The MLB Playoff Series That Changed Everything for the Yankees and Mariners

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IJune 20, 2020

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 1995, file photo, Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. smiles from beneath a pile of teammates who mobbed him after he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees, in Seattle. The Seattle Mariners are the only baseball franchise never to advance to the Fall Classic. Baseball has never been played in Seattle beyond Oct. 22. The Mariners have three times been to the American League Championship Series, and all three times were sent home before there could ever be a Game 7.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The sound of the Kingdome's delirious crowd could be heard all the way into the visitors' clubhouse, where the New York Yankees gathered in shock. No one said much. No one was in the mood to shower or dress or do anything except relive the final moments of their 11th-inning loss to the Seattle Mariners in Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series.

To have described the atmosphere as somber wouldn't come close. I wandered over to the manager's office to see if Yankees manager Buck Showalter was ready to talk. What I saw left me speechless: He was seated at his chair, forehead pressed to the desk, shoulders convulsing gently. I eased away as Buck wept. He needed to be alone. He knew owner George Steinbrenner would soon fire him. 

It was only a few moments later that I glimpsed the Boss stepping into Showalter's office, closing the door behind him. "This is it," I thought. Buck's career with the Yankees was about to end after four seasons. But Steinbrenner must've witnessed the same sufferinga manager too torn up to speak.

Steinbrenner could be a brutal man with a terrifying temper, but what he lacked in grace was balanced by glimpses of his humanity. Within seconds, the Boss backed out of Showalter's office, closing the door gently behind him. If it'd been Steinbrenner's intention to dismiss Buck, he decided it could wait.

That's just one of the lasting images of a historic playoff series. The most vivid came when Ken Griffey Jr. scored all the way from first base on Edgar Martinez's double into the left field corner. Griffey must've set a land-speed record before sliding across the plate. His legs were a blur; he ran not like a ballplayer, but a track star. The Yankees' desperate relay home was no match for the Mariners. Twenty-four years before Thanos, the M's were inevitable.

Don Mattingly, the Bombers' captain, hasn't let go of the memory even nearly 25 years later. Peel away the layers of psychological flesh, and the hurt still simmers.   

"I still think about how we lost, to this day," he told B/R. "It's something you don't forget."

That would be true even if the backstory weren't so gripping. But 1995 represented a sea change for the sport. The season was delayed by a labor dispute that began August 12, 1994, preempting the '94 World Series. The temperament hadn't improved much when the strike finally ended April 2 the following year. After a failed attempt at using replacement players, the owners gave clubs only 23 days to prepare for Opening Day. The schedule was shortened to 144 gamesanother year, another asterisk.

The good news, though? The playoffs were expanded for the first time since 1969 to reflect the leagues' realignment into three divisions each in 1994. A wild-card team was added to the new division series, which created another precedent: You didn't have to finish in first to qualify for the playoffs.

It was a public-relations risk, of course. Purists hated anything that made it easier to get to the World Series. (Sound familiar?) They preferred the old-fashioned dictum: You either won the pennant or you didn't. And even the terminology was an affront to baseball's tradition. The playoffs were football's and basketball's domainnot baseball's. Get it right, the scolds said. It's the postseason.

Average attendance per game throughout the industry fell by 20 percent from 1994. The Yankees weren't immune to the fans' cold shoulders, either. They drew fewer than 24,000 per contest, 14th in the majors. No, it wasn't an especially pretty summer in the Bronx. After reigning as the American League's best club in 1994, the Bombers struggled mightily in early '95, falling into last place in the East by mid-June. 

But the Yankees finally got hot in September, winning 22 of 28 and clinching the wild card on the last day of the season.

"We came into the season thinking, 'Let's just have a good year,'" said right fielder Paul O'Neill, now a YES Network analyst. "Then it became, 'Let's get to the playoffs,' and in the back of everyone's mind was, 'Let's get to the World Series.' That season taught me to always keep pushing; good teams always find a way."

The Mariners, meanwhile, were experiencing a similar surge. They arrived in the postseason after a fierce battle with the California Angels, winning their first-ever AL West title in a one-game tiebreaker. That put the finishing touches on a comeback no less impressive than the Yankees'.

Losing Griffey to a broken wrist on May 26 could've easily wiped the M's off the mapand it nearly did. It would be three months before their superstar slugger returned, during which time Seattle went 36-37, dropping 10 games in the standings to fall 12.5 behind the Angels.

Manager Lou Piniellawho, as a player, was an integral part of the Yankees' record-breaking return from the dead in 1978was just the leader the Mariners needed. Still, the deficit swelled to 13 games on August 2, two-plus weeks before Griffey's return. Just nine days after his reappearance, Junior saved the season with a two-run, ninth-inning home run off Yankees closer John Wetteland to give the M's a 9-7 victory. They won 23 of their next 34 games to cross the bridge into October.

