Two decades ago today, on July 13, 1995, I attended my first ever big league baseball game. It was the first game of the second half of the season at the Kingdome in Seattle, where the “fumbling” Mariners hosted the Blue Jays, who had won the 1993 World Series on that iconic Joe Carter walk-off home run against Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams of the Phillies.
I can still remember watching Carter’s exuberant rounding of the bases on TV at a neighbor’s house, late (on a school night!) that October in Guatemala City.
At the Kingdome that day in 1995 the Blue Jays were technically still the defending champions, because the 1994 World Series never happened. The strike, of course, had cut the season short, depriving all of us the joy of October ball, and potentially robbing that other Canadian team, if you listen to Jonah Keri, of an outcome that maybe, just maybe, could have prevented its eventual downfall.
Walking into the cavernous Kingdome for the very first time, I was entranced by a sense of magic – which is not, I realize, how most baseball fans recall that dated artifice of echoing (indeed, crumbling) concrete, which was put out of its misery five years later in early 2000.
We arrived in time for batting practice. The Mariners’ Buhner, Cora, and the Martinezes (Edgar and Tino) were milling around, along with Alomar and Olerud of the Blue Jays. It was my first time watching big leaguers hit baseballs in person, and it took a while to gauge where fly balls would end up. Nearly every ball appeared to be crushed – even the lazy ones that dropped nonchalantly onto the bouncy turf in shallow left center.
Despite my heart palpitations, which were legion, it was not lost on me that the quintessential superstar of the mid-nineties was nowhere to be seen. Ken Griffey, Jr. had gone down with a terrible wrist injury on May 26. The next morning my 12-year-old self, a cable-deprived baseball fan, watched the replay of the remarkable catch and the gruesome injury over and over on SportsCenter at a nondescript motel in Texas.
The Kid would be out for two and a half months. Meanwhile, in the Kingdome on that evening in July, in front of 18,616 paid attendees, fifty relatively healthy players had suited up. The Jays sent David Cone to the mound, while the Mariners countered with Tim Belcher. In the end, the Blue Jays won it, 4-1 – an initially solid pitchers’ duel that somehow came undone in the late innings.
“That’s the worst game of baseball I’ve ever watched,” Mariners manager Lou Piniella said afterwards. “I’ve never seen so many mistakes – there’s just no explanation for some of this.”
He was referring to the record five errors committed by the M’s, including three in the eighth inning alone. In retrospect, the line score was a mess. What Piniella failed to note, however, were a few highlights that dazzled 12-year-old me. Jay Buhner’s 427-foot no-doubter to center field, for one, and John Olerud’s smash into the rarefied air of the third deck in right, for another. Nor did he make mention of the triple play turned by the Mariners in the ninth – partial penance, one might say, for their wayward ways the inning before. It was the first triple play of the 1995 season, and the only one I’ve ever witnessed to this day.
The Mariners weren’t turning many heads in July 1995, sans superstar centerfielder as they were. One way or another, though, they scrappily hovered within a game or two of the .500 mark for much of the summer – kept in contention, despite their mediocrity, by the advent of the Wild Card. Their four-man starting rotation was led by The Big Unit, Randy Johnson, and I recall he dominated, and won, every single time he pitched. He was a lights-out gimme. This left the remaining three starters – Belcher, Bosio, and Torres – to divvy up the remaining win and two losses between their respective three games.
Around this time Piniella was starting to give some playing time to a rookie who struck out a lot and made a fair number of defensive errors, a babyfaced shortstop named Alex who was still two weeks away from his twentieth birthday. He has potential, I thought to myself throughout that summer. Life hadn’t happened to him yet. He hadn’t happened to himself yet.
Junior Griffey returned to the lineup in mid-August and the team famously put together a tremendous late season push, beating the Angels in a one-game playoff before going on to play the Yankees in the Divisional Series, which ended in Game 5 at the Kingdom with “the double” – still the best moment in Mariners history.
These days I live in D-backs country, and while I’m first and foremost a baseball fan, on principle I nonetheless root, root, root for the home team. But every couple of weeks I tune in to Mariners games on MLB.tv. Seattle has a new set of stars in King Felix, Cano, and Cruz, and they play in one of the more beautiful ballparks in the game. Their win-loss record is on the ugly side, though, and they have reason to worry that their priciest star is already a bust, despite a full eight and a half years to go on his $240 million contract. All is not well in Emerald City.
Way up there in Safeco Field’s sparsely populated Section 323, however, a few rows from the top, there is a 12-year-old kid with heart palpitations, convinced he’s watching the greatest game ever played. Call me crazy, but I think he might be onto something.