In the absence of the 2020 baseball season, classic game broadcasts have been all the rage lately. The replays have all featured the Mariners “winning games” or “being in the playoffs”. In this occasional series, I want to take a look back at games that were significant for the Mariners. As you’ll see with today’s installment, that doesn’t always mean a win.
One of the images that comes to mind whenever you think of Mo Vaughn is him swinging and missing, with that big uppercut swing he had, fastballs up and in. He just couldn’t lay off that pitch.
When it’s the bottom of the ninth inning and you are clinging to a two-run lead with the bases loaded and no outs, that’s the pitch you’re tempted to get him to chase.
Just gotta make sure it’s up enough. Gotta get it in enough.
Because the other image that comes to mind when you think of Mo Vaughn is that big uppercut swing he had connecting with the baseball.
On Friday, April 10th, 1998, the Seattle Mariners staggered into Fenway Park, already collapsing under the weight of expectations the team was not equipped to carry. The season had only been underway for a week and a half, but the same problems that had plagued the team throughout their 1997 season had once again arisen with hyperbolic glee.
The 1997 Mariners were one of the most prodigious power hitting teams in baseball history. Until recently, they owned the record for most team home runs in a single season. It was the relief pitching that left the team vulnerable.
Following the unceremonious loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, fans and players were ready for change. The core of the Mariners was aging. The players that had first brought Seattle to the baseball postseason in 1995 were facing the cruel hand of Father Time going into 1998. If the Mariners were going to get back to the postseason, they needed to improve their bullpen. However, the Mariners ownership and front office saw it differently.
Rather than acquire relief pitchers who could bolster the bullpen, the team decided to stick with what they had. The 1997 Seattle bullpen had blown twenty-seven saves. With the exception of a few lackluster additions, the core relief corps from 1997 would stay intact. Welcome to another year of Bobby Ayala, Mike Timlin, Paul Spoljaric, and Heathcliff Slocumb, Mariners fans.
The offseason pitching troubles didn’t end with the bullpen. Randy Johnson would be a free agent at the end of the 1998 season. He was the first of three big free agents looming in the future. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez would also stare down fruitful contracts in the next few years. For ownership, it wasn’t even a question of whether they would keep their ace. At 33, they determined that he was old, washed up, and saddled with chronic back troubles. So, having put this information out into the universe, they tried to trade him. Whether the asking price was too high or teams were scared off by his elderly broken back, he was still the ace on Opening Day.
The Mariners, with their same-look bullpen, had picked up the 1998 season right where 1997 ended. The bullpen blew an Opening Day start by Randy Johnson, leading to immediate howls from the Seattle media and fans about the lack of improvement. Another loss the next night only exacerbated the complaints. Like their 1997 counterparts, the 1998 Mariners began the season scoring runs easily. Coming into the Fenway opener, they had crossed the plate 62 times and whacked 20 home runs over those previous 8 games. The pitching had allowed 58 runs. Maybe, the optimists thought, the offense could be enough to outweigh the pitching. It had worked for most of 1997, after all.
On Friday April 10th, 1998 the Mariners and Red Sox met for the fourth time in the young season. Ditching the West coast for the East, they descended upon Boston for the Fenway Park home opener. That Friday, was also the first night of Passover and Good Friday. Asserting respect for the religious occasions, the Red Sox would not sell beer at Fenway Park during the game for the first time since Prohibition ended. As you can imagine, the Red Sox fans took that well in stride.
“They’re trying to stop my drinking!,” accused Mitch Kelly in an interview with NPR that morning. Another fan told NPR, “I’m shocked. I am just — I’m in utter shock. I won’t get over it ‘til the game’s over.” Another pointed out that the Red Sox were honoring the religious holidays all wrong, “You would think if anything they would be banning the hot dogs from the place — for Passover and for Good Friday. They should have banned the hot dogs and not the beer.” (1)
(Conspiracy theories came forth about the real reasoning for the dry game, naturally. The most common was that the Red Sox had been dealt a punishment for serving too many underage drinkers. Some believed union workers refused to deliver beer to the ballpark in order to drive more sales to the surrounding restaurants and bars.)
Randy Johnson would start for the Mariners. He stumbled a bit out of the gate, with unimpressive showings in his first two starts of the season. Cleveland tagged him for 6 runs in 5.2 innings pitched on Opening Day at the Kingdome. In his next start, the Red Sox got to him for 7 runs in 6 innings. This was the game he needed to show the Mariners how much they needed him.
