BY Art Thiel 08:00AM 08/08/2013

Thiel: Griffey and the hit, the run and the game

The game was much more than a 10-second video clip. For those too young, for those new and for those who weep at the re-tell, here’s the glory of ’95 ALDS Game 5. One to savor.

The Kingdome hot-tub party after winning the 1995 ALDS: From left, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, trainer Rick Griffin, Ken Griffey Jr.,  Jay Buhner,  Mike Blowers and Norm Charlton. / Rick Griffin, Mariners

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!”


YourThoughts

  • maqman

    That was a game for the ages, up there with Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series walk-off dinger and Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 WS 7th game walk off homer (That was the only game in playoff history in which no player for either team was struck out.) I saw Don Larsen’s WS perfect game in 1956, which was absolutely rare but not as nearly as exciting, plus he was a Yankee. The 1995 game turned me into an Ms fan after over 40 years of being a Dodgers follower.

    • art thiel

      Many fans can recall a moment when the interest galvanized into an infatuation that resisted rational thought, And it’s a big reason why a chunk of 1.6 million people still showed up last year. It wasn’t because of the current action.

  • jafabian

    I think my favorite story of the ’95 season in your book Art is the chants the Bleacher Creatures would do to Junior and Buhner. That still makes me chuckle.
    I watched the replay of that series recently. How frustrating that team wasn’t kept together and built up from. Everything the Yankees did from that series on to better their club the M’s should have matched but instead took steps back. Ditto for the 2001 team. But that ’95 team really could have become something even more special if it was invested in.

    • art thiel

      The same lamentation runs through most of the fan base. A three-superstar team with a top manager should have had more to show.

  • Hammtime

    Oh man, what great memories. I was in college at the time. My roommates and I (as was everyone in the dorm) were watching the game. When Edgar hit it down the left field line, I along with my roommates jumped so high off our couch I think my one roommate hit his head on the ceiling!

    • art thiel

      And I bet he’s thrilled to share the story of the scar.

  • Hammtime

    Also, love the hot tub pic but the caption didn’t identify Rick Griffin as the man between Randy and Junior.

    • art thiel

      Fixed. Thanks.

  • Trygvesture

    Thanks, Art. Perfectly written– exactly as it was and felt from our seats high above the 3rd base line. My boys were young men and they’ll never stop referring to it: it was all the hero-victor stuff of the deepest myths.
    I accidentlly got tickets. I was walking down Occidental in the morning past a ticket kiosk. I assumed the game was sold out. There were about 5 or 6 guys leaning on a railing and standing back from the kiosk–apparently waiting for it to open. I saw the ticket seller behind the window and — a little confused by the scene– asked if she was open. She has just arrived and was just waiting for customers to step up. Did she have 4 tickets together? She looked and she did– only one choice–and I took them. The others quickly came to the window… and I knew what it felt like to be the cat that ate the canary. I had no idea what a fine canary it would turn out to be.

    • art thiel

      Another good story, Tryg. You had a great stroke of spontaneous luck that made the outcome all the sweeter. Good for you.

  • Matt712

    I wasn’t at the game but I was in the next best place, F.X. McRory’s. It was one of those moments that makes sports so special. One guy crosses the plate and a million separate memories tie indelibly to that moment. For me, it started with the sound of our screams bouncing off a wall of liquor bottles and drowning out the gravelly barks Dave Neihaus’ voice. As Junior’s teammates were piling on top of him at home plate, I turned to my right. This gorgeous curvy blonde girl I had been chatting with leaned in and we totally macked on each other! Never saw her again and I don’t remember her name. But oh man, I remember that moment. One helluva game. One helluva kiss.

    Sports are funny that way. I imagine, at that very same moment at Old Town Bar in NY, some poor soul not unlike myself got slapped in the face.

    • art thiel

      Great story, Matt. And everyone who cared about that moment will recount some kind of tale that has never left them, either. The community should feel privileged to have a wonderful moment of shared success.

  • Paul Smeenis

    Niehaus in my mind had his best call ever when Johnson was brought in, “And it maybe time for that man. Randy Johnson is warming up down in the Mariners bullpen. He’s got Boggs, a left handed batter, Bernie Williams, a switch hitter, and Paul O’Neil, a left handed batter. If the call is made to the Big Unit, this place will explode. That’s fine, but you just wonder how much Randy Johnson, who started the ball game on Friday night will have left. He threw 116 pitches in that game….AND THEIR GONNA GO DOWN AND GET THE BIG GUY RANDY JOHNSON! (Welcome to the Jungle begins) Well if Randy Johnson ever needed a rush of adrenaline it’s here right now my friends.”

    I was 14 and that feeling, the hair standing up on your neck in pure bliss, was a feeling you only get to experience a few times in your life. I remember every call from that series by Dave and NO ONE will ever bring the emotion out as he did.

    • art thiel

      You nailed it, Paul. It was probably the most exquisite moment of tension and drama I’ve experienced in my career.

  • Kafkaeske

    Yes, 1995 was a good year and the playoffs were exciting and uplifting. And it’s fine to stop and fondly remember it all. But sooner or later we must move on. Fans of other teams must laugh at our obsession with those games played 18 years ago. To repeatedly celebrate 1995 just draws attention to the fact that the Mariners have never done anything more memorable than win a division playoff series.

    • art thiel

      All true, Kafka, and we all know it. But on an occasion such as the team hall, it is possible to admire and salute the history of a special player. Feel free to allow yourself a guilt-free enjoyment of a splendid time. You have the other 364 days to lament, kvetch and wallow in sorrow for what has happened sense.

      Feel free to suspend logic.

  • Larry Weinberg

    Wow! As a Portlander, I get it: Seattle has a much better pro sports portfolio, NFL, MLB, MLS, and probably soon NBA and/or NHL, whilst we must try to remain contented with NBA and MLS….however, the amount of time you guys spend celebrating the 95 team astonishes me–you know they didn’t even make it to the World Series, right? It’s like that team that retired way too many average-to-slightly-above-average player jerseys like Lloyd Neal’s #36, and Bobby Gross’ #30, just because that team won it all in ’77:-)