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It Might Have Been: The 1997 Seattle Mariners Part 2

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Home runs and blown saves and left fielders, my oh my!

Ken Griffey Jr

This is the second of a four-part series looking at the 1997 season. Yesterday, we explored the expectations heading into the beginning of ‘97.

1997 dawned with a burning question. Could Randy Johnson return to his dominant 1995 form? He had his back cut open and operated on in the offseason. Would he continue to have problems, or would the magic touch of his surgeons spur him back to greatness?

Being a famous athlete comes with excellent medical benefits and Randy roared back into the rotation with single-minded ferocity. His debut came in the fourth game of the season. Eight Red Sox struck out in six innings against a Unit driven to silence the questions. He left the game with a lead, but the bullpen couldn’t keep it.

Bob Wells and Norm Charlton each earned a blown save for their efforts at ruining The Comeback.

At this early point in the season though, the loss could be forgiven because Randy’s back was back.

*****

The Ghost of Baseball Past was never far from Ken Griffey Jr. He drew comparisons to every prodigious home run hitter from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. He effortlessly stalked the Ghost of Baseball Future with every ball he drove over an outfield fence. The milestones he would reach and the records he would break were never hushed what ifs; they were stated loudly, boldly in the bright sunlight. No baseball fan didn’t believe he would break Roger Maris’s record. No one could fathom an heir to Hank Aaron’s home run throne other than Ken Griffey Jr.

The sluggers in baseball multiplied faster than they hit massive home runs. Every season began with more brawn than the season before. Any of these sluggers could break records, but none was as universally adored and celebrated as The Kid that every kid pretended to be when they played backyard baseball and Little League. He was a superstar among superstars and the face of baseball in the 1990s. He was the player whose at-bats you never allowed yourself to miss.

He was 27 years old in April 1997. The single season home run record has always been a hot, sexy topic. With players beginning to reach home run totals in the 50s in recent seasons, the number 61 looked like it was within reach.

In April, Ken Griffey Jr. waltzed with the Ghost of Baseball Future. He broke the Major League record for home runs in April with 13. Number 11 to tie the record and number 12 to break the record came against Roger Clemens. Number 12 was also the 250th home run of his career:

The high mark of 755 came into focus as the Mariners beat the Jays and improved to 14-8 on the year

*****

The bullpen was never good. It had a good game here and there, and sometimes managed to go a few games in a row without ruining a sure win, but even in the pitching-poor American League it could only charitably be considered serviceable. The horror and the fear that arose when Lou Piniella sauntered out to the mound to make a pitching change is illustrated by a game in late May.

May was a difficult month. Griffey’s home run pace dropped off a bit, the starting pitching and bullpen struggled alike, and the infield errors began to accumulate.

On May 27th the Mariners were playing the last of two games in Minnesota. Having won the first game, it looked like they’d carry a series win back home to face the Texas Rangers, who held a two-game lead in the division. As the bottom of the ninth inning opened that night in Minneapolis, our heroes had a 10-5 lead. Three quick outs, and they’d head back home in a good position.

So when Mike Maddux gave up a single to Chuck Knobauch to lead off the inning, no one panicked. When Rich Becker followed with an RBI double and Bobby Ayala entered the game, we thought it would still end in a Mariners win. Then, facing Paul Molitor, Bobby Ayala threw a wild pitch.

All these years later, I recall that as the moment I knew. My stomach heaved and I began pacing. Back and forth, from the sliding glass door to the fireplace in our family room. Back and forth, methodically, barely glancing at the television. Listening, but not watching as the collapse commenced.

There was a sacrifice fly to bring in Becker, who had been wild pitched to third. That would be the only out in the inning.

Back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep the nausea at bay.

Ayala was relieved by Charlton after giving up a double. Charlton walked his first batter, then yielded a 3-run home run. Rally killer, right? Nope. He issued a walk, a single, and another walk.

Bases loaded and facing the last batter of the game, Norm Charlton walked in the winning run.

