As Ken Griffey Jr. takes his rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame this weekend, I can't help but think back to the Seattle Mariners' 1995 season -- the year when the entire Pacific Northwest went bonkers for the Mariners.
Yes. even Portland set aside its usual distaste for all things Seattle to pull for a team that just wouldn't quit. It was a team that emerged from years of mediocrity to capture the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere. It was a lovable bunch on the field, playing with joy and abandon, constructing big comebacks for miracle late-season wins.
But it wasn't very lovable in their clubhouse, I can tell you. I was dispatched by The Oregonian to cover the M's brilliant late-season run that August and September, the most time I've ever spent following a big-league team around. Griffey was, at least at that time, difficult to cover. He could be temperamental and hard to approach. Randy Johnson, who would win the Cy Young Award that year after going an overpowering 18-2, was intimidating and impossible to approach. But the rest were easy to talk with and cooperative.
On Aug. 24 of that season the Mariners were 11 1/2 games behind the division-leading California Angels and a game under the .500 mark. Griffey had been out of the lineup with a broken wrist through much of the season and even the torrid hitting of Edgar Martinez couldn't keep Seattle close. But the team caught fire and the emotion began to build, the way it can do in baseball, where the season-long soap operas can grow in intensity with each game.
Eventually, the M's caught the Angels and faced them in a one-game playoff in the ancient Kingdome, where Seattle -- behind Johnson -- pummeled California 9-1.
Next up, the playoffs -- a foreign place for the Mariner franchise -- and a battle with the New York Yankees. Seattle Manager Lou Piniella vs. one of his former teams. The Yanks handled Mariner pitching with ease in the first two games in Yankee Stadium, winning 9-6 and 7-5. About all I remember from covering those games was talking to Jay Buhner afterward about New York fans throwing batteries at him in right field.
Things turned around in Seattle, though, as Mariner fans turned the Kingdome into a cauldron of noise. Let's cut to the chase, the best-of-five series went to a fifth game and it turned into an incredible battle. The Yankees, behind David Cone, held a 4-2 lead before the Mariners tied it in the eighth. Then, in the ninth, New York mounted a rally -- getting two on with none out,.
But then the emotion of the game went from 10 out of 10 to about 15 out of 10. Out of the Seattle bullpen came Johnson, the Big Unit, charging to the mound as if he owned it. He had rested just one day since winning Game 3 but was ready for this challenge. He fanned Wade Boggs and got Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill on popups.
And in my estimation, there's never been a louder sports arena anywhere than the Kingdome was on that night -- a combination of fan loyalty, panic and hope. In the pressbox, I couldn't hear the person next to me even though he was screaming at me. I was getting hand signs from a baseball-scout friend of mine sitting down the third-base line, who was wide-eyed as he signaled me that Johnson was hitting near 100 on the radar gun on one day's rest.
I will admit, for the first time, in that cement-mixer of a domed stadium with all that excitement, the hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention. This was craziness.
The Mariners couldn't score in the bottom of the ninth and then Johnson struck out the side in the 10th. Again the M's failed to score in their half of the inning. By this time, I'm pretty sure everyone in that stadium was dealing with a massive stress headache.
The Yankees finally broke through against Johnson in the 11th, getting a run to take a 5-4 lead. At that point, though, nobody in that stadium figured the home team as being finished. It just wasn't that type of season and not that type of team.
Joey Cora beat out a bunt single (barely) to lead off the bottom of the 11th and Griffey slammed a hard grounder into right-center field for a single to move Cora to third. Martinez followed -- and you probably know this part -- with a line-drive double down the left-field line. Cora scored easily, of course, to tie the game and Griffey -- not fast but a brilliant baserunner -- glided all the way from first to slide safely into home with the winning run.
You can watch that entire bottom of the 11th here.
It was an amazing finish and the lasting image is Griffey's head poking out of the big pigpile at the plate with a broad smile on his face as the entire Pacific Northwest celebrated another Mariner comeback. That moment was and IS STILL magic.
For me, Griffey's successful dash to the plate was a symbol of his career -- daring, bold, confident, skillful and smart. He was a great fielder, terrific home-run hitter and could seemingly do whatever was necessary to win games.
When I think about the Seattle Mariners, I think of Griffey -- the face of the franchise for so many years. And I always see that face, poking its way out of the bottom of the pile, flashing that magnetic smile of success.
Congrats, Junior. And thanks for the memories.