BY Art Thiel 12:33AM 05/28/2011

Thiel: Russell visit big, beating Yanks bigger

A pre-game visit from the NBA legend launched a surprising evening of good D, weird O and a triumph to reach .500

Bill Russell's presence at Safeco Field Friday night had players and fans awed. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Entering unannounced, the tall, white-haired man shambled slowly through the Mariners’ half-empty clubhouse.

He shook hands with players and clubbies, most of whom too young to know who he is. Except he had a bearing, an aura.

Those who did know couldn’t take their eyes off him. One was relief pitcher Jamey Wright, who, at 36, was born the year Bill Russell coached the Seattle Sonics to their first appearance in the NBA playoffs.

Wright jumped out of the chair in front of his locker as if he were meeting the president.

The fuss caught the eye of Michael Pineda, sitting in his chair an hour before he was to start against the Yankees Friday night. He had in his ear buds, but kept staring at the fellow drawing much respect.

Wright sidled over to Pineda.

“That,” Wright said he told him, “was a very bad man.”

In a good way, of course.

Finally, Russell’s escort for the evening, Sonics legend Fred Brown, nudged the two together.

Beaming, the 6-foot-7 Pineda stood and, probably for the first time in his major league career, looked up at someone. He shook the hand of the great man, an 11-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer.

Russell smiled. “I know you,” he said. They made small talk. Russell tossed his head back and unleashed the trademark cackle.

The high point of Chone Figgins' day was his interaction with Bill Russell Friday night. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

It was a little moment between two large men, as well as a sweet one for those who appreciate the toss across the Seattle sports generations.

For Mariners fans, matters grew sweeter through the evening with a rally from 0-3 to win 4-3 and reach .500 (25-25) with their ninth win in 11 games. All four RBIs came from infield grounders, leaving the Yankees to sputter about being gummed into submission.

For Pineda, 22, he had for him what might have been a bit off an off-night, walking five and leaving after five innings and 96 pitches. The evening highlight may well have been the pre-game meeting with Russell, 77, a man of the Celtics and the world who chose to spend his most recent 40 years as a Seattle resident.

“I asked him why he was here,” Wright said. “I had no idea he lived here.”

Nor do many Seattleites. After his four-year Sonics coaching career, Russell kept his home on Mercer Island, where he slowly faded from public view.

Over the last several years, Russell re-engaged with his legacy as one of the greatest, most influential athletes of the 20th century. He does some big things now, such as accepting the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Obama in February, and little things, such as throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Friday night at Safeco.

The occasion was African-American Heritage Night. The catcher for his two-hop dribbler was Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins, who at 5-foot-8 provided modest comic relief by jumping alongside Russell to bridge the 13-inch vertical disparity.

Earlier, Russell’s appearance on the field during batting practice drew out the Yankees, particularly Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriguez, making for an impressive collection of athletic legends.

Russell’s introduction drew a standing ovation from the 33,715 in the stands, as well as both dugouts.

But Russell was dessert, served first.

The entrée of the evening was The New Kid vs. The Machine.

The match wasn’t the full meal deal Mariners fans wished for. But for a change, the offense and defense picked up for the starting pitching. The Yankees sent out six left-handed hitters, Pineda’s weakness, and they worked him for 96 pitches, only 55 for strikes.

Nevertheless, after two quick outs in the fifth, Pineda looked as if he were out of trouble, trailing merely 1-0, the difference a fat fastball on a 3-2 count that Mark Teixeira turned into a first-inning home run.

Then Pineda walked Curtis Granderson and gave up a single to Teixeira. Pineda fooled Rodriguez so badly that he swung at a wild pitch, but the dirtball also fooled catcher Miguel Olivo, which allowed in a run. Rodriguez then popped a handle-shot single into shallow center, and a sudden 3-0 lead loomed large. But a pair of runs in the fifth and a pair in the sixth rescued the M’s.

“Big day for me,” said Pineda in his improving English. “My first time to pitch against the Yankees.

“My fastball and slider, I don’t have good command.”

But against a formidable lineup, he never let the game get out of hand. With a splendid defense, led by a home-run saving catch at the fence by Franklin Gutierrez, and the inspired weapon on the infield out, the M’s did it Russell’s way.

Follow Art on Twitter at @Art_Thiel


  • Steve

    This is beautifully written! Well done.

    • Art Thiel

      Thanks Steve. It was fun to be in Russell’s presence.

  • Tim mchugh

    Art, you are a poet.  Beautifully written and I’m so glad you’re still the voice of the thinking NW sports fan. 

    • Art Thiel

      Thanks for the good words, Tim. Please pass the word to all your peeps!

  • Pharmening

    Ah!!!  THE ambassador/legend of sports; a four decade resident of the NW.  I still remember seeing my first TV (much later replay) of Boston’s Russell and Cousy vs Wilt Chamberlin with the Minnesota Lakers in the NBA championship game in 1957, of course in black and white.  I think that was the NBA’s first television game.  I could be mistaken there.  I watched it in North Bend WA.  Man, I’m not that much younger than those guys (by a decade).