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6/2/90, Revisited

Sometime just after 7pm tomorrow night, you're going to go to your computer or TV, turn on the Mariners game, and ask yourself whe you're even bothering. I mean, yeah, you can make an effort to sit through the last game of the season like any good fan should, but the sixth-to-last game? What the hell is that all about? Is the diminishing thrill of watching Felix pitch really worth all the other frustrations, especially if it means throwing away a perfectly good Tuesday night?

You've probably had this fight with yourself a few dozen times by now, ever since we found out that, much like last year, the Mariners wouldn't be playing for anything this season. Being a loyal fan is one thing, but it's quite another to put your social life and psychological well-being at risk trying to prove a point to nobody in particular.

If you're anything like me, the fight inside your head will run its course and you'll eventually end up in front of a screen. How can you justify such a decision if anyone asks what you were thinking? Well, you can point to something that happened more than 15 years ago, for one.

Entering the day at 23-27, the 1990 Seattle Mariners were looking good for yet another finish in the bottom half of the league. The era of perpetual misery looked like it was slowly coming to an end, as the team was finally developing something of a solid young core and had the makings of an upper-tier pitching staff, but they'd still never won more than 78 games in a season through 13 years of existence, and the fans were none too frenetic.

As you can see in the image above, it would only take a hint of competitive baseball to get people excited, as the 1991 Mariners broke two million fans for the first time in franchise history by finishing 83-79. Seattle fans are a hardy, loyal bunch, and they're generally appreciative of whatever you can give them, but at the same time, if there's nothing there, they won't have any reason to show up. So it was through the 80s for the M's, as the team rode a bunch of retreads and nobodies to an average of 70 wins a year. There were millions of would-be fans in and around the city, but through all the pain and agony, they never had anything to cheer about.

It's the morning of June 2nd, 1990. With Seattle relieved that its baseball team had avoided a winless season, attendance was showing gradual improvement, but with a concrete sarcophagus for a stadium and a bunch of hacks in the everyday lineup, the fans still didn't have much reason to pay attention. That Omar guy was making some nifty plays at short, and the team was high on this 20 year old center fielder they had, but that wasn't enough to keep people satisfied.

Enter southpaw Randy Johnson, a beanpole freak the Mariners had picked up from the Expos for staff ace Mark Langston a year earlier. There was no denying his obvious physical gifts, being a tall lefty who threw fastballs near 100 miles per hour, but he didn't have any idea where the ball was going, as evidenced by his 96 walks in 160.2 innings in 1989. He'd go on to walk another 33 hitters in 59 innings through the first two months of the year in 1990, and more than a few fans were beginning to wonder if he'd ever be able to harness his stuff. But those fastballs, those couldn't give up on an arm like that, not without giving it every chance to succeed.

The frustration was there, as Johnson's results weren't matching his stuff, but fortunately for everyone involved, the fact that the Mariners weren't going anywhere allowed them to give their young southpaw as many opportunities as he needed to figure everything out.

And, on the night of June 2nd, Johnson seized one of those opportunities.

Coming off a 59-103 record, the Detroit Tigers were not a good team, but their offense in 1990 was one of the best in the league, ranking #2 in the AL in OBP, SLG, and runs scored. They were led by veteran shortstop Alan Trammell and a 26 year old first baseman named Cecil Fielder, an enormous hulk of a man who was built like a brick shithouse and who'd finally started to hit like it, slamming 18 homers through his first two months after hitting just 31 in the Majors over four partial seasons earlier. After pasting Scott Bankhead for six runs through 1.2 the night before, the Tiger lineup was looking fierce, and everyone knew that Randy Johnson was up for quite a challenge.

The 20,014 fans in attendance at the Kingdome couldn't have known what they were in for when they walked to their seats. They saw Randy strike out leadoff hitter Tony Phillips and work a 1-2-3 first inning, but this was a guy who would invariably come undone at some point in every start, letting his sloppy command get the best of him. He was a treat to watch, with his unhealthily-wiry physique and Lethal Weapon power mullet, but he could be as vexing as he was entertaining, and the struggles seemed to come suddenly, as if at the drop of a hat.

The Mariners took an early lead on an RBI fielder's choice groundout, and had the bases loaded with two outs in the first when Jay Buhner hit a screaming liner into left field. It was gloved by Gary Ward, though, ending the threat and quieting the stadium. Little did anyone know that the real excitement would come when Randy was pitching, rather than sitting in the dugout watching his teammates push runs across the plate.

Everyone was waiting for Randy to lose control. A walk in the second, a walk in the third, an error in the fourth...these were things that would usually get under the skin of a young pitcher and make him lose effectiveness, but it wasn't the case for Randy, not this time around. He got out of each jam with relative ease and, after pitching a 1-2-3 fifth, reached the point where people began to look at that "0 H" for the opposition on the scoreboard and think that something might be up (as a general rule of thumb, it never means anything until the game is at least half over).

Randy was trying to protect a 2-0 lead in the sixth when it looked like he might spoil his effort. With a man on and two down, he issued back-to-back walks to Ward and Fielder, loading the bases for Chet Lemon, a solid contact hitter who'd always had good success against left-handed pitchers.

And Randy struck him out.

Disaster averted. The whole stadium let out a sigh of relief, as the young pitcher still had a shot at making history. Nothing like this had ever happened for the Mariners. No perfect game, no no-hitter, no six-hit day at the plate, no nothing. They wouldn't even have a guy hit for the cycle until 1993. Might this turn out to be the team's first day of historical significance since its inception in 1977?

Mike Heath strikeout. Tracy Jones groundout to third. Ed Romero popout to first. Randy's probably getting tired, but he's a horse, and he's in a groove right now. Nothing to worry about. Right? He looks fine, you keep telling yourself. If it's up to Randy, he'll get this thing done, no problem.

Ken Williams flyout to left. You turn to your friend: "Hey, I'll bet you a thousand bucks that Williams becomes GM of the White Sox in a dozen years or so." But your buddy isn't paying attention, and you follow his stare to first base. Wait, what's Tony Phillips doing leading off? What happened? "Relax," says your friend, "just a walk." Whew. Alan Trammell groundout. Gary Ward strikeout. Eight in the books, still nothing doing for Detroit.

You get up to take a leak. Little did you know then that taking a leak in the bottom of the eighth of a potential no-hitter would become a troublesome force of superstition for the rest of your life.

You get back in time to see the Mariners taking the field. Randy's warmup pitches look great, nice popping sound from the catcher's mitt. Good signs. Here comes Cecil Fielder. Pretty good odds that he's either going to whiff or end both the no-hitter and the shutout in this at bat.

Strike three. Randy's taking total control of this one.

Crap, it's Chet Lemon. Wouldn't it be ironic if he came up with a hit now, after everyone was so relieved that he struck out with the bases loaded a few innings earlier? Of course he'll get a hit. That's how these things work.

-wait, he swung. Where's that ball going? It's hanging up there for a long time. Down it comes, a popout to first base. That's two. Only one more to go, Randy. You can do it. Just don't let them hit it to Alvin Davis. He looked a little nervous catching that ball.

Mike Heath. You already got him once, Randy - get him again. You know you won't be able to live with yourself if you lose it here, losing a no-hitter with one out to go to a guy who's destined to become some random blip in Tigers history. Don't let him have the satisfaction.

Two strikes. Take us home, Randy.



Biggest Contribution: Randy Johnson, +60.5%
Biggest Suckfest: Jeffrey Leonard, -6.8%
Most Important "Hit": Davis walk, +5.4%
Most Important Pitch: Lemon strikeout, +16.8%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +60.5%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -18.1%

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Box score