A great baseball season, the kind of joyride that turns a so-so team into a champion and makes a football city into a baseball city, has to have players that come out of nowhere.
Players like Doug Strange.
Some Mariner fans, in looking back on the magical 1995 season that transformed a moribund franchise into a city’s heartbeat, will think of Ken Griffey, Jr. Others will cite Edgar. Still others, Randy Johnson. Seattle women couldn’t stop professing their love for Joey Cora during the mad dash to the team’s first-ever division title and playoff appearance. While all those players led the charge for the M’s, the season that saved baseball in Seattle–and taught a city how to appreciate the unique drama of a pennant race–could not have unfolded without the help of bench players who stepped out of the shadows to take everyone by surprise. Few figures fit this description better than the man who became Seattle’s other version of “The Stranger.”
On the night of Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1995, a small crowd of just 20,410 die-hards found their way to the Kingdome for the Mariners’ game against the Texas Rangers. This, despite the fact that the M’s had fought to within two games of the A.L. West-leading California Angels. While it was true that the Mariner franchise had known nothing but losing, the fact still remained that Lou Piniella’s boys were in a full-fledged race to the finish. With just under two weeks of ball left to be played, a two-game deficit was minimal. Had the Angels led the hometown team by 5 or 6, the small crowd would have been understandable. But two? Not at all. Even on September 19, Seattle didn’t believe.
Doug Strange was the one who began to create believers. It was this unknown player who generated the sense that one of the most hapless and helpless baseball organizations of all time could write a new and very different chapter in the history books.
But before talking about the deeds of this baseball journeyman, it’s worth saying, for the record, that through eight and a half innings on that Tuesday night in the big dome, the M’s lived up to–or rather, down to–the reputation that preceded them. Listless at the plate in key situations, the Mariners trailed Texas, 4-2, going into the bottom of the ninth. With Ranger closer Jeff Russell–an All-Star in his best days–taking the bump for the visitors, it seemed that the good guys wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the Angels’ loss in Oakland. California was trying to give away the West to the M’s, but Lou’s Crew didn’t seem ready to take the gift.
As the bottom of the ninth began, some of the bleacher creatures in right field, in the lower bowl behind the elevated light-blue scoreboard wall, were already filing out of the ballpark and heading for home. Even many of the believers didn’t really have that much faith. It was hard so see that kind of a sight, but one must acknowledge that if you’ve never endured a pennant race involving the team you care about, the mysterious ways of baseball seem elusive. Sticking around until the last man is out, and until the magic number is zero, doesn’t seem logical to the fans who have never tasted baseball’s late-season twists and turns. When you’ve only known losing, it’s hard to see the rewards that can emerge with just a little more perseverance… and the heroics of someone you’ve never really paid attention to.
Yes, it was understandable that part of the paid crowd wouldn’t want to see Jeff Russell slam the door on the M’s and halt the team’s forward momentum. The years 1977 through 1994 had given Seattle baseball fans nothing but misery, so why should the script have been expected to be any different in this final half-inning of a familiar and disappointing ballgame? After all, here were the three men due up for the M’s: Alex Diaz, Warren Newsom, and Strange. Not exactly Griffey, Edgar and Jay Buhner. The Seattleites who stayed home committed a head-scratching act.
The ones who left in the bottom of the ninth? They lacked faith, but they had a certain amount of intelligence behind their decision.
After Diaz walked and Newsom struck out, it didn’t seem that anything big was going to happen.
The same player who had only one home run all season; who used to play for the very same Texas Rangers; and whose physical frame screams “slap hitter”, giving you reason to roar with approval if he merely punched a bloop single into the opposite field, stepped to the dish and drilled a Russell fastball into the very same right field bleachers that had begun to empty out a few minutes earlier. With one strike of lightning from a light-hitting utility player, the Mariners had tied the game at 4-all. Norm Charlton would hold the fort in extra innings, and when Griffey hit an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th, Seattle had begun–truly begun–its mad love affair with a baseball team.
The 5-4 victory kept the train rolling for an M’s team that would lose only once over the next ten days. Precisely because of that Tuesday-night mini-miracle against Texas, the Kingdome crowds swelled for the remainder of the season. The final three home games–in a weekend set against Oakland–drew more than 150,000 fans combined. The one-game playoff against the Angels–made famous by Luis Sojo’s game-breaking three-run triple, followed by the sight of former Mariner Mark Langston falling to the ground in a theatrical but real sign of ultimate defeat–drew 52,693, despite the fact that Seattle citizens knew of the event less than 24 hours before it actually started.
Yes, the Mariners played great baseball (they had to) since the middle of August to ultimately catch, pass, and then finally overcome the Angels in that glorious 1995 season. But if serious Mariner fans want to discuss the moment the city began to fall in love with its baseball team, it’s fair to say that Doug Strange’s home run off Jeff Russell, on Sept. 19, 1995, was the first kiss of heaven in a love affair that burned with passion through the 116-win season of 2001.
As a side note, Mr. Strange would be heard from again in 1995. In Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees, his ice-veins eighth-inning walk with the bases loaded tied the game and knocked out a gritty David Cone. A season from the gods was built on the backs of the Randy Johnsons and the Griffeys of the baseball world, but as is the case with any great playoff run in America’s national pastime, guys like Doug Strange have to contribute when called upon. A man whose career didn’t become terribly special found its One Shining Moment during the 1995 season. Fans of the Seattle Mariners need to be forever grateful that Doug Strange saved his very best for the year that gave Major League Baseball new life in the Pacific Northwest.
By Matt Zemek, National Staff Columnist, College Football News
Seattle Resident, 1994-2008
Seattle University, Class of 1998
Attendee of the Sept. 19, 1995 game, plus several other games in that stretch run, including the one-game playoff