Baseball postsFriday June 05, 2009
I arrived in Seattle in May 1991 after spending most of the 1980s pursuing a degree and a girl—I got the degree and lost the girl—and after having spent a significant amount of time abroad in baseball-less Taiwan. Hell, even in Minneapolis, where I lived most of the 1980s, baseball didn't feel the same as when I was growing up. My childhood stadium, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. (now the Mall of America), saw its last professional baseball game played on September 30, 1981 (I was there), and it was replaced, the spring of my freshman year of college, with a domed stadium downtown. Grass became turf, the sky became roof, the distinctive “TC” on the caps of the players became a fat, generic “M” (because, literalists proclaimed, it was the Minnesota Twins, not the Twin Cities’ Twins), and I drifted elsewhere. Yes, this kid Hrbek was better than most in a long line of “next Harmon Killebrews,” and, yes, this kid Puckett coming up in ’84 was fun to watch, but overall I stopped going. I lost track. Hell, when the Twins finally won it all in 1987 I was on the other side of the world. I still considered myself a fan but I was, at best, fair-weather.
In Seattle in ’91 and ’92 I went to a few games in the Kingdome—which was, impossibly, even uglier than the Metrodome—and things improved in ’92 when I got glasses and could finally follow the ball again, but I didn’t become a true fan until ’93, when two friends from University Book Store, Tim and Mike, and I, would often, spur of the moment, take in a game. “Who’s pitching? Randy? Let’s go.”
Here’s an entry in my diary, from when I wrote a diary, from April 21, 1993:
I got rained on three times today: biking to work in the morning; as Parker and I were waiting for the bus to take us to the Mariners game; and finally returning from the Mariners game. The game, by the way, went well: Mariners: 5 Red Sox: 0. Randy Johnson with a 4-hit complete game shutout; Ken Griffey Jr. with two homeruns. This is his second two-homerun game in the last three days.
The next night Chris Bosio pitched a no-hitter and I wasn’t there, and I always lamented the fact that I went to the first two games in that series with Boston and it was the third game that was a no-hitter. But this second game wasn’t bad, either. It was career victory no. 51 for Randy (no. 51). That’s 249 victories ago. And counting.
God, he was fun to watch. He’s fun to watch now, but then? In his prime? For your team? Unbelievable. That year I saw him strike out 15 Kansas City Royals—twice. I watched him give John Kruk a heart attack at the All-Star game. Jerry Crasnick has a list of the top 9 Randy Johnson moments and I was only at the park for one of them—no. 9, the McGwire homerun—but, possibly because it’s too similar to his no. 4, Crasnick left out the most indelible moment for most Mariners’ fans, and I was there for that.
In 1998, along with Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Jamie Moyer, the M’s had three superstars on the team—RJ, Junior and A-Rod—and thus three huge contracts to fill in the near future, and in attempting to juggle this dilemma they wound up losing all three. RJ went first, mid-season 1998, and I covered his return to Seattle, and to new Safeco Field, on July 20, 1999 for The Grand Salami, an alternative program sold at the stadium. His return, by the way, wasn't the most indelible RJ moment for most Mariners' fans. That came three years earlier. Here's the piece. I called it "Unitless in Seattle":
M’s fans have grown bitter these past few seasons, witnessing, at they have, so many late-inning losses, so many bewildering trades, so much opportunity and talent gone for naught. Worse, RJ’s departure was acrimonious. He pitched poorly with the M’s in the first half of ’98, and then cut a swath through the National League in the second half, so some feel he tanked it here.
“I listen to sport radio quite a bit,” Artie Kelly, 41, of Seattle, said outside Safeco, “and (fan reaction) is pretty mixed.”
Kelly, known as “Ironworker Artie,” bears a slight resemblance to the Unit—tall, lanky, and long-haired. He wore a t-shirt with Johnson’s name and number on the back, and stuck posters on the outside of Safeco, which he helped build. “Gone But Not Forgotten,” read one. “The House That Randy Built,” read another. “I’m out here to enlighten fans who are being brainwashed by M’s management,” he said. “You don’t lead the league in strikeouts by tanking it.”
