For some, it’s difficult to pull images of one’s life from fifteen years ago. For me, it’s nothing. Just don’t ask me about fourteen or sixteen years ago. I don’t really remember 1996. And 1994 is a little cloudy. But 1995 stands out like a sore thumb. Without a doubt, it was the best year of my life.
I was 10 years old, going on 11, when the new year hit. I was in fourth grade at the time. By September, I’d be a fifth grader, the top of the food chain at my elementary school. And of course we all know what fifth grade entails: One’s initial exposure to sex ed and drug abuse resistance education (otherwise known as D.A.R.E.). My memories of studying marijuana and developing breasts are fond, yet distant.
Like most 10-year-olds, my interests were fairly limited. Sports, TV, music, candy, baseball cards, video games…these were my vices. More than most kids, however, I was a sports fan.
I equally participated in and watched sports. In the summer, my brother and I would play catch in the street, wiffle ball in the yard, football in any open space available, basketball on the asphalt at the nearby Christian school, even tennis on the courts a few blocks away. On rainy days, we would take the games indoors, often going one-on-one on a Nerf door hoop in the basement (the only basket I would ever capably and easily dunk on). I was a Little Leaguer, a Boys and Girls Club baller, and even had a makeshift trophy case to display my golden plastic accolades.
Most Saturday mornings, I would get up and watch NBA on NBC. The day always kicked off at 9:00 a.m. with an Eastern Conference battle. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls. Patrick Ewing, John Starks and the Knicks. Reggie Miller and the Pacers. Shaq, Penny and the Magic. These are the teams I vividly remember. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon when the Sonics would emerge, often matched up on the national stage with Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, Nick Van Exel’s L.A. Lakers, or Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets. Bob Costas and a pre-MILF Hannah Storm ran the studio. The consummate New Yawker, Peter Vecsey, provided commentary. Marv Albert and Mike Fratello were usually on a mic somewhere. These were my weekends.
I remember recording important ballgames on my parents’ VCR. This was before DVR and after the world’s failed attempt at LaserDiscs, keep in mind. Between a Sonics playoff series in April and the Mariners magic carpet ride in October, I distinctly recall taping the ’95 MLB All-Star Game. Randy Johnson was the American League’s starting pitcher. Edgar Martinez was the starting DH. Tino Martinez was a reserve first baseman. Junior was among the leading vote-getters, but sat out due to a broken wrist. A casualty, you might recall, of going all Spider Man on Kevin Bass’s woulda-been base hit early in the season.
The NCAA Final Four was held in the Kingdome that year. I remember watching it on television.
Oklahoma State’s Bryant “Big Country” Reeves shattered a glass backboard with a dunk in practice. This was just a few short years before he would shatter the hopes and dreams of Vancouver Grizzlies’ fans. Arkansas, led by Corliss Williamson, lost to an infamous UCLA team in the championship. Those Bruins had everybody and their mom on a ridiculously loaded roster that would fizzle out in the pros. The O’Bannon brothers (Ed and Charles), Tyus Edney, George Zidek, Toby Bailey. Three localites helped comprise that title team, as well. Lorenzo Romar was an assistant under head coach Jim Harrick; Cameron Dollar was a sophomore point guard; and Omm’A Givens, a talented center from Aberdeen, was a freshman.
Outside of Seattle, 1995 was the year that Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played streak. I remember sitting mesmerized in front of my TV set, watching the moment unfold. As soon as that game became official, play halted and Ripken did a victory lap of sorts around Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
In Los Angeles, there was Nomo-Mania, as Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo took the mound for the Dodgers. I had a poster of Nomo on my wall for a few years growing up. I kid you not, that poster read “Nomo Mr. Nice Guy.” For any man, woman, or child who collected baseball cards in ’95, your sole mission in life was to pull a Nomo rookie card. Like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or something. Only just slightly easier to attain.
Back home, I would listen to Husky football games on the radio. The 1995 edition of the Dawgs wasn’t exactly a legendary squad (they would lose to Iowa in the Sun Bowl that year), but replete with a roster full of memorable names: Damon Huard, Shane Fortney, Jerome Pathon, Fred Coleman, Ernie Conwell, Rashaan Shehee, Cam Cleeland, Steve Hoffmann, Lawyer Milloy, Tony Parrish, just to name a few.
I remember the ’95-’96 Sonics starting their season in brand new brick-red-and-forest-green jerseys. I remember the watch I got that year with the Sonics logo on it. I remember going to a game with my friends in December, standing in the final row of the stadium with foam fingers on our hands, going nuts for the Reign Man, and celebrating when we finally made it on the JumboTron.
