Baseball owes Mariners a tip of the hat


SEATTLE -- The Cleveland Indians are going to the World Series. It feels right. This is their year. They have the best team in the American League. Their fans deserve the chance to cheer after waiting 41 years. It just feels right.

But let's talk about the Seattle Mariners as they exit the postseason after finally failing to make one of their blind leaps across the gorge, or whatever it was they kept doing as they staved off elimination again and again throughout October.

Were they terrific or what? Wait, let me answer that. Yes, they were. So terrific that all of baseball should thank them.

Everybody in the game, the whole institution, from the bird dog scouts to the millionaire MVPs, even the grumpy fans still peeved about the strike -- they should all stop for a minute and thank the Mariners for demonstrating that their beleaguered sport is still capable of magic.

Because the public wasn't sure anymore. And because magic, the kind only baseball can offer, is what took the Mariners from nowhere in August to six games deep into the American League Championship Series before the Indians finally knocked them out last night at the Kingdome.

Can it be that the loser of the ALCS saved the '95 season? Indeed, it can.

After the Great Strike that killed the '94 postseason, the '95 regular season was uninspired and the National League playoffs were humdrum. (Braves, again?) The American League playoffs should have been humdrum considering the Indians' superiority.

Enter the Mariners. They came from 13 games down to catch the Angels and win the AL West in the league's first one-game playoff since 1978, then came from 2-0 down to beat the Yankees in the divisional playoff, in the process winning four straight games in which losses meant elimination. You won't see more derring-do in a dozen chase movies.

Then they took the fight to the Indians in a series in which four of the six games were so taut and tense you could almost hear the ballparks hyperventilating. The Mariners were an appealing lot to be around, personable, a gust of fresh air. The Indians were more moody and sullen, barking at reporters and often acting like the ballplayers the public came to dislike during the strike.

But the Indians were better. The Mariners got no wins from Randy Johnson and just two singles from Edgar Martinez in six games, which meant they were in trouble. They humbled the Indians and forced them to raise their game to a new level, but it wasn't enough.

Even so, it took a brilliant performance from the Indians' Dennis Martinez last night to finally push the Mariners out the door. Martinez, 40, allowed just four hits in seven innings in beating the exhausted Johnson and becoming the oldest pitcher to win a league championship series game.

"Right now I feel taller than [Johnson]," Martinez said.

Not that the Mariners were without chances. They had the leadoff runner on base three times in the first six innings.

Luis Sojo led off the third with a double, but Dan Wilson hit a weak grounder to third that failed to advance the runner. Sojo was stranded.

The Indians were up 1-0 when Vince Coleman led off the sixth with an infield single and stole second, but Joey Cora failed to lay down a sacrifice bunt and it cost the Mariners when Ken Griffey flied out to center; Coleman would have scored the tying run had Cora bunted him over.

"We failed to get runners over, but they pitched great the whole series," Mariners coach Lou Piniella said.

The Indians scored three runs in the eighth to break things open. Still, having seen the Mariners come back so many times, the sellout crowd roared through the bottom of the ninth as Indians closer Jose Mesa retired the side in order.

After the last out, there was a brief moment of quiet as the Indians celebrated their pennant on the field, but then the crowd began cheering again, the noise growing louder and louder as the Indians continued to celebrate. The message was clear. The fans were thanking the Mariners for the thrills after 19 years of bad baseball.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's been a great ride," boomed the public address announcer after a minute. More roars. No one was disagreeing.

The crowd simply refused to leave, standing and clapping for 10 minutes after the last out, until some of the Mariners finally left the clubhouse and came back onto the field to acknowledge the cheers.

"That was emotional," Piniella said. "I've never seen anything like that. And we all appreciate it."

All of baseball should appreciate them right back.

Purist skeptics (blush) complained about the new wild card system signaling the death of great pennant races, but the Mariners proved one could still occur.

Cynics soured by the strike doubted that baseball could grab the public again without a collective bargaining agreement, but the Mariners' escape act proved that wrong.

They put on a show, a remarkable show. The only shame is that it had to end. The World Series should be great, but the playoffs won't be the same without the team that saved the '95 season.

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