Twins 11, Mariners 10. There was one out when the winning run scored.

Bobby Ayala #31
Bobby Ayala, demonstrating the way he nearly fell over after every pitch he threw.

I went to school the next day sullenly morose over the tragedy I had witnessed the night before. I remember standing in the hallway full of freshman lockers bemoaning the loss. My friends comforted me the best they could; no one understands feeling like the world is ending like a teenager.

*****

Luckily, life also changes quickly when you’re a teenager. A few days later I was excitedly sitting in the 300 level at the Kingdome up above first base. Standing in the batting cage taking batting practice was a player who wore his socks high and had a stance I didn’t recognize. It took only a moment of wondering before I knew who it was.

The left field hole was filled. The Mariners Outfield for the Ages began tonight: Jay Buhner in right field, Ken Griffey Jr. in center field, and Jose Cruz Jr. in left field. He was finally in Seattle and everything was going to be okay.

That he went 0 for 4 didn’t matter (he did have an RBI groundout though). What mattered was being there to see the beginning of something special. The way I felt each time he stepped up to the plate must be the way people felt at a Nirvana show before they made it big. I was certain Jose Cruz Jr. was the embodiment of a Mariner destiny fulfilled.

Ken Griffey Jr.
The Outfield for the Ages.

*****

The Mariners felt the same optimism I did, teenage dramatics aside. June was a new month, the travails of May forgotten. The team had slipped to third place in the division with a .500 record, but by the end of June they held a five and a half game lead over the Angels for first place.

The highlight reel for the month holds a fun entry on June 5th. Alex Rodriguez became the second Mariner to hit for the cycle:

Jay Buhner hit the first Mariner cycle. While the cycle doesn’t really mean anything, it’s a baseball oddity that added a fun quirk to the Mariner’s offense.

*****

That season the Mariners were given their first chance to see the National League outside of spring training. Bud Selig, World Series canceller and owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (nee Seattle Pilots), held the office of Acting Commissioner of Baseball, as he had since 1992 (my dad scathingly referred to him as Bud Selig, Acting Commissioner For Life). A few years earlier Selig had introduced the Wild Card and the divisional playoffs, realigning Major League Baseball. Provoking baseball traditionalists gave him a reason to go into the office every day. This season he was introducing Interleague Play.

Beyond the obvious difference in the Designated Hitter Rule, the two leagues were separate entities at the time with their own presidents and umpires. The American League strike zone, or so legend held, was geared toward the hitting-dominated teams that made up the league. The National League strike zone was roomier and more comfortable, a perfect fit for the traditionalist league that relied on strategy and careful execution.

Baseball needed to fire up the fans who had lost interest during the labor strike three seasons earlier. Why wait for the World Series? Here was a meeting of two different styles of baseball, a battle in the war to determine league supremacy. If only Bud had known then he could just make the All-Star Game count.

The American League West would face the National League West in a two-game home and away series with each team. The Mariners played their first game against the Colorado Rockies at the Kingdome. The Rockies, calling Coors Field home, were one of the best hitting teams in baseball, a National League aberration. There was no need for double switch confusion or debates over the designated hitter. The game was an ugly all-out hit fest. In their introduction to the National League, the Mariners prevailed, just like we knew they would.

The Mariners swept the opening weekend of Interleague Play, taking all four games from the Rockies and the Dodgers. At the time it felt like an omen of October success, but they would end the season 7-9 against the National League.

*****

Back in olden times (you know, the 90s), not every baseball game was televised. One game we missed watching live was Randy Johnson’s June 24th start against the Oakland Athletics.

Two incredible things happened in the game. The first was Randy striking out 19, yes, 19 (!!) Oakland Athletics in a complete game. The Mariners offense must have relaxed behind this incredible pitching performance and not felt the motivation to score scores of runs to save the game from the bullpen.