Indeed, Johnson’s 329 strikeouts last year, a number lost in the hubbub over the McGwire-Sosa homerun parade, were the seventh-most in modern major league history.
“The question back then was whether Randy deserved Maddux money,” Kelly continued. “Well, now the question is whether Maddux deserves Johnson money."
Inside Safeco it became apparent that the anti-Randy talk on sports radio was mostly a vocal minority.
“I like Randy, he didn’t do nothing wrong,” said Ed Claxton, 34, of Bothell.
“Cheer?” asked Brian Conrad, 31, of Kenmore, who basked in the sun along the first base line. “Hell yeah. He’s responsible for us having this stadium.”
When asked about favorite RJ moments, the response was surprisingly widespread. Some mentioned the no-hitter against Detroit in 1990, and the one-game playoff against California that gave Seattle its first division title in 1995. What came to Darren Arends’ mind was the 1993 All-Star game when Randy sailed a pitch over the head of the Phillies’ John Kruk. Kruk stepped out, an amazed, dazed smile on his face, fluttered a hand near his heart, then promptly struck out on three pitches—his last swing hardly catching homeplate he was so far back in the bucket.
But by far the favorite Randy moment—in this admittedly unscientific survey—was Randy striding in from the bullpen to the strains of “Welcome to the Jungle,” in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees.
“The best sports moment of my life,” said Brian Conrad.
“That was a pretty imposing sight,” remembered Sean Linville, 28, of Bellingham.
And I was there. Six years later—during which the national sports press, forgetting '95, kept implying that Randy "choked" in the postseason—I watched on TV as Randy, now with the Diamondbacks, did the same against the Yankees in the 7th game of the 2001 World Series. He was the true Yankees killer—though both games required comebacks from his teammates.
Getting that comeback, getting that team support, was kind of a rarity for Randy—at least in his Seattle days. That’s what I kept thinking during this long, drawn-out pursuit for 300. If it wasn’t for that lousy, mid-1990s M’s bullpen, how much sooner would he have gotten there? I recall tons of blown ballgames—the worst, the most laughable, coming in April 1998, when RJ dominated the Red Sox (again) through 8 innings at Fenway, and left with a five-run lead. The M’s bullpen—horrible in ’97, disastrous in ‘98—promptly gave it all back, and more, as Mo Vaughn ended the game with a walk-off grand slam. The four or five pitchers Lou trotted out that inning didn’t even record an out.
So make no mistake. Randy deserves that 300. He’s the best, most dominating pitcher I’ve ever seen. And—with Junior, Edgar, Omar and Jay, as well as Mike and Tim—he helped bring me back to baseball.
A gentle reminder to Yankees fans everywhere that, as of this moment, their team is the losingest team in the history of New Yankee Stadium. Yesterday afternoon, in their $1.6 billion stadium debut, they got drubbed by the Cleveland Indians, 10-2. Some firsts at the new park:
- First pitch: by C.C. Sabathia, a ball, at 1:09 PM eastern time
- First batter: Grady Sizemore, groundout to first
- First strikeout: Victor Martinez, by Sabathia, in the top of the 1st
- First Yankees batter: Derek Jeter, fly out to center
- First basehit: Johnny Damon, single, bottom of the 1st
- First extra-base hit: Ben Francisco,Cle., double in the top of the 2nd
- First run: Ben Francisco,Cle., who scored from first on a two-out double by Kelly Shoppach in the top of the 4th
- First homerun: Jorge Posada, NY, nobody on, bottom of the 5th
- First grand slam: Grady Sizemore in the top of the 7th
Not exactly names that might ring through the ages, right? Francisco is 27 and his double was the 38th of his career. Shoppach is 28 and the RBI was the 103rd of his career.
The inning was so bad that by the end of it, some fans shouted, “We want Swisher!” — as in Nick Swisher, the outfielder who tossed a scoreless inning in a blowout at Tampa Bay on Monday.
May the streak continue.
