I do not remember The Double.
Edgar’s meticulously rehearsed swing and Junior’s mad dash occurred when I was one and a half years old. While I was learning to speak words like “mama” and “papa” and “ball”, and attempting to navigate the floors of my family’s temporary home in Leschi, Joey Cora was rounding third. Vince Coleman’s leap of joy meant as much to me as the wind moving the leaves on the trees outside and the cars passing by. Colors and movement were exciting, but I could differentiate them no better than I could discern Dave Niehaus’s elated roars from a particularly passionate discussion by the neighbors.
I have since watched the play a thousand times. Listening to Dave’s call never fails to give me goosebumps. Seeing Ken Griffey Jr., avatar of joy and human possibility, beaming directly back at me as the team celebrates around him is as inviting and personal as baseball has felt. It’s not my memory, however, and I have always felt a pretender to lay claim to this moment I only know secondhand. It is a beautiful play, created by two players who I soon was able to recognize and mimic in affect, batting stance, and, of course, in the case of Griffey, hat orientation. But it is not the memory of the Mariners that comes to mind for me when I think playoffs.
By the time we reached 1997, I was old enough to know the teams involved. I went to see a game this year, and in the upper levels of left field watched Randy Johnson (“he has my name in his!”) terrorize hitters. When the playoffs rolled around I felt ready. I knew the familiar enemies and harbored the maximum amount of disdain a three year old could muster for Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Mussina. I had learned names that were fun to say like “Fahssero” and “Rodreegess” and “Neehows.” The box scores in the paper were my black and white Reading Rainbow.
I remember adults towering nearby as we watched and listened and cheered and groaned. I pestered the giant humans around me with the facts I knew and jumped around excitedly at each of the soaring home runs hit by the most powerful team in the history of baseball. Even two starts from the tall flamethrower who shared my name could not save them, however. The adults stopped coming over after a week, and the excitement was stalled.
Then came 2000. It didn’t make sense that Griffey was gone, and the man with my name had already departed too, yet in their place were new heroes. Rickey Henderson, who led off his first two starts with home runs. John Olerud, a man who seemed designed specifically for bite-sized fun facts to astonish a first graders mind. Mike Cameron, who softened Griffey’s absence with scintillating plays and power. Lou Piniella, the grumpy old firebrand whose gravely voice sounded as much like home to me as Niehaus or Rizzs or the voices of my own family.
When playoff baseball is discussed regarding the Seattle Mariners, this is the team I think of. Not the world-beating 2001 squad that succumbed to sickness and scheduling shifts and the only season in MLB history the world was rooting for the Yankees. That team was a myth. A glitch in the system that even my fondest memories scarcely can pinpoint. The veracity of 2001 might be rejected entirely were it not for the still intact copies of the newspaper celebrating all eight Mariners all-stars, and the beautiful infinite loop of Terrance Long’s bewilderment as David Bell applies the tag tucked away in the back of my mind.
No, it must be 2000. 2000 was a year not unlike this one. Players bursting with personality. Inconsistency with stretches of greatness. A few stellar position players and a pitching staff that did just enough. Alex Rodriguez, the Golden Boy, who to a six year old still fuzzy on the concept of free agency seemed eternal, did things like this. Kazuhiro Sasaki was surely the most untouchable closer anyone had known.
That team cemented baseball in my life forever. They were a team that helped a shy first grader relate to those around him, and eventually meet his lifelong best friend. They were a team that convinced my ever-considerate mother to bring a small portable radio to the bus stop so that when they played against Nomar or Boggs or The Big Hurt that I wouldn’t miss a moment.
Thanks to her, on a Friday in October, 2001, I scamper off the bus in time to hear John Olerud reach base and advance to second on an error by Kelly Wunsch in the bottom of the ninth. We walk quickly, racing to see the rest of the game on tv, but not so fast that we drown out the radio.
We are three blocks away from home.
Dave Niehaus builds the anticipation as he announces that 41 year old Rickey Henderson will be pinch running for Olerud. Up comes Stan Javier, who would, after this game and a breathtaking, home run saving catch against the Padres, become one of my favorite Mariners ever. The White Sox make a pitching change, and bring in Keith Foulke.
Two blocks from home.
Javier takes the time to talk to the base coach, Neihaus mentions. He confirms the plan. I know they are waiting for me.
One block from home.
Javier gets the bunt down the third base line on the first pitch, just as you are taught, and Henderson advances safely. One out, winning run for the game and the series 90 feet from home.
At the base of the hill, now running up.
The White Sox walk David Bell on four pitches and set up a double play opportunity.
Bursting in the door, frantically turning on the screen to see
Carlos Guillen steps into the batters box in place of the catcher, Joe Oliver. Guillen appeared on the team in a trade for my old favorite pitcher, the one who had my name, and I don’t know how I feel about him. The first pitch to him is a strike. He takes a moment, consults the signs as Javier did, then steps back in. The pitch comes, and Guillen orchestrates the most outrageous walkoff playoff-series-winning hit in the history of baseball.
My house erupts with joy.
These are the Mariners I know and love. They are scrappy and unpredictable and can’t quite be trusted, despite their stellar potential. That is ‘95 and ‘97 and ‘00 and 2014 and 2016 and I hope with every fiber of my being it continues to be our team. Their improbability and stubborn refusal to lose when they have any hope of competing at all has been their beauty for each iconic team my entire life.
The Seattle Mariners will make the playoffs one day. They will win a World Series someday. When that happens, I hope it is a team like this year’s team. A team like 2000’s team. A team like I have been told all my life that the ‘95 team was. The Mariners had it easy for one year, and that was enough. When they make it, they will do it the hard way. The weird way. The walkoff line drive drag bunt safety squeeze way. And we will remember that moment forever.