Facing perennial Cy Young contender Randy Johnson, was a 22-year-old rookie named Brian Rose. He was a Massachusetts native making only his third career start. His battery mate was none other than Jason Varitek, the catcher the Mariners sent back east in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb the year before. Varitek was making his fourth career start and his first ever appearance at Fenway Park. Washington State’s Scott Hatteburg (who would later achieve fame in the book and movie Moneyball) was the primary catcher while the rookie Varitek eased into his role. The Red Sox came into their home opener sporting the same early record as the Mariners, three wins against five losses.
Pressure, expectations, and the weight of early season struggles were heavy in the air that afternoon as the teams took the field.
Up until the 9th inning, the game was your average run of the mill baseball game. It would have been the kind of game where you remark upon Randy Johnson’s start, expressing the hope that he had put his rough beginning behind him. It was a game that should have been a confidence builder, for him and for the team. The Red Sox scored first, but the Mariners began tacking on runs once the Red Sox opened their bullpen. The rookie Rose had thrown an impressive game against the slugging Mariners.
In the top of the ninth inning, Tom Gordon struggled a bit to put down the Mariners (he probably wasn’t considering that he was facing his nearly 10-year-old son’s future team). The Red Sox broadcast speculated that Johnson would probably come back out in the ninth. He had found a groove, as they say, and was really mowing through the lineup. Through his eight innings he had allowed two earned runs while striking out fifteen flailing Red Sox. He’d thrown just over 130 pitches, so there should still be some gas left in the tank to wrap it all up.
Instead of sending Johnson back out to defend his lead, manager Lou Piniella decided to reach into his bullpen. After the game, shortstop Alex Rodriguez agreed with the decision, saying, “This early in the season, cold weather, I don’t expect him to throw 160.” (2)
The Mariners led 7-2 with but one half-inning left to play. Piniella closed his eyes, reached into the bullpen, and pulled out Heathcliff Slocumb.
If the mere mention of his name doesn’t cause a visceral reaction at the memory of his acquisition, you have at least heard about the infamous trade that brought Slocumb to Seattle. Late on the night of the trade deadline, General Manager Woody Woodward was desperate to get any bullpen help he could find. Under pressure, he exchanged two promising prospects for a Healthcliff Slocumb. What is often forgotten is that Woodward’s desperation was fueled by the Mariners bullpen blowing a 7-2 lead at Fenway Park the day before the deadline.
Slocumb walks out to the mound. Red Sox fans haven’t forgotten his ineptitude during his time wearing their uniform and boos cascade upon him. The crowd is starting to thin out as fans make their way to their religious celebrations and/or to bars in order to consume the alcohol that was denied them by the Red Sox. A graphic on the Red Sox broadcast lets us know that Slocumb is sporting a 9.00 ERA in five games this season:
Earlier in the game, the shadows on the field caused problems for the batters. Fenway Park improvised a batter’s eye for the first time that season, covering a portion of the outfield seats with black fabric to prevent glare. Whatever advantage the batters had from that was cancelled out by Randy Johnson standing in the bright sunlight, heaving missiles at them in the dark shadows at home plate. The stadium lights had been turned on to try and mitigate some of the glare. By the time Slocumb found himself in the game, nearly the entire field was out of the sun. The exception was that area out in right field, with the foul pole they call the Pesky Pole and the short fence.
Troy O’Leary walks to the plate. He is pinch hitting for Damon Buford and operating on about three hours of sleep. He had caught a red eye flight back to Boston from Arizona, where he had flown for the birth of his first child. Basking in the glow (sleep deprivation) of new parenthood, he gives a half-hearted swing and drives the ball into shallow right field, reaching first base safely with a single. Mark Lemke follows him to the plate, and onto the bases, drawing a walk in a nine-pitch at bat.
Former Mariner Darren Bragg is next up. During his at bat, the broadcast cuts to a few shots of the Mariners milling around in the Fenway bullpen area. They discuss the Mariner’s problems with blown saves, both the year before and early on in the current season. Boston’s color commentator, Jerry Remy, muses, in an accurate depiction of the feelings in the Kingdome, that the Seattle relief corp may have an easier time of it out on the road:
The fans in Seattle have really been getting on them. Every time somebody comes into the game, they’re booing him. So, uh, it’s good to get away from that environment...it’s frustrating for ‘em when they come into a game out there in Seattle because fans are expecting the worst. (3)
Bragg had been traded to Boston in exchange for Jamie Moyer two seasons prior. He doesn’t seem to hold any sentimentality toward his old team and former teammate Slocumb when he hits a double out to right field, scoring O’Leary and moving Lemke to third base.
