October eighth, 1995, was the night I fell in love with baseball and the New York Yankees. I was seven years old at the time and well aware of baseball. I collected baseball cards, I played little league, I had my black glove with neon green trim, I knew the stars like Ken Griffey Jr., and Cal Ripken Jr. but none of that really separated me from any other American born seven year old boy. My grandmother and father were both life long Yankee fans so, I guess I was on the Yankee fan track; I was familiar with Mike Stanley, Don Mattingly and Danny Tartabull but looking back I cannot recall a single at bat from any of their careers. I know I saw them play, I had to have. Just no particular moment stuck in my head. October eighth, 1995 was the first baseball moment that stuck in my head so vividly that I think about it more than any other sports moment of my life.
It was game five of the American League Division Series. The Yankees faced off against the Seattle Mariners. This series proved to be historic for a multitude of reasons none of which I became aware of until years later. They played the series in a strike shortened season, just the year before the strike canceled the World Series for the first time ever, something that both World Wars and a Depression failed to do, the Yankees won the first wild card in baseball history (there had never even been an ALDS before), a few promising young rookies made their playoff debuts (Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada) and most importantly this series would go on to save baseball in Seattle. I have to stress once again I was aware of none of this at seven years old. Oh and by the way it unveiled itself as truly a great series.
The format of the ALDS was best three out of five; the first two games would be played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, while the series finished up with three games in Seattle’s famous Kingdome. The Yankees won the first two games at home including a fifteen inning epic that ended on a Jim Leyritz walk off home run. Than the series moved to Seattle where the Mariners won the next two games and set up a game five, win or go home scenario to be played on Sunday, October eighth 1995. I described the first four games briefly because much like most of my baseball memories proceeding October eighth, 1995 they are fuzzy at best. I can only remember Jim Leyritz’s home run in the vaguest sense of the word. I don’t even know if I watched the game, I can only almost make out the front cover of the newspaper the next morning and even that may just be a proxy I put in my mind. Game five went eleven innings and I can truly only remember the bottom of the eleventh with just a few obscure flashes of the rest of the game.
I sat downstairs with my father, mother and sister watching the game. As I recall it, we perched ourselves in front of the television living and dying with every pitch. I remember the Seattle Mariners reliever Norm Charlton intensely in my head; I remember thinking he looked like a clown, as his curly mullet exited the back of his baseball cap. I also remember concluding that he and Randy Johnson must have been brothers with their matching hairstyles. Another vision burned in my mind was the sight of Randy Johnson entering the game as a reliever (he was a starter so this was especially odd), tall, long, rough face and unlike his clownish brother Norm Charlton, Randy Johnson was downright chilling. I distinctly recall the hostile crowd in the Kingdom that night, loud and frenzied. What I cannot conjure up in my mind is how the Yankees scored any of their five runs, not even one Yankee at bat etched itself into my memory. But, the bottom of the eleventh stays there indelibly.
The Yankees scored in the top of the eleventh to break a 4-4 stalemate (according the Baseball Reference they scored on a Randy Velarde single, which I have no recollection of). The inning started with the heart of the Seattle Mariners lineup due up, Joey Cora, a speedy second basemen, would lead off the inning, followed by Ken Griffey Jr., the biggest star in the game at the time, trailed by Edgar Martinez, Seattle’s designated hitter extraordinaire. Even at that time I was well aware of these guys, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. baseball cards were sacred ground for any seven year old. Joey Cora led off with a bunt single. Man on first, no outs. Griffey hit a grounder up the middle, Cora advanced to third. No outs, men on first and third. The Yankees outfield backed up to “no doubles defense” to try and ensure the ball would not be hit over their heads and they could keep the speedy Griffey from scoring. Edgar Martinez strolled to the plate with the crowd now possessed. Martinez hit a line drive down the left field line that still replays in my head like a fresh memory; the ball rolled to the wall, Griffey came charging around third, slid to the plate, popped up, hands in the air, stampeded by teammates, as a dejected Jim Levitz knelt on both knees in front of home plate. Just like that, game over, Yankees lose, season over, tears roll down my face.
The next season Derek Jeter won Rookie of the Year, I went to my first game at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees won the World Series. That season I followed intensely, as I would every following season. The Yankees did not only break my heart October eighth, 1995, they also took part of it with them. It is part of a theory I subscribe to, true sports fandom can only be achieved through heartbreak.
“to be Counter” 13