On October 8, 1995, the Seattle Mariners win the first playoff series in their history, coming from behind in the 11th inning to beat the New York Yankees 6-5. Ken Griffey Jr. (b. 1969) scores the winning run as the Kingdome crowd goes wild. The dramatic victory caps an exhilarating two months for the M’s and their fans, who saw the baseball team rally from a 13-game deficit to a division championship and a trip to the American League Championship Series.
A Slow Start
In mid-summer of 1995, the Seattle Mariners hardly had the look of champions. Despite a talented lineup, they were in third place in their four-team division, the American League West, and seemingly going nowhere. Griffey, their best player, had been out of action since May, when he ran full-speed into the Kingdome’s centerfield wall to make a catch and broke his right wrist. By late July, the Mariners were 10 games behind the division-leading California Angels, and fan interest was dwindling.
Rather than give up the chase, general manager Woody Woodward (b. 1942) asked CEO John Ellis (b. 1928) for approval to spend money on some additional talent. Ellis said yes. Woodward traded for proven San Diego pitcher Andy Benes (b. 1967) on July 31 and, two weeks later, for speedy outfielder Vince Coleman (1961). Coleman, an immediate upgrade to the Mariners lineup, was a veteran of two World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. About the same time, Griffey returned. Seattle still trailed California by 13 games in mid-August, but things were about to change.
On August 24, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Griffey hit a game-winning home run against the Yankees’ best relief pitcher, John Wetteland. That blast was a turning point. The Mariners won six of their next eight games, finishing the month with team records for victories and runs scored. They had cut the Angels’ lead nearly in half.
Filling the Dome
Griffey, right fielder Jay Buhner (b. 1964), designated hitter Edgar Martinez (b. 1963), first baseman Tino Martinez (b. 1967), and third baseman Mike Blowers (b. 1965), were providing the power. Coleman and second baseman Joey Cora (1965) added speed and energy. Catcher Dan Wilson was a solid presence behind the plate. Starting pitchers Randy Johnson (b. 1963) and Benes and relief pitcher Norm Charlton (b. 1963) were overpowering. It was a potent combination.
Even though the Mariners had made it a pennant race, Kingdome attendance was slow to catch up. On September 12, when the Mariners beat Minnesota 14-3 on two homers by Buhner and one by Blowers, the crowd was only 12,102, barely a fourth of capacity. But that too would change. On September 21, the Mariners moved into a tie for first place and then had a day to rest before starting a three-game series with Oakland. More than 150,000 attended those games. The Mariners won all three, giving them a two-game lead over California. After another off day, they stretched their lead to three.
By then baseball had the Northwest’s attention. The Angels staged a late charge in the season’s final week and caught the Mariners on the last day. The tie for first place in the standings meant the two teams would play an extra game the next day, October 2, to determine the division championship. The winner would fly that night to New York to start the playoffs the next day against the Yankees.
More than 52,350 showed up to see the winner-take-all game. Much of the city and region watched on television or listened on radio. What had been a tense pitchers’ duel between Johnson and California ace Mark Langston (b. 1960), a former Mariner, for six innings was decided by one whacky play in the seventh. The Mariners had a 1-0 lead and the bases loaded when Luis Sojo (b. 1965) hit the ball past first base and into right field. Two runs easily scored and a third was heading home when Langston caught the throw from the outfield and threw the ball wildly past his catcher. That allowed Sojo to score too, giving the Mariners a 5-0 lead en route to a 9-1 victory. The noise was deafening. For the first time in their bleak 19-year history, the M’s had made the playoffs and it seemed a whole city was shouting the news.
At Yankee Stadium the next night, the Mariners were playing their third game in a third city in three days. The Yankees won the series opener 9-6 and then a 15-inning, five-hour battle of wills, 7-5. As the series moved to Seattle, the Mariners had to win three straight games to avoid elimination.
In front of 57,944, the biggest crowd in the city’s baseball history, the Mariners had Johnson pitching again. They won Game Three 7-4. The Yankees grabbed an early 5-0 lead in Game Four, but Edgar Martinez hit a three-run home run to start a Mariners’ comeback. Then, with the bases loaded and the score tied at 6-6 in bottom of the eighth inning, Martinez homered again. The Mariners won 11-8, setting the stage for a decisive Game Five.
The Final Drama
With 78 percent of all Western Washington households watching on television and 57,411 at the Kingdome, the Yankees took a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning. But Griffey made it 4-3 with his fifth home run of the series, and a bases-loaded walk by Yankees pitcher David Cone (b. 1963) tied the score at 4-4. That brought baseball’s best reliever, Mariano Rivera (b. 1969), into the game when the stakes were highest. But the Mariners had a reliever to match him. Johnson, the league’s most dominating starting pitcher, had volunteered to pitch in relief despite having had only one day’s rest. The sight of their 6-foot-10 ace coming in from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning electrified the already amped-up crowd. He retired the Yankees’ best three hitters, but Rivera and Jack McDowell (b. 1966), a starter who like Johnson was thrown into an emergency relief role, mowed down the M’s in the ninth and tenth.
The Yankees took a 5-4 lead in the 11th. Seattle’s miracle season was on the line, but it wasn’t over. Cora bunted safely for a single and Griffey singled too, advancing Cora to third. That set up the biggest moment in Mariner history. Edgar Martinez, the American League batting champion, hit a line drive into leftfield, easily scoring Cora and sending Griffey around third, hell-bent for home. He beat the throw to the plate, giving Seattle a 6-5 victory, and was mobbed and toppled by his teammates as the Kingdome quaked in happy pandemonium. Griffey’s smile at the bottom of that pileup said it all: The Mariners were going to play for the league championship.
Writers and players immediately labeled the Mariners-Yankees series a classic. Mariners manager Lou Piniella (b. 1943), who had won World Series as a player and a manager, called it "the best series I've ever seen played and the best game I've ever been part of" (LaRue, Tacoma News Tribune, 1995).
After their epic struggle, where the teams hit a record 22 home runs -- 11 each -- the American League Championship Series was anticlimactic. The Cleveland Indians eliminated the Mariners four games to two. After the final out, even though its team had lost, the crowd of roughly 58,000 lingered to cheer what the Mariners had accomplished. Tears streamed down Piniella’s face while he and his players acknowledged the ovation. As Art Thiel wrote in Out of Left Field, his book chronicling the team’s rise from obscurity, Piniella "was moved by the moment, as well as by the transformation of the city’s sports history -- an electric bonding between team and fans that moved governments, altered taxation and work schedules, interrupted classes and weddings, blistered hands, ravaged throats, and lifted spirits" (Thiel, 138).