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So long, Randy

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I may not be the most spontaneous person, but every once in a while I jump at something. And one of those onces in a while came along two days ago. To set the stage, I need to point out that I am a long-time admirer of the baseball pitcher Randy Johnson. There are a lot of admirers, especially here in Seattle. He is, after all, one of the 10 or 15 greatest pitchers of all time, and he did pitch more years here in Seattle than anywhere else. But I tend to think I have a special bond with him, a deeper appreciation of his greatness. I was there, after all for two of his greatest moments, in the Kingdome at the end of the 1995 season.

Monday, October 2. One-game playoff between the Mariners and Angels to determine the American League West champion. Randy dominates. A complete game, 12 strikeout, 1 walk, 3 hit, 1 run performance, as the Mariners win 9-1. (Box score here.)

The Mariners then played a 5-game series against the Yankees, opening with two games in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 3 and 4. Because Randy had to be used for the playoff game on Monday, he was unavailable, and the Mariners lost both games, 9-6 and (in 15 innings) 7-5.

Coming back to Seattle, the Mariners needed to win 3 straight or be eliminated. Randy pitched the first of the three, Friday October 6, on just three days rest. He pitched 7 innings, gave up 4 hits and 2 runs, and gave the Mariners a 7-2 lead in a game they ultimately won 7-4. (Box score here.) With games 4 and 5 on Saturday and Sunday, that would be it for Randy. In game 4, the Yankees quickly took a 5-0 lead. But the Mariners came back, Edgar Martinez hit a huge grand slam in the 8th, and the Mariners won 11-8. (Box score here.) The moment Edgar hit his grand slam, I announced to Gail and Joel that we were going the next night. Whatever it cost. Whatever we had to do to get tickets. We were going.

Sunday, October 8. And we did. The greatest game in Mariner history. One of the great games of baseball history. The game that saved baseball in Seattle, that led to the Mariners not moving and Safeco Field being built. I could write about it at length. Others have. Some day I will. Let me just focus on Randy though. The Mariners were down 4-2 in the 8th against David Cone when Griffey hit a solo home run. This was followed by single and some walks, with Cone walking in the tying run. We were going into the 9th tied 4-4. Our pitching staff was exhausted. Who could come in? Randy! With just one day of rest, he came in to thunderous cheers. And he pitched 3 extraordinary innings. He opened the 11th with a walk, a bunt, and a single, the only hit against him, but a costly one, as Kelly scored from 2nd. But in the bottom of the 11th, well, you know. Edgar’s double to left. Griffey scoring from 1st behind Cora. Mariners win 6-5. (Box score here.) Randy paid for those heroics. He was injured the next year. He only pitched 14 games, had a 5-0 record.

I’ll skip over our 1997 pilgrimage to Denver to see the Mariners play the Rockies in the first year of inter-league play, and our finding ourselves having lunch at the same restaurant as Randy, just down the street from Coors Field. We didn’t want to bother him, but a waiter took Joel into a private dining room to see him. Let’s jump to this past week.

On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated had the first in a new series of articles jointly written by Joe Posnanski and Bill James, in which they analyzed Randy’s greatness. He began the season with a new team, the San Francisco Giants, and with 295 wins. As of Wednesday, he had 298 wins, tantalizingly close to 300. And then on Friday morning, having not paid much attention to the Mariners’ schedule, I opened up the Seattle Times to discover that the Giants were in town this weekend, in the first games of interleague play for the season. Not only that, Randy was pitching the opening game, that night.

We had to go, right? If not now, when? I told Gail, we got 2 tickets, and we went. But, who to root for? The Mariners? Or Randy, going for 299? I texted Joel. He suggested I root for a close game in which Randy distinguishes himself but leaves before the end with no decision, after which the Mariners come back to win. And that’s pretty much what happened. Aaron Rowand led off the game for the Giants with a home run, but that’s all the Giants could do, as the Mariners’ pitcher Jason Vargas pitched 7 strong innings, giving up only 1 other hit. Randy, in turn, pitched well too, but began to tire, finally giving up a run and coming out in the 6th after 5 shutout innings. The crowd gave him an ovation and, as he left the mound, he took his cap off to salute us. (See above.) We didn’t get to see him win #299, but we saw him pitch well in what will almost certainly be his final game in Seattle. (He turns 46 in September. This may be his last season, but even if it isn’t, the nature of interleague scheduling is such that he isn’t likely to pitch here again in the next couple of years.)

We left after 8. As we drove home, the Mariners loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the 9th. Ken Griffey came in to pinch hit for Johjima. It’s bad enough that we left for home before the end, but now it was going to end before we even got home. He hit the ball deep. We were now off the freeway and just a half mile from home. The game was about to end with a grand slam. Another historic moment from another old-time Mariner star. But no, caught at the warning track. We were home to watch the rest of the game, which ended in the 12th on a hit off the wall by Jose Lopez with the bases loaded, as the Mariners prevailed 2-1.

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