(Ed's Note: This article was originally published on now defunct Pro Ball NW on August 18, 2011. It is re-published here with the permission of the site's manager, Jon Shields, and the author, myself. I have been wanting to kick start this series for years and the intention is that by re-publishing this article it will serve as the creative impetus for exactly that. There is swearing. You will be fine.)
The 1996 Seattle Mariners represented something new for Northwest baseball fans: Expectations. After the miracle of '95 the Mariners were coming into the season riding a wave of momentum the franchise had never known. Featuring a prodigious offense that scored 993 runs and smacking a then record 245 home runs (The record stood all of one year. The 1997 Mariners clobbered 264 home runs. A record that still stands.) the fightin' M's nonetheless floundered in second place the majority of the year thanks to an atrocious pitching staff that spent half the season without its Biggest Unit.
Fortunately the wild card race was very much in play and at the beginning of the September one of the other teams in the race, the Boston Red Sox, came to town for a three game series. I had seen this movie before, just last year, and it was a good one. The Mariners were going to catch fire and make the playoffs for a second year in a row, setting the foundation for regular success that the franchise had been so desperately seeking since its inception.
Or so my fourteen year old brain told me.
"Sometimes, There's A Man."
(Note: This is not Nick Swisher)
Mike Greenwell had a pretty swell career in baseball. As a 23 year old rookie he posted a wRC+ of 148. The following season that number rose to 157 and Greenwell finished runner up in the 1988 AL MVP race. By 1996 though, the end was damn near nigh. Although still chugging along with a .295 BA, injuries had robbed Greenwell of most of his power. Pitchers, no longer fearing Greenwell's bat, began pounding the strike zone and his on base percentage fell as fast as his slugging. After going 2-3 with a double in an 8-3 win over Oakland Mike Greenwell came into the Mariners series with a .699 OPS. In an age of booming offense Mike Greenwell was now a liability.
24 hours later his .OPS would be 56 points higher.
"Greenwell had a career night. He had a week's worth of RBI, two weeks' worth."
The game started out fun. Roger Clemens was in what appeared to be his declining years and thanks to some timely hitting and an error from reigning AL MVP (Edgar was robbed) Mo Vaughn Seattle jumped out to a 5-0 lead. By the time Troy O'Leary flied to left for the 2nd out in the 5th inning the win expectancy for the Mariners was at 95%. Images of another thrilling pennant chase were dancing in my head as I prepared for the 14 year old, homeschooled equivalent of a victory cigar: A Slurpee run.
But then Bob Wolcott walked Tim Naehring on a 3-2 pitch and then Mike Greenwell smacked the first pitch over that Blue Monsterette in right and it was 5-2. Still, the win expectancy stood at 94%. But this was the 1996 Mariners, a team that spent all year tormenting its fans with blown leads, a feeling I had forgotten until this year.
Bobby Ayala had come in to get the last out of the sixth. But it was the seventh inning that saw Bobby Motherfucking Ayala take the mound. A leadoff double was followed by two of BFA's government patented walks and then, again, Mike Greenwell; A 1-0 fastball caught too much plate, Greenwell sent it to the seats, and quicker than you can say "Jonathan Brandis" the Mariners were losing 6-5. But that weapons-grade Mariners offense saved the day. Alex Rodriguez hit a 2-run home run, and a bases loaded walk to Brian Hunter (the slow one that was ok at baseball)gave Seattle an 8-6 lead into the eighth.
Then, with two on and two out, it was Greenwell, again. Norm Charlton buried a 2-0 fastball on Greenwell's hands, the lefty managed a weak pop up to the left side. But the ball was coming down and oh, god, there's Doug Strange, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Whiten all running and oh none of them are going to make it maybe it will be foul shit it's not foul DAMMIT. 8-8. The dosage of this game's pain was too much for nine innings to bear, so we went to extras.
In the tenth inning, with Greenwell on deck Rafael Carmona walked Jeff Manto on four pitches. Now some context: Jeff Manto had a 75 wRC+ in 1996. He was hitting ahead of a man who had already driven in eight runs that day. It was a tie game in extra innings. Still, Rafael Carmona could not throw him a strike. In the prelude to many disasters it is common for victims to recount a sense of foreboding, a premonition of the harm about to befall them in the moments prior. That was Mike Greenwell's ensuing at bat. No one doubted what was about to happen. The mustachio'd bastard walked calmly into the batter's box like an axe-man to an executioner's block and proceed to use a 2-0 fastball to line a single, drive in a run and put the Red Sox in the lead 9-8. Heathcliff Slocumb (!) closing out the Mariners was only a formality. The game was over. The Mariners lost. I did not get a Slurpee.
Mike Greenwell finished 4-5 with two home runs, a double, and 9 RBIs. He referred to it as a "Storybook night." It was the best game of his career in what would end up being his last season. After the Red Sox 3rd place finish he retired.
The game ended any hopes I had for the Mariners that year. History shows that that team went on a 1995-esque 10 game win streak later in the season and clawed within a game of first place. Yet it never felt right. Mike Greenwell had done so much damage to my psyche that I stopped buying victory Slurpees.
I find that some of my most acute memories are centered around events that seemed meaningless when they occurred. I can tell you where I was and how excited I was when my children were born, when we closed on our house, etc. But I can't tell you the details that make it interesting. Whereas I remember the exact shade of neon checkerboard board shorts I wore to a friend's house when I was 10. They were hideous and I asked my mom repeatedly to let me change out of them. She would not.
Mike Greenwell is baseball's ugly board shorts. I remember everything about that stupid, meaningless game that happened nineteen years ago. Life is weird like that. And Mike Greenwell is still a monster preying on the dreams of my youth.