By Stephon Johnson / @StephonJohnson8
*In my best 30-for-30 trailer voice*
What if I told you...that one baseball game stopped an entire team from relocating to Florida?
Twenty years ago this past Saturday, the Seattle Mariners were on the brink of moving. According to reporters, gossip, rumors and the like, team owner (and then-president of Nintendo) Hiroshi Yamauchi and team minority owner/CEO John Ellis were approached by a group from Tampa Bay who wanted to buy the team and move it to St. Petersburg, FL. The Mariners wanted the city to build them a new stadium, and with the threat of moving always lurking, it was high time for the team to give the fans a reason to want it to stay.
But the first four-plus months of the season weren't helping the Mariners' case.
The California Angels had an 11-game lead in the American League West on Aug. 2, 1995. The team was then pummeled by injuries and lack of offense, which eventually led to playing a tiebreaker for the division two months later against Seattle.
The Mariners hopes for 1995 seemed over when their star center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. broke his wrist on May 26 and wouldn't return to the lineup until late August. On Aug. 2, Seattle was in third place in at AL West (43-46), sitting 13 games behind the Angels. Despite players like first baseman Tino Martinez, designated hitter Edgar Martinez, right fielder Jay Buhner and third baseman Mike Blowers picking up the slack, it seemed to be another lost season for the Mariners.
When Griffey came back, the team ran off an impressive streak that included going 19-8 in the month of September, and the Mariners found themselves with a three-game lead in the division with about a week to go. But with an ill-timed losing streak and a sudden resurgence by California, both teams took to the Kingdome the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1995, to battle for the right to face the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Pitching for the Mariners: Randy Johnson. Pitching for the Angels: former Mariner Mark Langston.
The first play of the game was a ridiculous catch by Tino Martinez in foul territory on a pop-up by Tony Phillips. It would only get better from there for Seattle.
Johnson struck out nine batters in the first five innings of the game (he'd finish with 12 Ks overall), holding fort while the Mariners struggled to score a run. But that changed in the bottom of the fifth when left fielder Vince Coleman singled in catcher Dan Wilson to give them a 1-0 lead.
The Kingdome stayed loud throughout the day, and it would only get louder.
With the score still 1-0 in the bottom of the 7th, Seattle loaded the bases with one out. Coleman, again, came to the plate looking to drive runs in. He hit a liner that Angels right fielder Tim Salmon had to make a sliding catch on. Blowers, who was the lead runner at third, tagged up but decided not to take the chance. Coleman looked like he was cursing out Blowers from across the diamond when he realized Blowers didn't score. The Mariners were one out away from blowing a big chance to extend the lead.
Then shortstop Luis Sojo came up to the plate:
Jon Miller's call has become the stuff of legend for Mariners fans: "Now a broken bat ... it's FAIR! … And they all have scored! … and here comes Sojo!"
As a 13-year-old kid watching this game (I rushed home after school to catch the game), it got me pumped, though as a New York Mets fan I didn't have a dog in the race. Baseball is measured coldly by the numbers, but the feeling around the country — and most definitely in the Kingdome — was that the game was over on that play and the last few innings would be a formality.
That turned out to be the case.
The Mariners tacked on four more runs (the Angels eventually scored a mercy run on a Tony Phillips homer in the top of the ninth) and finished in style with a called strike three on Salmon to clinch the AL West. One fan inside the Kingdome recorded the celebration on his camcorder and uploaded it to YouTube two years ago.
This game led to an era of relative success in Seattle. The team went all the way to the American League Championship Series in 1995 and lost to the Cleveland Indians in six games. Seattle went to the postseason in 1997, 2000 and the record-setting 2001 season in which the team won 116 regular-season games (but lost to the New York Yankees in the ALCS for the second straight season). It was an era that saw the introduction of Alex Rodriguez to the baseball world (you can choose for yourself whether that was a good thing or not. I, for one, am willing to #FORG1V3).
The franchise also got the stadium it wanted in Safeco Field in 2000. While the average sports fan now knows the raw deal local governments and residents get with sports stadiums, back then, it was seen as a feel-good story.
And if it wasn't for one tiebreaker game on Oct. 2, 1995, Safeco Field (and the Tampa Bay Rays) might not exist.
Writer. Reporter. New Yorker.