The second incredible thing to happen was a herculean Mark McGwire home run. It was the longest home run ever hit at the Kingdome:

The video has Dave Niehaus’s call, which I remember hearing over the radio as I sat sequestered in my bedroom listening to the game. I made sure to watch all the SportsCenters that night to see it over and over. You couldn’t just look it up on the Google machine back then, you know.

*****

The Mariners hit the All-Star Break with a 49-38 record and a 4.5 game lead over the Angels for first place in the American League West. Five Mariners were recognized on the All-Star Game Roster that year. Unsurprisingly, Ken Griffey Jr. was the top vote getter among fans. Edgar Martinez was elected as a DH (this was the first year fans could vote for that position). Alex Rodriguez would start at shortstop over his good friend and 1996 Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter. And Randy Johnson got the start for the American League over an equally dominant, although not as well-liked, Roger Clemens.

Happily, Joey Cora also made the team. It’s possible there will never be another player happier to be on that team than our Little Joey Cora.

He won our hearts in 1995 as he sobbed broken heartedly on the bench when the magical playoff run came to an end. He secured our love every time he stepped on the field. He was commonly referred to as a spark plug and played with an all-out passion every single game. He had his defensive problems, sure, but he cared about each and every game and it showed in the way he played. He stood at the plate in a wide, crouched stance that shrunk his 5’8” strike zone. He ran out every single ground ball, heaving himself toward first base whenever necessary. He never let up on the effort.

He began 1997 in a terrible slump. He pushed and he pressed and tried to figure out his problems. He took late-night batting practice. He fiddled with his stance and his swing. The breakthrough came when he began wearing Michael Jordan cologne. He started to hit. And hit. And hit. And hit. He hit safely in 24 straight games, a Mariners team record that was later broken by Ichiro Suzuki.

Joey Cora

He joyously soaked in every bit of the All-Star experience. The rest of his Mariners teammates were making return appearances, and Griffey seemed unenthusiastic about the hoopla. In his first, and only, All-Star appearance Cora sat ringside for every event, recording it all on his camcorder. His child-like joy during the All-Star festivities, and during every game he played, evoked the child-like thrill we all get from baseball.

*****

“World Series: Mariners over Braves,” the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue had told me. Was this All-Star game a preview? Randy Johnson of the American League versus Greg Maddux of the the National League Atlanta Braves. Would they meet again in late October for Game 1 of the World Series? There was no reason not to think so. What a series it would be! The Mariners with the best offense in baseball, and a lineup that held three Hall of Fame-caliber players, against the Braves and the best pitching staff in baseball, with their three future Hall of Fame starters.

Randy Johnson struck out a couple guys named Craig Biggio and Barry Bonds, and induced four groundouts. He was prevented from throwing a perfect two innings when Larry Walker’s deviousness worked a walk. The Big Unit’s first pitch to the left-handed hitting Walker sailed over his head, echoing a similar pitch to John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game. When his Colorado Rockies had faced the Mariners in Interleague Play the month before, Walker had sat out of the lineup against Johnson because he was scared of him. Wanting no part of that side of the plate, Walker turned his batting helmet around to protect his ear and got in the right-handed batters box:

Edgar Martinez led off the second inning against Maddux and hit the first pitch out for a home run. Martinez later singled off Curt Schilling in the fourth inning. Griffey went 0-4 with two strikeouts in the game. Alex Rodriguez would also strike out twice, but had a first inning single off of Maddux. Joey Cora entered the game as a pinch runner for Cal Ripken Jr in the fifth inning and flew out against former Mariner Shawn Estes in his only at bat in the bottom of the seventh. Estes had been traded away by the Mariners because he had some character and maturity issues. That year he had blossomed into a pretty good pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, leading fans to bemoan the trade. No one felt too badly when Estes gave up the game winning two-run home run to Sandy Alomar Jr, playing in his home stadium.

The whimsical break over, the Mariners headed back to the job at hand: winning the division and advancing to the playoffs.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the second half of the season, including the ominous looming trade deadline.