fans than it did headlines, which made him happy. Raised in Puerto Rico by his grandparents, Martinez would watch his grandfather, Mario Salgado, fuss over every task until it was done to near perfection. A truck driver, Salgado would not accept any imperfection in his vehicles.
“He hated to do mediocre stuff,” Martinez said. “If he did a thing wrong, he would do it right until it was perfect. When I was younger, a lot of times I didn’t understand it. But as I got a little older, I found myself doing things the way he did them.
“My friends would complain a lot about me.”
He applied the same relentless attention to detail to his job as designated hitter. His perfectionism would annoy the Yankees as much as it did Martinez’s pals. His .356 average that won the batting title was the highest for a right-handed hitter since Yankees great Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939. For the ALDS against New York, Martinez would hit .571, tying a major league record for most times on base in a playoff series (18, including 12 hits and six walks).
A moment before he stepped into the on-deck circle, Charlton came up to him, knowing Martinez had struck out in the ninth.
“He kept repeating that I was gong to be the one again – I was going to do it,” Martinez said. “I told him, ‘This is my chance again.’”
“I didn’t think Griffey was going to try”
As the concrete shed trembled, his chance came on a 2-1 count when McDowell served up a split-finger fastball that hung instead of sinking.
“I got one up in the strike zone,” Martinez said. “I just wanted to put the ball someplace where we could get one run.”
He chose the left-field corner. His line drive wasn’t such a screamer that left fielder Gerald Williams was going to get a hard carom off the wall. As with Mattingly on the Cora bunt, he had to come a long way. As soon as it bounced, the game was tied, Cora walking home easily. As Williams ran the ball down along the line, all eyes shifted to Griffey, who was underway like a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred, perhaps lifted by the identical command from 57,000 voices:
“GO! GO! GO!”
Or, as his good buddy Buhner put it in his own earthy fashion, leaping from the dugout to the edge of the field:
“Run, m——f——, run!”
As Martinez round first, he was simultaneously tracking the ball and Griffey.
“When I hit it, I thought Junior would get to third, but I didn’t think he would be able to score,” he said. “As I got toward second, I saw he was going to try to score. I said, ‘Oh!’ I’d never seen him run the bases like that.”
Ever the clinical analyst, catcher Dan Wilson, out of the game after being pinch-hit for in the eighth, was on the bench and figured the sensible thing was to send Griffey all the way around.
“The worst case would have been a tied game with one out and a runner on second,” he said. “But I didn’t think he was going to make it. Hey, I didn’t even think he was going to try.”
As Griffey churned in perfect sprinter form toward third base, he looked at Williams and third-base coach Sam Perlozzo, and made his decision.
“I saw that Williams was playing toward left center,” Griffey said. “When I saw the ball land near the line, I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could. When I got to third, Sammy said, ‘Keep going!’
“So I did.”
The throw from Williams was relayed to catch Jim Leyritz, but it was late and wide. Griffey slid across the plate with the sweetest baseball goods ever brought home to Seattle — the game’s best player, scoring on a double by the game’s best hitter, in the eleventh inning of the final game of a playoff series they had once trailed 0-2 and were losing 10 seconds earlier, to beat the ace of the sport’s most legendary team.
In a phrase inserted by Niehaus into the lexicon of the Northwest, never in a grander fashion, “My, oh my!”