As former Mariners manager Lou Piniella put it so aptly, “It was the hit, the run, the game, the series and the season that saved baseball in Seattle.”
In honor of Edgar Martinez’s selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame — and for the edification of the many sports fans too new to Seattle or too young to know — I’m re-publishing a portion from my 2002 book, Out of Left Field: How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle that illuminates his signature moment.
Please, don’t tell me about how much the Mariners milk this episode from their otherwise meager history in MLB. And please don’t tell me why the future matters more. We long-timers know all that stuff. Nor am I trying to make another buck — the book is out of print.
None of that changes the tension, drama and success of the single most pivotal play in Seattle sports history. All of us who were there will never forget it. The recounting here offers a bit of the moment’s backstory from the participants in a way that resides only in the book.
For me, it was nearly as much fun to research and write the story as it was to watch in person. Here’s an explainer, followed by the book’s account.
In October 1995, the Mariners won a one-game playoff over the Angels to advance to the first post-season series in their mostly miserable 18-year history. The foe: The George Steinbrenner-owned Yankees, in their first playoff series in 14 years. The Mariners lost the first two in the best-of-five Division Series in New York, then rallied take the next two at the Kingdome.
Game 5 was tied 4-4 in the ninth when Piniella brought in, on one day’s rest, ace starter Randy Johnson, sending the sellout crowd into delirium. The Big Unit got three outs. Yankees manager Buck Showalter countered, bringing in his ace, Black Jack McDowell, also on one day’s rest, who relieved rookie closer Mariano Rivera for the final two outs in the ninth, forcing extra innings.
Both stars pitched a scoreless 10th, but a fatigued Johnson gave up a run in the 11th. The Mariners’ season, and the fate of the franchise — owners were pressuring politicians to fund a replacement stadium by threatening to sell the club out of town — hung in the balance in the bottom of the 11th.
Joey Cora began with a surprise bunt single, followed by a line single from Ken Griffey Jr. That brought up the last man in the world the Yankees wanted to see at the plate.
Edgar Martinez’s perfectionism would annoy the Yankees as much as it did Martinez’s childhood pals. His .356 average that won the 1995 American League batting title was the highest for a right-handed hitter since Yankee 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, relief pitcher Norm Charlton came up to him, knowing Martinez had struck out in the ninth.
“He kept repeating that I was going to be the one again — I was going to do it,” Martinez said. “I told him, ‘ This is my chance again.'”
As the concrete shed trembled, the 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. I just wanted to put the ball someplace where we could get one run.”
He chose the left-field line. His drive wasn’t such a screamer that left fielder Gerald Williams was going to get a hard carom off the wall. As soon as it bounced, the game was tied, Cora scoring easily. As Williams ran down the ball, all eyes shifted to Griffey, who was under way from first base like a Derby Thoroughbred, perhaps lifted by the identical command from 57,000 voices:
Or, as his good buddy Jay Buhner put it in his own earthy fashion, leaping from the dugout to the edge of the field:
“Run, motherfucker, run!”
As Martinez rounded 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 sore,” 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, 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 without one out and a runner on second,” he said. “But I didn’t think he was going to make it. Hey, I didn’t 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 towards left-center,” he 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 catcher Jim Leyritz, but it was too 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 11th 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.
To borrow a phrase inserted by broadcaster Dave Niehaus into the lexicon of the Northwest, never in grander fashion: “My, oh my!”
In the stands, Dave Henderson, the Mariners’ first drafted player in 1977 and now retired and a ticket buyer like all the mad folk around him, lost the professional cool carefully crafted after 17 years in baseball. He was as dippy-damn delirious as just about everyone packing a Washington driver’s license.
“For the first time, I was seeing baseball like a fan,” he said. “It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
A few moments later, in the clubhouse . . .
Wilson was trying to grasp the achievement of the past seven days.
“If we do make the playoffs in the future, there’s no way to equal this energy,” he said. “It’s never going to be like this again.”
Added Buhner: “You know how they say there’s no crying in baseball? Bullshit!”