Piniella has decided Slocumb has enjoyed enough of a reunion with his old team, and replaces him with another former Red Sox pitcher, Tony Fossas. The broadcast mentions that Fossas, an offseason acquisition for the Mariners, had the best strand percentage in the major leagues last season. He comes into the game with two runners on base behind him. Fossas uses eight pitches to walk Mike Benjamin and load the bases.
By this point, Piniella’s patience is wearing a bit thin. Shots of him in the dugout show him alternating between wearing a blank stare and pacing through a patch of dugout dirt. He practically sprints out to the mound, frustration evident, to yank Fossas from the game and to signal for Mike Timlin to come in.
As Timlin throws his warmup pitches, Remy comments, “No way Lou Piniella thought he’d have to use three pitchers before he even has an out here in the ninth inning.”
The first batter Timlin faces is the young shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra.There was some friendly banter in the Boston and Seattle papers previewing this series over who of Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez was the better shortstop. To make the case for himself, after his routine of tightening and retightening his batting gloves and tipping and tapping his toes and his bat prior to each pitch, Garciaparra laces a single up the middle to score Lemke and load the bases. The tying run is on first base.
Next up to face Timlin is John Valentin. By now, Piniella has begun kicking at the ground he is pacing. He still seems fairly calm, but there are cracks. He is getting anxious about the lead his team is slowly squandering. With a full count, Timlin hits Valentin with the pitch, forcing home another run. The winning run is on first base.There are no outs.
The Red Sox’ big slugger Mo Vaughn is coming to the plate. Piniella knows he needs a lefty. He signals down to the bullpen for his fourth pitcher of the inning. Paul Spoljaric takes his place on the mound. Along with Timlin, Spoljaric came to the Mariners from the Blue Jays in a trade deadline deal the previous year. The price the Mariners paid was with promising outfielder, Jose Cruz Jr. Despite their struggles in a Mariners uniform, the team still had faith that the erstwhile Canadians could both learn to become decent pitchers who would ultimately help the Mariners.
But first, there was Mo Vaughn to deal with. Like Randy Johnson, Vaughn was in a contract dispute with his team. He wanted to re-sign with the Red Sox at a price he felt compensated him fairly for his services. The Red Sox disagreed with him as to what that price was. While Johnson’s turbulent offseason was mainly due to a perceived surly attitude regarding contract negotiations, Vaughn had other troubles. A few months prior he had been arrested for drunken driving following a night at a strip club in Providence. Like Johnson, he was looking to prove that he was back on his game.
As he steps into the batter’s box, a graphic flashes on the screen showing his statistics with the bases loaded. As the broadcast team notes, he’s “only” hitting .304. He does have six grand slams though:
Vaughn takes the first pitch, a breaking ball, leaning over the plate. Spoljaric is going to back him off the plate with a fastball.
I probably don’t need to tell you how this one ends. There was really no other way for it to end. You gotta get the ball up enough. You gotta get it in enough.
With one swing of Mo Vaughn’s bat, the Red Sox overcame their rough start. They would win six straight games, including a sweep of this series against the Mariners (the Sox would walk them off again in the third game of the series). They’d finish 1998 with 92 wins and a playoff berth.
That swing was the death knell for the Mariners’ season. The bullpen would continue to struggle in epic fashion. Randy Johnson would pitch through frustration until he was finally traded to the Houston Astros in July. The playoff window that felt wide open in 1997 was slammed shut with a definitive thud before the season even really got under way.
If someone were to do a ranking of the most heartbreaking games the Mariners bullpen has blown, this one would certainly rank. I remember sitting in my bedroom listening to it unravel over the radio. I would see the highlights later that evening on Baseball Tonight.
For 22 years, every Good Friday, every time the Mariners play at Fenway Park in April, I remember what it felt like to watch an entire season unravel over the course of half an inning.
1. ”BEER-FREE OPENING DAY AT FENWAY.” All Things Considered [NPR] (USA), April 10, 1998.
2. LMAN, HOWARD. “Red Sox 9, Mariners 7.” Associated Press: Boston Metro Area (MA), April 11, 1998.
3. Red Sox Broadcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gx2P45OLJFY