Welcome to my favorite day of the year. Here are your active career leaders, with all-time rankings in parentheses:
- Games: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 2680 (30th)
- At-Bats: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 9745 (30th)
- Runs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 1612 (39th)
- Hits: Ken Griffey, Jr. Sea.: 2680 (58th)
- Doubles: Ivan Rodriguez, Hou.: 524 (34th)
- Triples: Johnny Damon, NYY: 92 (193th) — second place, only two behind, is Jimmy Rollins, Phi., who was 29 years old last season.
- Home Runs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 611 (5th)
- RBIs: Ken Griffey, Jr., Sea.: 1772 (18th)
- Walks: Jim Thome, CWS: 1550 (15th)
- Strikeouts: Jim Thome, CWS: 2190 (3rd)
- Stolen Bases: Juan Pierre, LA: 429 (56th)
- Caught Stealing: Omar Vizquel, Tex.: 156 (19th)
- Batting Average: Albert Pujols, Stl: .334 (20th)
- On-Base Percentage: Todd Helton, Col.: .428 (10th)
- Slugging Percentage: Albert Pujols, Stl: .623 (4th)
- Games: Trevor Hoffman, Mil: 930 (18th)
- Games Started: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 682 (11th)
- Complete Games: Randy Johnson, SF: 100 (395th)
- Shutouts: Randy Johnson, SF: 37 (58th)
- Innings Pitched: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 4413 (29th)
- Hits: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 4298 (24th)
- Walks: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 1500 (12th)
- Strikeouts: Randy Johnson, SF: 4789 (2nd)
- Wins: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 305 (21st)
- Losses: Tom Glavine, Atl.: 203 (43rd)
- Saves: Trevor Hoffman, Mil.: 554 (1st) — Mariano Rivera is second, 72 behind.
- ERA (5 yrs. minimum): Mariano Rivera, NYY: .228 (17th)
Some quick observations:
1) A lot of 1990s Mariners on the list. Would that they’d stayed together to win something. Or one thing.
2) A quarter of the traditional pitching categories are negative (hits, walks, losses), while only 2/15 of the traditional batting categories are (strikeouts, caught stealing). Seems like a raw deal for pitchers. But I guess the options for positive results from a batter (single, double, triple, homer) are so much more varied than for a pitcher (out, strikeout). Still, seems odd to tabulate the number of hits a pitcher gives up and a batter gets, but not the number of outs for both. I’ve been a fan of the game most of my life and I never realized this?
3) Jim Thome leads all active players in both strikeouts and walks, and has 541 career homeruns. Meaning in only about half (52%) of his 9029 plate appearances did the ball land in an area where a fielder had a shot at it. Wonder where he ranks in this non-category?
4) Whenever anyone talks about unbreakable career records in baseball and doesn’t mention triples (for batters) and complete games (for pitchers)? They don’t know what they’re talking about.
5) Play ball!
Two Hoots for Junior
So while I was gabbing about the Oscars this week, the Seattle Mariners, a team that has no shot at any kind of post-season, and barely a shot at a season, went and signed favorite son Ken Griffey, Jr. Good. There are sound arguments against the signing, that it's a move made with the heart and not the head, but baseball's always been a game of the heart. You lose that, you lose something fundamental about the game. Sure, I probably wouldn't say this if the M's had a chance in hell this year but they don't. They're not even in a quote-unquote “rebuiliding year” since they don't have much to rebuild with. This is the year, if anything, to test whether Jeff Clement can be a major league catcher, and if he can't whether he can be a major league first baseman, and if he can't whether he can be a major league left fielder, and the Griffey signing, if everyone understands their role, doesn't get in the way of this. My favorite argument in favor of the signing comes from ESPN's Jim Caple, who writes:
I don't understand the criticism that signing Griffey is primarily a move to boost attendance. Yeah, gee, we sure wouldn't want to give loyal fans who have sat through so many miserable seasons something actually worth watching in exchange for their $40 tickets and $8 beers.
Right on. Here's another trip down memory lane. The following was published on the Op-Ed page of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in May 1995 after Ken Griffey, Jr. fractured his wrist catching a fly ball at the Kingdome. We never got to that magical 700 number I hoped for, but 600+ ain't bad.