I remember a basketball clinic I had with Detlef Schrempf that year, the result of a rich friend’s parents winning an auction (remember, kids, it’s always good to have rich friends). I remember getting Detlef’s autograph on a Hoops basketball card. I remember him commenting on the photo on that card, taken some years earlier when he was still an Indiana Pacer.
I remember all the random dudes we had on that Sonics team who I pretended to be when I was messing around on my door hoop: Vincent Askew, Hersey Hawkins, Frank Brickowski, Ervin Johnson. We had Steve Scheffler, too, but I never pretended to be him. Sorry, Steve.
I remember all the replica jerseys I amassed that year. It was, to say the least, a fairly admirable collection. There was a Mariners Spring Training jersey, which I still wear to this day (I was chubby back then); two Sonics jerseys (Shawn Kemp and Nate McMillan); and two random NFL jerseys (Chris Warren and Emmitt Smith). Five jerseys might not seem like much these days, but to a kid back then that was insanity. Plus, you have to consider the fact that jerseys weren’t exactly seen as gangster apparel in those days. You couldn’t just go to the mall and pick up your favorite player’s uniform. There was some work that had to be done in order to track down the dude you were looking for.
Above all else (and I’ll admit I’ve been saving this), 1995 was about the Mariners. They were, perhaps, my most vivid recollection from that year.
There was the playoff run, of course, but we’ll get to that in a minute. For me, many of the images I have of that team are frozen in time:
I see Junior standing in the Sunday teal uniform, both arms raised skyward, watching a game-winning home run sail into the right field bleachers.
I can picture Chad Kreuter dropping a suicide squeeze to score Rich Amaral and win a late-season contest.
There’s Alex Diaz, diving onto the warning track, the digits on the back of his jersey facing home plate, stretched out full extension to grab a wayward fly ball.
There’s Joey Cora, crouched into a seemingly-impossible batting stance, leaning as far backwards as his body will allow, almost appearing cartoonish to the discerning eye.
I visualize Jay Buhner in a road ballpark on a sunny day, perpetual ’90s shades gleaming beneath his cap, a patch of pine tar on his pant leg.
Edgar Martinez pinwheeling his bat above his helmet, hands held high, the barrel pointed towards his foe in the pitcher’s circle.
These are the photos I’ve ingrained in the album in my mind. They are what I initially see when I think back to a decade-and-a-half ago.
On top of that, I remember the moments.
I remember listening to Dave Niehaus call a Tino Martinez walk-off dinger on a summer afternoon, a Sunday, in the living room of my grandma’s old house.
I remember racing home from the bus stop just in time to witness Luis Sojo’s “everybody scores” makeshift in-the-park, error-aided, grand slam home run in the one-game playoff against California.
I remember Dan Wilson leaping into Randy Johnson’s arms when the M’s finally reached the playoffs for the first time in their history.
I remember Don Mattingly striking out, and striking out, and striking out some more. And I remember the Kingdome faithful adding salt to the wound by chanting “DON-NIE STRIKE-OUT” at the Yankee first baseman with each trip to the plate.
I remember Jack McDowell emerging from the right field bullpen, taking the mound for New York in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Likewise, I remember the Mariners countering by bringing Randy Johnson out of the left field bullpen in that very same game. I remember the Big Unit’s steely glare of a scowl as he stalked towards the infield, Welcome to the Jungle blaring in the background, every fan on their feet going nuts.
I remember The Double. I remember Junior barreling around third base. I remember The Slide. I remember the ensuing melee. I remember watching from the orange bleacher seats on the first base side, 300 level of the Dome. I remember yelling, jumping, holding an Ivar’s-sponsored “REFUSE TO LOSE” sign.
A few days later, I remember it all coming to an end.
I remember Jose Mesa closing out a Cleveland Indians victory, a win that gave them the American League pennant. I remember Mesa’s teammates celebrating on the Astroturf for a short while. Then I remember the applause. It lasted forever. It drowned out any memory I have of the Indians walking off that field. I remember the noise escalating until you couldn’t tell who had won and who had lost. And then I remember the Mariners players. I remember them emerging from the dugout, from the clubhouse. I remember them standing in the middle of the stadium, clapping with us, waving. I remember someone — Vince Coleman, maybe — videotaping the moment on a camcorder. There were no losers that night, in spite of the scoreboard.
Most of all, I remember how that summer faded into fall seamlessly, the Mariners overcoming a 13-game AL West deficit to the Angels, claiming ballgames down the stretch like conquistadors to foreign islands. A new hero every night. Intense drama with every pitch. Unlike any other sporting event I’ve ever been a part of.
I’m 25 years old now, but it feels like yesterday. It seems like everything went right for those 365 days. My existence was still unburdened. My childhood was still intact. I was a kid. And sports were my very being.
That was my year, 1995. The best year of my life.