Griffey, Rounding Third

I wrote this recollection of the 1995 ALDS between the Mariners and Yankees back in the summer of 2001. I was trying to put the strengthening Mariners-Yankees rivalry in a broader context while also recalling the ALDS and Edgar’s double. I was also hoping we’d see another Seattle-New York series in October, when the two teams would add a new chapter to the rivalry. They did, but the circumstances had changed immensely in the meantime. The piece was originally published in the print edition of MISC., a short time before the September 11 attacks. Here it is:

Six years have passed since October, 1995, and it would seem that nothing so recent qualifies as a legend. But, the Mariners-Yankees playoff series of that month is already a memory of wonderful brilliance. That series was a classic proving ground for the Mariners; it also had a broader, heavily symbolic importance for Seattle and the Puget Sound. Like so many sporting events, it provided a crystallized summary of the status and culture of the two cities represented on the playing field.

Seattle was the upstart: a city roughly as old as Central Park, and a team only 18 years old. At that point, the Mariners had scarcely emerged from the sub-.500 region and its accompanying status as perhaps baseball’s worst team. Seattle’s national and global identity was still largely as the home of Boeing. But, the city had put aside its grunge capital status, well over a year after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Starbucks and Microsoft were beginning to expand from mere brands into multinational corporate behemoths. And, the local Internet boom had started, with RealNetworks and Amazon just beginning to build names for themselves, and Microsoft initializing its efforts to become a dominant power on the Web.

The Mariners’ late-season run was a rough emblem of that new Seattle: the team that had fumbled through the ’80s shocked its fans by actually coming back to win the division. During that effort, Randy Johnson established himself as a real hero: his amazing pitching delivered the team into a playoff with the Angels, where he then pitched a shutout to clinch the division.

Then, of course, there was New York. Rightly or not, it is seen as the center of America, to such an extent that it sometimes seems as though New Yorkers are proudly ignorant of anything south or west of Philadelphia. As America’s unofficial capital, it was a unique challenge for the Mariners and Seattle. The Yankees were, and are, the sports symbol of New York’s elitism: the team with the biggest personalities, most famous stars-even cultural icons, and above all, the team that won, and was expected to win.

Even after nearly 15 years without making the playoffs, the Yankees were an intrinsic, deeply historic threat to anyone they faced in the postseason. They had dominated baseball throughout the century, just as Manhattan had dominated American capitalism. Their resurgence in the mid-’90s paralleled the surging growth of Wall Street, the great bull market, and the rise of a safer, even richer New York under the Giuliani administration.

But, the Mariners did win, despite all that symbolism. Looking back on that series now, after so many changes, provokes a strange feeling. With Johnson, Griffey, and Rodriguez gone in acrimonious departures, and players like Mike Blowers only fairly distant memories, it’s hard to really recall that team. But, that series still, at least until this season, represents Seattle’s greatest baseball moment. The vague memories of Griffey and Martinez’s heroics throughout the series are crystallized into the last play of game 5. Edgar lined the ball down the left field line, and as it bounded into the corner, Joey Cora (remember him?) scored the tying run from third, then turned to beckon The Kid home. And Griffey did come home, sliding across the plate as the throw came in a bit too late, and jumping up with a look of absolute glee on his face before being immersed in a sea of Mariners.

Now, the Yankees-Mariners matchup has become as sharp a rivalry as can be imagined between two teams 3000 miles apart. The two teams are thoroughly cross-pollinated (Lou Piniella the former Yankee player and manager, Jay Buhner the Yankee outfielder traded early in his career, Jeff Nelson the once-Yankee and twice-Mariner, and Tino Martinez, who moved to New York after that 1995 season), and New York is, today, even more of a colossus. It recovered from its lost opportunity in 1995 to win 4 of 5 World Series, establishing a new Yankee dynasty even as the Mariners were stopped short twice, including last year’s loss to New York. Even in this year’s mid-August visit to Yankee Stadium, when the Mariners’ dominance over baseball was firmly established, the New York press still assumed they were the upstarts needing to prove themselves, while the Yankees were the team expected to win the Series, again. It seemed absolutely fitting for Mike Cameron, Griffey’s replacement, to win the final and deciding game of that series by slugging two home runs and driving in eight runs.

By Arne Christensen

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