Friday 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.