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      F I E L D  T R I P S

AUGUST 23 , 2001

August 18 , 2001: Seattle Mariners
at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
Come Back for More

Forget the Boston Red Sox. Forget the Cleveland Indians. Forget the Oakland A's. The preeminent rivalry in the recent history of the New York Yankees — the time I've lived in New York City — is with the Seattle Mariners. From the epic five-game Division Series in 1995 to last year's American League Championship Series, to this year, when the Mariners are tearing through the rest of the league in a buzzsaw fashion reminiscent of the 1998 Yankees, this is a pairing charged with electricity. On a personal level, the Yanks-M's rivalry carries more than a little baggage as well. A little history...

Before 1995, the Seattle Mariners had never distinguished themselves beyond a reputation for mediocrity and the presence of a few star players, among them Ken Griffey Jr., a prodigious home run hitter who reached the major leagues at the age of 19 and had become one of the game's most marketable personalities. On August 24, the Mariners found themselves one game below .500 and 11 1/2 behind the California Angels in the American League West. But the M's caught fire, winning 25 of 36 and forcing the Angels into a one-game playoff, which Randy Johnson won and a second-baseman named Luis Sojo hit a game-breaking bases-loaded double. The M's then faced the Yankees in the Division Series, lost the first two games in New York, only to come back and win the next three in Seattle in stirring fashion. Game Five went into extra innings, with Johnson called out of the Mariners bullpen on one day's rest. The Yanks scored one off of him in the 11th inning, but the M's came back with two of their own to win their first postseason series ever. More importantly, the Mariners' success down the stretch and in the playoffs saved baseball in Seattle.

It was from that angle that I entered into this rivalry. I had moved here to New York City that season, still full of a genetic predisposition against the Yankees. The Yanks at the time were emerging from a dark spell which saw them as the poster boys for signing overpriced free agents, trading away hordes of prospects who could have helped the team, and in general characterizing the seediness of George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner was only recently back in baseball after a "lifetime" suspension by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent for his dealings with gambler Howard Spira. I rooted for the Mariners that series, and it remains one of the highlights of my life as a baseball fan. A sizable portion of my family resides in the Pacific Northwest, and I pulled hard for them to finally have something to cheer about.

In 1996, my brother Bryan moved to New York City. Himself a Mariners fan, we initiated ourselves to Yankee Stadium in a game with the Mariners, a 13-12 slugfest which lasted almost five hours and lived up to the tense quality of the previous season's playoff round. But my allegiances began to shift that summer. I found myself drawn toward this new set of Yankees. Gone was the blathering manager, Buck Showalter. Gone was the sacred cow of the Yanks' New Dark Age, Don Mattingly, and the continuous erosion of his skills in the face of which no criticism could be made to Yankees fans.

In their place was a new model, led by Joe Torre, which resisted the hair-trigger responses to George Steinbrenner's egotistical outbursts at the quality of the team's play, and jettisoned head cases like Ruben Sierra and Steve Howe fom their ranks. The medical travails of David Cone, who'd joined the Yanks for the stretch run the previous season as a hired gun and delivered the fateful game-tying pitch in that series, captivated me. Cone endured midseason surgery for an aneurysm in his pitching arm, then returned to throw seven innings of no-hit ball in his first outing. The stellar play of a new Yankee poster boy, rookie shortstop Derek Jeter, the emergence of a quiet, dignified superstar centerfielder named Bernie Williams, and the amazing depth of a bullpen which Torre skillfully manipulated to his advantage gave the team new angles and subtle nuances which I could appreciate. They made it to the World Series that year, against the Atlanta Braves, a team which I had enough beef with to open my own fast-food outlet. I actively rooted for the Yankees, and they won in thrilling fashion. I was not quite a convert, but the door had been opened.

Since then, Bryan and I have continued our tradition of attending one Yanks-M's game a year together, and the two teams obliged us with some wild and woolly slugfests, which I've summarized in the sidebar.

