Growing up, people always found it a little strange that I liked a baseball team that wasn't very good, and that I didn't get to see very often because their home games were a thousand miles away. In the days before interleague play, I never got to see the Mariners in San Diego, so the only times I was ever able to follow them live were when they played against the Angels, and I could pick up a faint Anaheim AM radio signal in my bedroom. It wasn't much, and it occasionally got pretty frustrating, considering that - like with people - having a long-distance relationship with a baseball team is difficult at the best of times. But for six years I managed to get by on box scores, Sportscenter highlights, and the odd game on the radio.
That is, until August 22nd, 1998, when everything changed. For it was that day that I was able to walk through the Kindgome turnstiles and take in the first Mariners game of my life.
I still have a pretty vivid recollection of the game. Everybody remembers their first. Jamie Moyer was leading the struggling Mariners against some rookie I'd never heard of (Jim Parque) and the similarly-pedestrian White Sox, which was reason enough for me to be optimistic. After all, nobody wants their first baseball memory to be of a loss to a bad team. From what I knew about Moyer at the time, he was pretty awesome, and I was conditioned never to expect very much from rookies and minor leaguers, so the matchup looked good from the get-go.
It's funny - looking back, the Kingdome was a friggin' atrocity, a concrete eyesore in the middle of a picturesque city, but as my uncle and I approached the main entrance that night, I couldn't help but gaze at it in awe and amazement. Granted, at the time I was a 12 year old who grew up with the Superdome, so my standards of architectural aesthetics were considerably lower than those of the general public, but rather than view it as a drab gray sarcophagus like everyone else, I looked at the Kingdome the same way you look at a Christmas present. I remember pulling on my uncle's shirt and pushing through the crowd because I couldn't wait to get inside.
My first thought upon entering was along the lines of "someone should really turn on the lights," and it was around that point that I first got the idea that perhaps baseball was meant to be played in a more suitable environment. I probably could've continued the mental discussion with myself for a while were it not for the beginning of the national anthem; my uncle was never much for getting to things even a few minutes early. Soon afterwards, we were in our seats, watching Jamie start the game against who Retrosheet tells me was Ray Durham.
Now, I have to be honest: when I say that I have a pretty good memory of the game, what I mean is that I remember the end. All the stuff leading up to it, not so much. I do remember noticing that there was a big crowd on hand - the official attendance was 43,596, which strikes me as odd, given that the team was bad and the season average attendance was much lower. To this day I still can't figure out why there were so many people there. All of them would end up getting their moneys' worth, even the nerdy-looking guy with big hair and bigger glasses who couldn't stop shifting around in his seat directly in front of us.
Aside from seeing Joey Cora dart out to second base and do his little twirl around the bag when the team took the field, my first memory of the game itself is of the bottom of the fifth inning, when Parque recorded a 1-2-3 inning despite allowing all three Mariners to reach base. I don't remember who the batters were, or how the leadoff guy reached, but a forceout and two pickoffs later, we were all left wondering what the hell just happened, and whether we'd get slapped with an extra fee for the privilege of witnessing a microcosm of the Mariners' entire existence in the span of three outs. Three steps forward, three steps back. I can't imagine what the response would've been if the Mariners were actually playing for anything.
Beyond that, though, the game is pretty fuzzy until the ninth inning. Moyer was lifted after eight, and even though I'd never actually seen them in action, I knew damn well that the Seattle bullpen was not to be trusted. Particularly the Heathcliff Slocumb part. With the game tied at 3 in the top of the ninth, Slocumb had a guy on third base when he bounced a pitch to home plate. It was one of ten wild pitches he'd throw on the season, and this one was pretty costly - the runner scored from third and the White Sox took a 4-3 lead. I was heartbroken; not only had I failed to witness the fireworks they used to set off whenever a Mariner hit a home run, but suddenly it looked like the M's wouldn't even win the game, which was something of a double-whammy. Things didn't get any better when Slocumb walked the bases loaded, but he managed to stave off further damage by getting Frank Thomas to fly out.
Going into the bottom of the ninth, I knew the Mariners didn't stand much of a chance against Bill Simas. With the bottom of the order due up, it was only a matter of time before each and every one of us was sent home having to think about another tough loss in a season full of tough losses. I was still pondering my own impending misery when Rob Ducey launched the game-tying home run into the right field bleachers.
Rob Ducey. He wasn't much of a player, and he certainly wasn't known for his power, but in one instant he earned himself a lifetime free from criticism by delivering what remains one of the most exciting hits I've ever seen. Not because of who hit it, or what it meant, but because he was the first Mariner I ever saw hit a ball out of the park. As Ducey rounded the bases, fireworks exploded near the top of the dome, and I immediately grabbed my cheap disposable camera and took a picture. I didn't think it would come out very well, so I was pleasantly surprised when I had it developed. I still have that picture, too; it's sitting in the second drawer from the top in my desk back home. Pictures aren't about fake poses or forced smiles - they're about capturing special moments in your life, allowing you to go back and experience everything you were feeling at the time with nothing more than a glance. The shot of the fireworks exploding above the outfield after Ducey's home run might be the best picture I've ever taken.
After the homer, the Mariners went down with nary a whimper, sending the game into extra innings. Mike Timlin and whipping boy extraordinaire Jaime Navarro matched zeros and, after Timlin recorded a second shutout inning, the stage was set for a dramatic bottom of the eleventh. Navarro was absolutely awful in 1998, and it was everything he could do just to retire Joe Oliver leading off. Sure enough, his success would be short-lived, as Joey Cora followed by reaching base on a walk and getting to third on a single by Alex Rodriguez. With one out, the winning run was only 90 feet away, and the Mariners had the incredible tandem of Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez coming up one after the other.
Navarro elected to set up a force at every base by intentionally walking Griffey, bringing Edgar to the plate with the bases loaded. The league leader in OBP stared the pitcher down and, upon release of the ball, took a tremendous cut - and missed. Said Edgar about coming up after an intentional walk following the game:
Edgar calmed himself down and, on a 1-1 pitch, hit a roller to the left side of the infield. It was quick enough on the turf to be turned for a double play, but as I saw Robin Ventura sprint to his left to try to knock it down, I realized that he wasn't going to get there in time. Neither was Mike Caruso behind him. Edgar's grounder bounced just past Ventura and Caruso's outstretched gloves, rolling into left field and allowing Cora to score the winning run from third base. Everyone jumped to their feet cheering and celebrating - I still remember it as the loudest moment in a game I've ever been to, even though I'm sure it isn't.
I couldn't stop bouncing around and chattering excitedly as we left the park and walked back to the car. My uncle, who's much more reserved than I, just smiled. If I loved the Mariners before, then that game only reinforced the unbreakable bond between myself and the team, a bond that has endured some incredible disappointments, including these last few seasons.
Sometimes I wonder if my loyalty to the Mariners is my way of paying them back for everything they gave me that night in August. But I never get very far, because whenever it comes up I start thinking about that picture in my desk, and I'm swept away.