When I was 12 years old, the Seattle Mariners broke my heart. A perfectly-placed double by Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 11th inning on a Sunday night in early October sent the Yankees home after a thrilling ALDS. It was the first Yankee playoff appearance of my life, and while the memories of it would be erased by a half a decade of World Series dominance, it was a crushing, stinging defeat for this young baseball fan.
Now, that series with Ken Griffey’s tremendous display of power, David Cone’s gutsy pitching, the emergence of Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly’s last hurrah, the Martinezes’ — Edgar and Tino — constant bludgeoning of the Yankees and, of course, Randy Johnson’s relief appearance, has been immortalized by Chris Donnelly in a wonderful new book. Called Baseball’s Greatest Series, Donnelly explores how the 1995 ALDS match-up between the Yankees and the Mariners, in his words, changed history. It brought about key changes in New York that led to a dynasty and saved baseball as we know it in Seattle.
What most Yankee fans sitting 3,000 miles away from Seattle know about that 1995 series concerns the way it changed the Yankees. The Yankees left New York up 2-0 on the Mariners and had to return east losers of three straight, the first of the three great Yankee collapses during their magical dynasty run. That loss — with the shaky John Wetteland in the bullpen, with Mariano Rivera underutilized, with Jack McDowell on the mound, with a tight and tense Yankee clubhouse and a cantankerous owner — led to the ouster of Buck Showalter and the dawn of a new day. Getting to that point, though, was a battle.
Donnelly begins his tale in New York with a history of the Yankees from 1981 to 1995. It is a sad tale and one we’ve told in bits and pieces this winter. George Steinbrenner turned from a crazy win-now owner into a meddlesome and obsessed win-at-all-costs-yesterday owner. The Yanks fell just short of the playoffs in 1985 and couldn’t recover for nearly a decade after Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and the Yanks’ baseball minds could put together a better team.
Necessarily, the New York part of the story focuses on Don Mattingly. A lynch pin for the Yanks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, by 1995 he was a shell of his former self, and that 1995 ALDS was his only playoff appearance as a player. Mattingly hit .417/.440/.708 in his last games as a Major Leaguer, but with the likes of Dion James, Randy Velarde, Tony Fernandez and Ruben Sierra all faltering behind him, it wasn’t enough.
In Seattle, meanwhile, the story is more vital for the Mariners. While the Yanks’ loss led to a dynasty, the Mariners’ victory ensured the Pacific Northwest that baseball would survive there. Prior to 1995, the Mariners were a sad franchise that never enjoyed much success. They played in a dreary dome that remained mostly empty for decades, and as 1995 dawned, the team needed a new stadium or they would decamp for Tampa Bay.
As the Mariners climbed back from a late-season 12-game deficit to make the playoffs, Seattle became, in the span of one year, a baseball town. The story ends not with a Mariners’ loss to the Indians in the ALCS, but with a new stadium for the team and a decade-long rivalry with the Yanks. As hard as it is to believe now, but the Mariners were three outs away from leaving Seattle. The Yankees just couldn’t get those three outs.
The Yankees, meanwhile, blew it. As would be the case in the desert in 2001 and in Boston and New York in 2004, the Yankees were on the precipice of playoff victory and couldn’t seal the deal. They headed west triumphant with a two games to none lead in the best-of-five series. They went down against Randy Johnson in Game 3. The Big Unit, a playoff bugaboo both pitching against and for the Yankees through 2006, struck out 10. In Game 4, the team jumped out to a 5-0 lead and was outscored 11-3 over the last six innings. Scott Kamieniecki, Sterling Hitchcock, Bob Wickman, John Wetteland and Steve Howe just couldn’t get it done.
And then there was Game 5. It was a tense affair for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner had grown to hate the popular Buck Showalter, and Showalter’s tense managerial style clearly had an impact on the team. But the Yanks had a lead heading into the late innings. They went up 4-2 when a Don Mattingly double unfortunately bounced over the wall. Much as he could not when a Tony Clark double bounced over the wall in Fenway nine years later, Ruben Sierra was not allowed to score on Mattingly’s ball. It was the first bad bounce to change baseball history.
David Cone stayed in too long, and the Mariners tied it up in the 8th. Mariano Rivera came in to clean up the mess, and the Yankees finally recognized the weapon that would fully emerge in 1996. When the Big Unit came in to pitch in relief, the Yankees were in trouble. They eked out a run in the 11th, but Jack McDowell couldn’t hold it. Joey Cora singled, Ken Griffey singled, and Edgar Martinez roped a double down the line. It was all over.
Donnelly’s storytelling as the games unfold is a pleasure. More than once, I had to put the book down to gather myself when I knew the inning or the game wasn’t going to end for the Yankees. As the team gathered in tears in the visitors’ clubhouse in Seattle, I thought back to my frustrations as a young baseball fan. After the strike-shortened season of 1994, baseball needed a thrilling postseason, but Yankee fans wanted wins. We knew Mattingly would retire; we knew Showalter would be fired. But we didn’t know what glory awaited.
Baseball’s Greatest Series doesn’t dwell much on the game past 1995, and it doesn’t have to. It’s a great complement to Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty in that it dissects a transformative moment in baseball — and Yankee history — and shows how it led to a different era for the game. It’s heartbreaking to read about the stunning Yankee losses, and Edgar’s double burns just as badly as Luis Gonzalez’s single. But it’s a more interesting read than a profile of the 1990s dynasty teams.
Donnelly’s story, in the end, is about baseball’s redemption after a pointless strike. It’s about the way George Steinbrenner loomed over the Yankees and how the team’s loss in Seattle turned them into a winner despite the Boss’ crankiest moments. It’s about how the Mariners needed that win and how, with a bounding ball into left field, Seattle erupted, New York cried and we had to wait, without knowing what 1996 would bring, until next year yet again.
Chris Donnelly’s Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History is available for sale at Amazon and your local bookstore. If you use the link in this paragraph to buy the book, we earn a few pennies on the sale. It’s a brisk 287 pages, and you’ll find yourself yet again cursing the Mariners by the end of it.