Back to this season. The Mariners, managed by former Yankee Lou Piniella, are chasing greatness just as the '98 Yankees were. The rest of the league is but prelude to bigger things for them since their torrid start, which at last count encompassed their 87-34 record coming into this series. On the other side of the ledger sits the three-time World Champions, still with several key components of '98 team and even some which go back to that 1995 battle. First baseman Tino Martinez was traded from Seattle to the Yankees after that season, and he has been a pillar (albeit an occasionially eroding one) of the franchise since then. Reliever Jeff Nelson, acquired in the same deal (for pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, himself recently returned to the Yankees fold), helped to anchor the Yankee bullpen for those four titles before returning to Seattle as a free agent this past winter. In his absence, the Mariners trio of superstars—Johnson, Griffey, and Alex Rodriguez—has departed due to the financial pressures of the market for baseball talent. But the team has built itself by replacing those superstars in key trades and by importing two Japanese League superstars, closer Kazuhiro Sasaki and rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the latter of whom is currently the hippest trend to hit the Northwest since either sliced bread or premium coffee.

The M's rolled into Yankee Stadium having won six straight games in the Bronx, having been shut out only once this season, and having not lost more than two consecutive games all year. Mike Mussina halted the first two of those trends with a gutty 4-0 victory on Friday night. The message was clear: IT'S ON.

On this lovely 84 degree afternoon, the stadium was filled to capacity, partially thanks to the celebration of Dave Winfield Day, to honor Winfield's recent induction into the Hall of Fame and his burial of the hatchet with George Steinbrenner. Absentmindedly, I forgot the Winfield celebration — a great player, but he was never a favorite of mine, and I don't retroactively embrace every Yankee I spent so long rooting against.

The M's took no time erasing the memory of Friday night. Ted Lilly struck out Ichiro to begin the game, but the M's pummelled the rookie starter for three runs in the first inning, thanks to doubles by Edgar Martinez and Mike Cameron. But Derek Jeter provided some power of his own in his new-found role as Yankee leadoff hitter. For the fourth time in the past six games, the second in a row, and the second consecutive time in my trips to the Stadium, Jeter led off with a home run. This one came off of rookie starter Joel Pineiro, who entered the game with right-handed batters managing only 1 hit in 52 at bats against him during his short career. So much for sample size.

But the M's came back to torment Lilly in the second. Keyed by an error by Yanks third baseman Clay Bellinger (subbing for an injured Scott Brosius) on an Ichiro bunt in which he would have been safe anyway, the M's chased Lilly after he retired only one more batter. By the time the bleeding stopped, Lilly had received a shower of boos en route to the more traditional postgame one, and the Mariners led 7-1.

Here I must find fault with Joe Torre's managing of his bullpen. Lilly, coming off of a week-long suspension for hitting the Angels' Scott Speizio in a beanball war, had been shaky in his previous outing and worse in the first inning. The sensible thing would have been to ready someone in the bullpen in case Lilly faltered and the game got out of control. But not until it was 6-0 with runners on first and third did Jay Witasick even begin to stretch in the Yankee bullpen. The score was still the same by the time Lilly's elaborate stalling routine had enabled Witasick to warm up, but the new pitcher allowed another run to score on a fielder's choice by Brett Boone, the leading RBI man in the majors.

At this point, two fans in the row in front of us with whom I'd been casually chatting decided they had better places to pound lite beer, and took their leave of the Stadium. "Dude, we're outta here," one said into his cel phone. I had a similar impulse, based on my previous experience with the Yanks being blown out early, but I resisted. Two weeks earlier the vaunted Mariners bullpen had blown a 12-run lead to the Cleveland Indians on national television—if a twelve-run comeback was possible, then six certainly wasn't out of the question. "Like Yogi says," I muttered under my breath as the cel phonies made their exit, "it ain't over 'till it's over."

Sure enough, the Yanks started to justify my decision to stay in the bottom half of the third inning. With Paul O'Neill fighting out of an 0-2 count to draw a walk, they loaded the bases and brought the shellshocked crowd back into the game. Bernie Williams's sacrifice fly netted a run and reminded the remaining 55,000-plus that one swing of the bat could bring this game within striking distance.

Shortly after the cel phonies departed, a frazzled-looking family of four showed up. The bewildered father, carrying his four-year old daughter, looked as if he'd suffered untold humiliations in traffic or in his search for parking — only to arrive with the game seemingly well in hand. He complained aloud about his inability to find their seats, yet another defeat in what was turning into a fiasco, then directed his family to take the empty seats in front of us. They hunkered down with the rest of us, hoping for something to cheer about. The children began to wander up and down the row, endearing themselves to our section. The daughter made friends with an eight-year-old bearing one of those Squeeze Breeze spray bottles with a tiny fan. The son, a six-year-old in a Tino Martinez tee with the sleeves cut off, tried out every vacant seat in the row, including several on the other side of a lone fan from Delaware who'd shown up between innings with a beer in each hand and a carefully wrapped hot dog in his pocket (I am NOT making this up).

The boy soon became our section's personal rally mascot. Derek Jeter drew a one-out walk, and Williams, Martinez, and Jorge Posada rattled back-to-back-to-back doubles around the Yankee outfield—Martinez with a nice bloop down the rightfield line to drive in two, and Posada caroming a shot off of the plexiglass leftfield wall. After Martinez's hit, when the boy tried to return to his father, the Delaware Hot Dog Guy told him to stay: "That's your lucky spot, kid." Never one to waste a good rally omen, I chimed in as well. The boy's father smiled at us and echoed our sentiments, "Yeah, stay there, it's good luck."

Posada's hit chased Pineiro before he could become the pitcher of record. Suddenly clinging to a 7-5 lead, Lou Piniella went to his bullpen for the lefty arson specialist, Norm Charlton, who has rebounded from what we shall charitably refer to as the airplane years (1997: 7.27 ERA for Seattle...). Charlton got David Justice on a grounder to escape the inning.

Piniella emptied his bullpen over the next several innings, flaunting the Mariners' depth in an area where the Yanks have become vulnerable. That vulnerability, of course, is directly related to Nelson's departure. Several pitchers, such as Brian Boehringer and Carlos Almanzar, have failed their early auditions to fill Nelson's shoes, necessitating general manager Brian Cashman to trade some of the Yankees Grade B prospects for what has turned out to be Grade C middle relief. But on this day, the trio of the damned — Witasick, Randy Choate, and Mark Wohlers — kept the Mariners at bay with six innings of shutout ball.

The excitement which had filled the park when the Yanks finally made a game of it in the fifth reached a fever pitch in the bottom of the eighth. David Justice managed a single off of his personal whipping-boy, Arthur Rhodes (Justice had a key double off of Rhodes in Game Two of the ALCS, then hit the decisive three-run homer off of him in Game Six). Jeff Nelson, the man whose comings and goings may well have signalled the league's power shift, came on and promptly allowed a double down the rightfield line to Shane Spencer, with pinch-runner Gerald Williams holding at third. For Spencer, it was his third hit on the day, continuing a hot streak which has relegated Chuck Knoblauch to the bench.

But after Nelson struck out Alfonso Soriano, Knoblauch emerged from the dugout to cheers worthy of a Yankee legend. Whatever the Lil' Bastard's troubles have been, Yanks fans still recognize that his ability to draw the game down to one pesky at bat is an invaluable tool in the middle of a rally. Here he drew a walk off of Nelson to load the bases, earning Nelson a brief visit from Piniella, and bringing up Derek Jeter. But the gods did not smile on Derek as they usually do. Jeter lined a sharp shot back through the box; it caromed off of Nelson's leg and directly to third baseman David Bell, who threw to first for a dramatic third out.

The Mariners' Japanese closer Kazuhiro Sasaki came on in the ninth, and again the Yanks mounted an effort. After O'Neill grounded out, Williams, Martinez, and Posada loaded the bases on singles. Posada's smash ricocheted off of Sasaki's right thigh; Piniella emerged to argue the call at first base, while the M's pitching coach and trainer checked on Sasaki's health. Cleared to resume, Sasaki faced Gerald Williams, batting .202 and having earned his release from the wretched Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Williams took one for the team as Sasaki's pitch hit him in the shoulder, forcing in a run. With one out and the tying run at third base, Sasaki yielded a long, breathless foul ball by Spencer down the leftfield line before striking him out. Down to their last hope, the Yanks came up short as Soriano flied out to left.

Though the Yanks lost, looks of exhiliration were common among those who'd made it through the four-hour ordeal. The game fit in well with our tradition of wild Yankees-Mariners matches, and provided several take-home lessons:

  1. The back end of the Yankees rotation is a disaster, with Lilly and Hitchcock fighting a war of attrition for demotion upon the anticipated return of "El Duque," Orlando Hernandez.
  2. The Mariner offense can light it up in a hurry. Still.
  3. The Mariner bullpen is deep, but vulnerable; the Yanks have proven they can get to Rhodes, Nelson, and Sasaki.
  4. Moral victories are not something one wants to rack up, but the Yanks showed far more resilience with their comeback than either the crowd or likely the Mariners anticipated.
  5. All of this is prelude; see you in October.

Final Score: Mariners 7, Yankees 6. One hot dog, countless waters, one full-throated heckling for Ted Lilly, and one comeback that just fell short. BOX SCORE



Remembrance of Slugfests Past

The Yankees-Mariners games I've attended with my brother Bryan over the past five years have been some of the wildest (not to mention longest) games I've ever seen. Including this season's contest, the two teams have combined to average 18 runs per game, and these epics have lasted an average of 3:57. The Yankees starters' cumulative ERA is an ungodly 14.82 in these games, and Ken Griffey Jr. hit five home runs.

August 18, 1996 Bryan and I initiated our Yankees-Mariners routine. Dwight Gooden started for the Yankees, and was scorched, allowing 7 runs and 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings. But the Yanks came back, closing the gap to 8-7, then tying it at 10-10. We departed after nine innings; the game ended up going 12 innings, with the Mariners winning. Somewhere in there Randy Johnson, struggling with back pains, made a relief appearance and got hit hard; he was shut down for the season following this game. Here is the line score:

Sea 421 102 000 003—13 19 0 
NY  000 703 000 002—12 19 0
FINAL SCORE: Mariners 13, Yankees 12. 
Time: 4:50 BOX SCORE

July 26, 1997 A group of us sat in the upper-deck in right field, seats so high we were above the top of the foul pole. Hideki Irabu made his fourth big-league appearance and was bombed, allowing six runs in two-plus innings, including home runs to Jose Cruz, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Even from where we were sitting we could see Joe Torre hand Irabu a ticket to Columbus when he yanked him. Balls continued to fly out even after Irabu departed. The other Junior — Griffey, that is — added a home run, as did Jay Buhner. Tino Martinez homered twice, Paul O'Neill hit a three-run shot and the Yanks nearly came back, but fell short.
FINAL SCORE: Mariners 9, Yankees 7.
Time: 3:09 BOX SCORE

April 30, 1998 This four hour epic featured something I'd never seen before — the two teams combined to score in every inning. David Wells gave up two home runs to Griffey, but the Yanks took a 7-4 lead that included a home run by Darryl Strawberry into the black batter's eye in center field. Their bullpen coughed up four runs in the eighth, but the Mariners notoriously horrendous bullpen returned the favor by yielding a game-tying homer to Tim Raines in the 9th and a run-scoring single by Tino Martinez in the 10th won it for the pinstripes.

Sea 102 000 140 0—8 11 2 
NY  020 113 001 1—9 15 1
FINAL SCORE: Yankees 9, Mariners 8.
Time: 4:08 BOX SCORE

May 8,1999 Amid a relatively unmemorable 14-5 drubbing by the Mariners (which featured Ken Griffey's 361st home run, tying Joe DiMaggio), two incidents stand out in sharp relief (though sharp relief was not what the Yankees got). The game wouldn't have been as memorable as others except for what has become known forever as the David Segui Foul Ball Incident. Bryan, my roommate Issa and I were sitting in the front row of the Upper Deck, near third base. Segui, batting left-handed, fouled one off, and as I looked at it spinning against the overcast sky, I judged a fly ball correctly for possibly the first time in my life. "That's yours," I told Issa, who was on the aisle seat. He is a soccer player, with no baseball experience whatsoever. The ball indeed came right into his hands, but rather than cradling it, he lunged at it, knocking the ball over the railing. Dejectedly, he slumped down into his seat as the entire crowd of Yankee Stadium showered him with boos.

Another side note on this one: This game marked the final big league appearance of Tony Fossas. Fossas, a former arsonist for the Mariners (see here) and before that a relatively solid spot lefty for several teams (after reaching the majors at the ripe old age of 31), had been signed by the Yanks to shore up a shaky bullpen. Here he got absolutely shelled, and when Joe Torre came to pull him, I stood up and booed his exit with exuberance. But something happened then. From where we were sitting, I could see into the Yankee dugout. I spied Fossas sitting on the bench, looking dazed and somber, avoided by his teammates. And a tide of sympathy overcame me. I knew very little about Fossas beyond the fact that he was 42, Cuban-born, and washed up. but I sat there and contemplated the complexities of the journey he must have taken to reach the majors (it turns out he spent eleven years in the minors), and the realization that must have been hitting him right then: it's over. I felt a bit of remorse for my harsh reaction, and since then, I've reserved my most vocal ire for petulant superstars.
FINAL SCORE: Mariners 14, Yankees 5. Time: 3:48 BOX SCORE