Ron Frehm/Associated Press

So the two clubs faced off in the first-ever ALDS, and there was no doubt who had more in their favor. The Mariners had a healthy Griffey, a more dominant ace (Randy Johnson, 18-2, would win the Cy Young Award) and the home-field advantage with Games 3-4-5 of the best-of-five series in the Kingdome.

That meant the Yankees had to take advantage of their only two games in the Bronx. And that they did: Mattingly, whose imminent retirement had become an open secret, was treated to a thunderous ovation in the pre-Game 1 introduction. It was more than simple cheering; it was years of gratitude from the loyalists, every one of them on their feet chanting, "Don-nie Base-ball."

The real drama, however, occurred after the Yankees took the opening game and went into extra innings in Game 2. In the 15th inning, at 1:22 a.m., Jim Leyritz blasted a walk-off home run against Tim Belcher, turning the stadium into an open-air asylum.

Leyritz, who'd been held hitless in five at-bats and had caught all 15 innings, told reporters after the game: "When I saw the ball clear the fence, you can't describe how elated and exhausted I was. I could have floated around the bases."

The Yankees, up 2-0, were in total control of the series as they headed to Seattleor so it seemed. They lost Games 3 and 4 and were helpless to stop the Mariners in Game 5. Although everyone remembers Martinez's double and Griffey's sprint, it was Joey Cora's leadoff drag bunt in the 11th inning that sealed the Bombers' fate.

Mattingly fielded the ball and in one motion tried to make a sweep-tag as Cora slid headfirst toward the bag. Recreating the sequence in his head, Mattingly still says, "(He) was out of the baseline" as Cora ducked under the glove.

"Go watch it on YouTube," Mattingly said. "Cora should've been called out. Instead he's on first base. That changed everything."

The end was indeed near: With more than 57,000 in the stands—the decibels bouncing off the roof—the Kingdome was thunderous. You might've been more comfortable standing on a runway next to a Boeing 727. Griffey, who'd already hit five home runs in the series, was unstoppable. He singled, putting runners on first and third for Martinez, who was hitting over .500 in the series. Normally this would've been the time for Wetteland, but he'd lost Showalter's trust in the eighth inning of Game 4, allowing four runs without getting an out. No, it would be Jack McDowell's crisis to contain, but he failed too. 

The at-bat lasted just two pitches, as Martinez lashed a rocket in the corner. The late Dave Niehaus, the Mariners' Hall of Fame announcer, memorialized the moment with his signature call:

"…and the 0-1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martinez—swung on and lined down the left field for a base hit! Here comes Joey! Here is 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 Martinez with a double ripped down the left field line and they are going crazy at the Kingdome!" 

The call lived on in the Mariners community after Niehaus' death in 2010. Seattle rapper Macklemore released a song that year called "My Oh My" as a tribute to the broadcaster and the M's stunning victory. The Double—so historic it earned capital letters—became the defining moment of Martinez's career and kept the Mariners from moving to Tampa, Florida, as had been rumored. 

Seattle's community response was overwhelmingly positive. Many fell in love with the Mariners again. The Washington State Legislature, meeting in special session, soon after approved funding for a new ballpark that would be named Safeco Field, and later T-Mobile Park. Piniella wasn't exaggerating when he said Martinez "saved baseball in Seattle."

The Yankees? They paid a steep price. Showalter was ultimately dismissed, replaced by Joe Torre, who Showalter said years later "was the right guy to take it to the next level. I was at peace with it."

Along with Torre came the ascendance of the Core FourDerek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Riverawho would become the backbone of the franchise's greatest golden era in 50 years. The Yankees weren't just winners again, they won four championships in the next five years, spawning a powerhouse the American League couldn't contain until the early 2000s. 

BALTIMORE, MA - OCTOBER 13:  New York Yankees Derek Jeter (R) dumps champagne on Mariano Duncan (L) in the locker room after the Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 6-4 to win the American League Championship Series at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland,
TED MATHIAS/Getty Images

But Mattingly missed all of it, walking away after the loss to the Mariners. It was a bittersweet departure, considering he'd batted .417 in the division series in his only postseason appearance. 

After years of chronic back pain, Mattingly said, "I finally figured it out," and could've conceivably extended his career by a few more years. But he decided to go home; he was missing his family too much to say no to retirement. Although Mattingly didn't regret the timing—it did, after all, open the door to Tino Martinez's trade to New Yorkthe former captain admitted the initial wound was slow to heal. 

Assuming it ever did. 

"I went home and didn't see anyone, didn't talk to anyone. I just kept to myself for three days," Mattingly said. "That's how much losing that series hurt."

Check out Ken Griffey Jr. Day...Sunday 6/21 in the B/R app.