Two Hoots for Junior
Feel free to tell me to get a life.
I returned to baseball four years ago with what I thought was an adult attitude about the game. No matter if my team won or lost I kept things in perspective. Randy Johnson strikes out fifteen guys, I'm still working the same job. Edgar Martinez injures his ankle, I've still got the same problems, the same goals, the same friends, the same enemies. Nothing about my life has changed except this or that vicarious victory or defeat.
It's an attitude I later found summed up in the film, “A Bronx Tale.” A boy is depressed because Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A local mob boss — who has befriended the kid — tells him, Hey, you think Mickey Mantle gives two hoots about you? He doesn't care about you. He doesn't even know you exist!
That's the way I felt. I wanted the Mariners to win, but I knew Lou Pinella didn't give two hoots about me. I knew he didn't know I existed. I was properly, emotionally distant
Until this Griffey thing happened.
I was at the game. My friend Mike and I were sitting in the box seats in right field, past the visitors' bullpen. We had a perfect view. I saw him go for the ball. I saw him crash into the wall. And, contrary to Steve Kelley's subsequent reporting, the stadium did not hush; there was no “sickened silence” from the Kingdome crowd. The people around me were cheering like maniacs. I know because a sickened silence came upon me. I thought, “Nobody — not even Junior — slams into a wall with such speed, at such an awkward angle, without doing damage to himself.”
Still, the people around me were going nuts. Of course these were the same kind of people who make the “whup! whooo!” noise when the opposition relievers warm up — the kind of people, in other words, who don't even pay attention to the game — so I didn't pay any attention to them.
Then right fielder Alex Diaz started making a circular motion with his hand as if some big deal was going on. At first I thought he was encouraging the fans in their cheering, and, reluctantly, I went along. Then I realized, no, he was calling for the trainer.
Earlier in the game, Griffey hit a homer off the right field foul pole above our heads. It was his 998th career hit. Since I already had tickets for the next night's game — and since Junior was in a groove — I felt assured of seeing him hit no. 1,000.
In the eighth inning we got the news. Fractured wrist. Out for three months. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. A pall was cast over the game. I didn't even want to go to the Kingdome the next evening. It would be like returning to the scene of a crime.
I tried to keep my emotional distance. I repeated my mantra. My life is the same. Same job, same troubles, same goals. Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't give two hoots about me. He doesn't know I exist. He is a multi-millionaire seven years my junior. We have nothing in common.
Still I cared.
And I think I cared for three reasons.
The first is the way he injured himself. If he had fractured his wrist, say, playing basketball, or slipping in the shower, I would've rolled my eyes. But no. He injured it trying to fly. He injured it for the team. He injured it right in front of me.
The second reason is the effect it will have not so much on the Mariners but on the perception of the Mariners. I know we still have a good line-up. I know we'll still win. But Junior gave us something else. He actually made the Mariners scary. He was the constant roadblock in our lineup. You have to get by this guy in order to beat us.
More, he made us glamorous. Last year, when Mike was at Wrigley Field, two kids in Cubs hats found out he was from Seattle. “You mean you get to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play?” they asked enviously. Mike said it was the first time anyone actually envied him for going to the Kingdome.
Finally, the third reason. A couple of seasons ago I began keeping my ticket stubs and writing on the back not just the final score but any significant events that occurred. Randy Johnson strikes out fifteen Royals. Jay Buhner hits for the cycle. Things like that. The impetus for this — I can now admit — was to keep track of how many Ken Griffey Jr. homeruns I had seen (14, so far). And the reason this statistic was important was, well, these were historic homeruns. Because he was going to hit a lot of them. 500. 600. 700? The sky seemed the limit.
Now the sky has fallen. Tiles one year and the sky the next.
Now there's a metal plate and six screws holding together his valuable left wrist.
Now I find myself caring a little too much about a guy who hit homeruns too much and caught fly balls too well.
And now if you'll excuse me I'll go get a life.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard