Even with thrilling ’22, nothing will ever top the excitement of the ’95 Mariners

Jul 20, 2022, 2:07 PM | Updated: Oct 12, 2022, 6:47 am

95 Mariners...

Randy Johnson, Photo from Seattle Sports

The Major League Baseball season is about to resume, and you’d have to be living under a rock to NOT know that the Mariners went into the All-Star break with a 14-game winning streak.

It’s pretty exciting stuff, even for casual Northwest baseball fans, or those worn down by years of Mariners’ spring high hopes and summer heartbreak. Still, even though 2022 is pretty exciting, some people won’t stop believing that the 1995 Mariners were the most exciting of all, and will always be – no matter what may happen in September or, fingers crossed, October.

This story began as an argument last week in the newsroom with Mike Salk from Seattle Sports 710 AM as he was about to join the Seattle’s Morning News team and talk about the then-11-game winning streak. I told Mike that even if every single game the rest of the year was a no-hitter and the Mariners went on to win the 2022 World Series in four games, it won’t even come close to the excitement of 1995. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

Just how exciting were the ’95 Mariners? As they say, you had to be there. If you weren’t, both Seattle Metropolitan magazine and ESPN produced in-depth oral histories in 2015 and 2020, respectively. Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Jay Buhner were just some of the players on that long-ago team, skippered by Lou Piniella, who captured the attention of the Northwest like it hadn’t been captured before (or at least for a very long time).

Perhaps the main reason 1995 was so exciting was because of what had come in the preceding years. The Mariners had debuted in 1977 in the old Kingdome and played 18 seasons of pretty mediocre baseball, never making the playoffs. There were some highlights along the way – Gaylord Perry’s 300th win, a few no-hitters, and countless giveaways like Bat Night or Seat Cushion night – not to mention the annual Fan Appreciation Night and its endless raffle drawing.

The 1995 team was different than the editions that had been put on the field between 1977 and 1994. In addition, the previous season had come to a halt in August 1994 with a bitter labor dispute and months-long player strike, and the World Series was canceled that year for the first time since 1904. With a last-minute resolution to the labor issues the following spring, the ’95 season started late and was shortened, with just 144 games instead of the usual 162.

Seattle sports historian and collector Dave Eskenazi says there are some definite parallels between team dynamics in 1995 and 2022 – including the effect of the players facing adversity together. Whether because of Ken Griffey’s hand injury in 1995 or the brawl the Mariners fought with the Angels a month or so ago. And, Dave Eskenazi says, that ‘95 team had something in common with winning years for the Sonics, Seahawks, and Storm: chemistry.

“It becomes contagious and you start catching the breaks and everything continues to kind of go right,” Eskenazi told KIRO Newsradio. “But I think you don’t have that unless you have a really good clubhouse, and I think that that’s a common factor with all those teams […] you know, the personalities that you see – it’s not just a media creation, I think it’s real.”

In August and September 1995, the Mariners kept winning implausible come-from-behind 9th inning clutch victories, and the “REFUSE TO LOSE” slogan became a rallying cry. At the end of season, they tied with the California Angels for the best record in the AL West – which meant they had to play a one-game tiebreaker (technically, an extra regular-season game) against the ‘Halos’ at the Kingdome on October 2.

The Mariners won, and the team headed to the post-season for the first time in their history.

Seattle, simply put, went bananas. Amateur predictions about what would happen in the Northwest if the Mariners ever made it to the playoffs came true: nearly everyone jumped on the “REFUSE TO LOSE” bandwagon.

First stop in the ’95 post-season was a best of five battle – the American League Division Series or ALDS – against the Yankees. The first two games were in New York, and the Mariners lost them both. The teams came to Seattle – to the old Kingdome – and the Mariners won Game Three and Game Four. The stage was set: Game Five on Sunday, October 8, 1995 was do or die. In true “REFUSE TO LOSE” fashion, it went into extra innings.

In the bottom of the 11th, the Mariners were at bat, but they were down by one point: do or die. Joey Cora was at third base, and Ken Griffey, Jr. was on at first with no outs. A pop fly or base hit would tie the game, a good base hit might win it all. That’s when Edgar Martinez came up to bat.

As for what happened next, the late, great Dave Niehaus said it best:

“Right now, the Mariners are looking for the tie. They would take a fly ball; they would love a base hit into the gap and they could win it with Junior’s speed. The stretch and the 0–1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martínez; swung on and lined down the left field line for a base hit! Here comes Joey! Here’s Junior to third base, they’re going to wave him in! The throw to the plate will be…LATE! The Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My oh my! Edgar Martínez with a double ripped down the left field line. And they are going crazy at the Kingdome!”

On a side note, fans of all ages will recall that it was the audio from Game Five – the complete game – of that series that was rebroadcast on KIRO the Saturday after Dave Niehaus passed away in 2010. There was no finer tribute to the original Voice of the Mariners.

One of my most vivid memories from October 1995 is walking through my Wallingford neighborhood one night during one of the home games against the Yankees. Every time something good happened to the Mariners, you could hear a giant collective WHOOP! that seemed to come from every direction at once – because nearly everyone was tuned in. It felt like a throwback to stories I’d heard about 1920s and 1930s Seattle baseball broadcasting, and the legend that you didn’t need your own radio to walk through any neighborhood and hear the voice of Seattle Indians/Rainiers broadcaster Leo Lassen emitting from vintage living room Philcos and Atwater-Kents tuned to the game.

It all comes down to those WHOOPS for me: I love that feeling of community that only the home team in the playoffs can bring. I miss that feeling, and I want that feeling back this season.

KIRO Newsradio’s Dori Monson remembers the ’95 Mariners. He had just started his talk show on KIRO back in 1995, and station management was still getting complaints from listeners who wanted “Midday” with Jim French back on the air instead of Dori. That last part might not be true.

Looking back 27 years, Monson says how you feel about the ’95 Mariners versus the 2022 Mariners depends on how old you are or where you lived.

“If you were a young baseball fan back in ‘95, that run in August and into September – ‘Refuse to Lose,’ first time ever making it to the playoffs – that’s like a first kiss,” Monson said. “You [have your] first kiss and it’s just the best, and no matter how great everything is in life after that, romantically, there’s nothing like that first kiss.”

“So, for people around our age, ‘95 is probably always going to be the best,” Monson continued. “But for people who didn’t live here in ‘95 or who are 30 and younger and weren’t dialed into ‘95, this is their first kiss.”

For many, the true and lasting joys of baseball are rooted in the decades and decades of stats and stories and history of players and teams and baseball parks. In fact, so much of the appeal – especially when the home team struggles for decades, as Seattle fans can attest – is about that context and history, because otherwise, it’s just people swinging sticks and running around in circles.

Nearly 30 years on, it’s easy to forget how dripping with context 1995 was – because of the bad things, Dori Monson says, that happened leading up to that magical season.

“The Mariners, got off to a great start in ‘94, they looked like they were going to go to the playoffs in ’94,” Monson continued. “And then there’s a strike, and the World Series gets cancelled. Spring training in ‘95 gets delayed. And I think a lot of fans had had it.”

“That’s the other reason ‘95 is so powerful,” Monson continued, “because people came from the depths of fandom to the absolute peak. It was such a swing of emotion over just a few month period that that also really heightened the intensity of it, I think.”

After that off-the-air newsroom debate with Mike Salk last Friday, Salk opened the phones on his show and took calls to hear what listeners thought about ’95 versus ‘22. Salk later said that he believes the issue generally splits along diehard baseball fan versus more casual fan lines. The diehard fans believe a World Series win this year or anytime for the Mariners will be more exciting than 1995, while the more casual fans (who maybe got sucked into Mariners Mania for the first time during the ’95 season) believe that the vintage excitement will never be topped.

Salk also had Rick Rizzs on his show last Friday and asked him what he thought. Rizzs was there alongside Hall of Famer Dave Niehaus in 1995, of course, and has rightfully inherited the “Voice of the Mariners” mantle.

Rizzs told Mike Salk there’s no question a World Series appearance and win this year – or any year – would displace the ’95 season from its high perch.

However, Rizzs also brought up one more piece of context – existential context, really – that directly impacted the future of the team back in 1995. That playoff run, Rizzs said, led the Washington State Legislature to approve a funding package in October 1995 to finance and partially underwrite the stadium now called T-Mobile Park. Just a month earlier, the voters had rejected a ballot measure that would’ve done the same.

“Ken Griffey, Jr. and Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson and Danny Wilson and all the guys, Mike Blowers and all those guys, if they didn’t do what they did, when they did it and how they did it, we wouldn’t be here,” Rizzs said.

“It was the most impactful season in the history of our franchise,” he said.

While some naysayers complained about the legislature ignoring the will of the voters, public opinion – at least, anecdotally – was that the team deserved public dollars to help build a new stadium. The ’95 season had been that much fun.

Questions about where the team would play, and who would own the Mariners, had dogged Seattle for at least a decade prior to 1995. It’s easy to forget that before that ’95 season, there had been years of drama about who would buy the Mariners from owner Jeff Smulyan, and would that new owner move the team to Florida? There were debates about where the team would play besides the poor beleaguered Kingdome. The ’95 playoff run – and an ownership deal involving Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi – wiped most of that away (though there would be at least one more kerfuffle in December 1996 when delays in building the new stadium led a teary John Ellis to announce the team was, once again, likely to be put on the market – cooler heads prevailed, and what was then called Safeco Field debuted in July 1999).

It’s also easy to forget that after beating the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS, the Mariners lost to Cleveland 4-2 in the American League Championship Series; as ridiculous as it sounds, that most magical of seasons didn’t even include the World Series. Other playoff appearances followed, as well as the record-breaking 116 wins in 2001. Since then, the Mariners are currently in a 21-year Major League Baseball playoff drought, the longest in the majors, and they remain the only team never to have appeared in a World Series.

As far as other esoteric context that contributes to the mythology of the ’95 Mariners, the argument could be made that in 1995, Seattle was in a 26-year Major League Baseball playoff drought, starting the count during the single season of the Seattle Pilots in 1969.

From a historical perspective, this whole silly debate is about mythology and legends, and the stories we share that connect us to our neighbors and local friends – and the power any individual has to cultivate and keep those stories alive for himself and for his community. The 2022 Mariners may yet go far in diminishing the luster of that long-ago 1995 season – and let’s hope they do. Come October, I plan to head out on the streets of Wallingford and listen for the WHOOPS.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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