The ’95 Mariners and the Tacoma Rainiers: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez

This is part II of an interview with Kevin Kalal, a long-time member of the Tacoma Rainiers’ front office, about the ’95 Mariners and that year’s Tacoma Rainiers. Parts I and III of the interview can be seen here and here.

Arne: What impact did the Mariners’ run have on the Rainiers?

Kevin: The comeback really started in September. By that time the Rainiers’ season was pretty much done, so we didn’t feed off the Mariners success.

I was at Ripken’s game against the Angels, where he broke the record for consecutive games played. The O’s beat them three straight games, and you looked up and the M’s were 8, 7.5 games back, so that was kind of interesting. And then they were right back in it. The Mariners organization was so unprepared for the playoffs, in terms of tickets, figuring out how to handle the logistics of the process. For the 1-game playoff they called our staff and we went up to their offices and were bundling tickets together. There were some great disasters along the way, but we got our tickets done, then went to the game. I remember Sojo’s line drive, seeing the ball skip past J.T. Snow. Then being down in the clubhouse. We got prepared for the Yankees series.

Anyway, the impact on us was 100% positive. It created a lot of interest in baseball, a front page story, the first story of the day on tv. It generated buzz for us. We sell baseball, not really stars or victory, the race for the pennant. It’s a brand-affordable family entertainment-and the Mariners created excitement, a new reason for people to check out our game. The comeback got baseball to take off, there was so much more energy. Some people said, “Doesn’t it take away attention for the Rainiers?” but no, it just expanded awareness of us. And we were selling tickets at different price points, so people who didn’t want to spend the money for the Kingdome could go to Cheney. It hurt us more when the Sonics were playing the Bulls, say, in the playoffs in spring. Then everybody’d stay home and watch the game.

Arne: And I saw Griffey came down to Tacoma for a rehab game in August, right before the comeback started.

Kevin: There was a big power struggle between Griffey and the M’s management. Woody Woodward. Griffey wanted to go to AA, the Port City team. His brother Craig was playing there, but the Mariners said no, you’re going to be in Seattle with our trainers to rehab and play in Tacoma. We’re not going to have you play until you’re ready.

He came down to Tacoma for a few days, but just took batting practice, fielding, throwing and therapy on his wrist. The media saw him leave. The next day he came down, did his treatment, left, snubbed the reporters. They weren’t happy about it. On Sunday morning he did therapy on his wrist. Griffey talked to our manager, Steve Smith, about playing. He said, “If I play today can I just be the designated hitter,” Steve said he should talk to Woody and make sure. Junior said, “Don’t worry about Woody, just put me in at DH.”  Steve wasn’t sure, he thought he should call up the Mariners. Junior just said, “They can talk to me about it.” He had his bodyguard go up to the Kingdome and get his stuff.

It was 11:00 Sunday morning, and we’re saying hmm., we need to get some people aware of this. The Mariners were in Kansas City, it was a day game. So we called the press box and talked to Kevin Cremin, the producer. They said, “Griffey’s in the lineup” on radio, TV, and the phones just go off the hook. He was the biggest thing around, and all the media were calling, trying to cover the game. There wasn’t any bigger, more surreal moment. The game wasn’t quite a sell-out. Griffey had three pretty bad at bats, he struck out, popped up to the pitcher, grounded out.

Now, 50,000 people say they saw the first Tacoma game, and 50,000 people say they saw Griffey play for the Rainiers. He could come back this year, pull a hamstring or something, play for the Rainiers. Later on it was a highlight for Tacoma baseball: we could say we were the team for players like Griffey, Martinez, Buhner. It wasn’t just the same old AAA baseball. We probably could’ve benefitted more from the Mariners.

The people in Everett say the same thing about the ’95 season. They were cultivating brand new fans too. That offseason, at Thanksgiving, my grandma, my mom, they were asking me about the Mariners for the first time. Young kids were talking about the Mariners. It was fun to be a Mariners fans, and there hadn’t been much of a product to create interest before.

Arne: Alex Rodriguez must have been the best offensive player on the team. You probably could see that he was going to be a star even then.

Kevin: He was a real phenom. The first time you saw A-Rod he was 17, playing for Calgary, and I said, “That’s something special.” You could see he was in the league of a lot of big-time guys. There’s a high school next to the stadium and we’d joke in the pressbox that he should be in high school and playing against Shelton not Edmonton. Neither team could get him out.

He was such a special player. It’s so hard to understand all this stuff about the performance enhancing drugs, knowing how hard he worked. He was a great player, but he really, really, really worked hard at it. He was very likeable, not phony, not saying look at me. Level-headed. I think Scott Boras was a great guiding influence.

The pattern was for a player to use the drugs to get him over the top, or if he injured to help him recover, or as a short cut. I’m inclined to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt. At the time, steroids policy was very loose, relaxed: basically it was “Don’t get caught in an airport with the stuff.” There wasn’t any penalty for steroids, and even when they did the tests, there wasn’t any punishment, I guess the tests were observational, to collect data.

There were a couple times Rodriguez would go on an 8-game road series against someone and get 6 homers, 13, 14 RBI in the series. He went to and from Seattle four times in ’95, and he didn’t sulk after he came back down, he didn’t say, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing.” You just knew there was something special there.

All the booing against him when he went to Texas, it wasn’t really fair. He’s the only one who got that treatment, when Griffey and Johnson, their exits were pretty bitter too, but they haven’t felt the unwelcomeness that Alex is saddled with. He wasn’t making big money and then gets the $252 million from Texas. You’re supposed to blame him for that?

A-Rod had a German Shepherd here and he was living in an apartment complex. Over the year the puppy had a field day in the apartment which didn’t sit very well with the landlord at the end of the year. The complex manager was quite upset and we had to come over and explain and tell him what happened. And the guy who ran the complex said, “Who is this Alex Rodriguez?”

I have fond memories of Alex as a player and person. There are a lot of players with 1/10th his talent who think they have 10 times the talent.

(go on to part three)


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