History, Home Runs, and the Unexpected Arrival of Fun

628x471They were down to their last at-bats, the Mariners, and a game they desperately needed to win was quickly slipping from their grasp. Their divisional foes, the hated Texas Rangers, had built a lead in the top half of the seventh inning and managed to protect it through two frames since.

Now, the Rangers turned to their closer, a lanky right-hander by the name of Jeff Russell. The 34-year-old Russell had enjoyed his best years with Texas, even leading the American League in saves in 1989, his fifth year with the club. He had bounced around over the past three seasons, however, embarking on an odyssey that had taken him from Oakland, to Boston, to Cleveland, and finally back to Arlington. All the while he continued racking up saves, and it was this very situation, pitching in defense of a two-run Rangers lead, that Russell had grown accustomed to enjoying.

His first assignment would be to retire a pinch hitter, the speedy, switch-hitting Alex Diaz.

Diaz was in the midst of what would ultimately become his finest big league season. He would finish the year with career highs in a number of categories, including games played. And his 18 stolen bases would triple his next-best seasonal output hereafter. For now, though, Diaz was merely focused on reaching base by any means necessary.

***

The Mariners had squandered eight innings worth of opportunities, as well as a quality start by Felix Hernandez, and now scuffled into the ninth deadlocked in a 0-0 tie against the rival Los Angeles Angels.

On any other evening, the M’s may have been able to justify the lack of production, but not tonight. Aside from watching their ace tally 11 strikeouts over seven scoreless frames, Seattle was squaring off against an opponent that had clinched the divisional crown less than 24 hours prior. Nursing champagne-induced hangovers and having earned a well-deserved rest, manager Mike Scioscia had benched every last one of his regular starters in favor of a lineup that would have elicited its fair share of “Huhs” and “Whos” in a Triple-A ballpark. The Mariners were engaged in a stalemate with the equivalent of a minor league squad.

Scioscia handed the fate of the draw over to one of his more dependable bullpen options, righty Kevin Jepsen. Possessing an imposing six-foot-three-inch, 235-pound frame, Jepsen was capable of getting through most innings unscathed.

Due to face the heart of the Mariners order, the 30-year-old toed the rubber and delivered the first pitch of his evening’s work to left fielder Dustin Ackley, who watched as strike one whizzed by. Jepsen gathered the return throw from his catcher, Hank Conger, sauntered back to the mound’s apex, shrugged, set, and delivered again, this time for a ball. The process repeated itself, and on the ensuing pitch, Ackley rolled over a grounder to second baseman Grant Green, who flipped an assist over to first for out number one.

Robinson Cano strolled towards home plate. If anyone could unknot the tangled mess of zeroes in the box score, it was the Mariners’ best hitter, Cano.

On the first offering from Jepsen, Cano unleashed his hands and let fly with a swing. Alas, no ties would be broken with this particular flick of the wrists. First baseman Efren Navarro scooped up the resulting ground ball and completed the play for out number two.

It was up to former Angel Kendrys Morales to keep the inning alive.

***

He stood five-feet-eleven-inches tall, but somehow Diaz managed to fold his body like a coiled accordion into a much smaller frame once he happened upon the batter’s box. A 26-year-old Brooklyn native, Diaz’s shrinking act diminished the strike zone down to the size of a bread plate. Russell, seemingly fazed by the prospect of uncorking a fastball into a suddenly miniscule working area, walked Diaz on four straight pitches.

A leadoff base on balls, the game’s great omen of impending doom, was certainly not what manager Johnny Oates had in mind when he turned the game over to his ace reliever. But now Diaz perched atop first base with a chance to utilize his greatest asset, while an increasingly flustered Russell would work to yet another pinch hitter, Warren Newson.

Built in the mold of a fire hydrant or a beer keg, the 31-year-old Newson topped out at just five-feet-seven-inches above the earth and was best described using adjectives like “compact” or “portly.” To the casual fan, Newson might easily be mistaken for a different outfielder of a similar composition, the great Tony Gwynn. But the Padres legend had four inches in stature (not to mention thousands upon thousands of hits) on Newson, who would never play more than 91 games in a single season. In 33 contests with the Mariners, Newson would amass a respectable .292 batting average and even sock a pair of home runs. But on this particular evening, glory was not to be had. On three pitches, all strikes, the left-handed-hitting Newson was retired.

As strike three unfolded, Diaz took off, pilfering second base for one of his 18 steals on the season. He now stood poised to cut the Rangers lead to a lone sliver of a run. A ball driven to either gap would easily score the speedster, while even a routine single would make for a play at the plate. But the M’s would need more than just Diaz to balance the ledger on the scoreboard.

***

Morales was hitless on the evening, which came as little surprise to those who had witnessed his play of late. The 31-year-old Cuban was far from the cleanup hitter the team sought when they acquired him from Minnesota some two months earlier. His nights since had been peppered with more oh-fers than homers, more irritation than exultation.

He worked a two-two count, then stepped into a pitch and drove it the other way. The left fielder played it on a hop and, however unexpectedly, the Mariners’ designated hitter had lived up to his title. A single, and now the go-ahead run lived on the basepaths. In a heartbeat, pinch runner extraordinaire James Jones appeared from the dugout to take Morales’s place on the diamond.

With 26 stolen bases to his credit, Jones was always a threat to run. The Angels knew this, and thus kept a close watch on the 25-year-old Long Island University product. A former college pitcher, perhaps no baserunner was better equipped to gather the tics and tells of the arms that tried to keep him from advancing than Jones.

Jepsen surveyed the signs and went into his set. Glove, hand, and ball all met mid-torso and sat idle as the right-hander, with head cocked 45 degrees to the left, locked his peripherals on the nuisance dancing off first.

A second passed, then another, and another still. A raised hand and then, “Time!” The batter, Kyle Seager, and the home plate umpire, Bob Davidson, had conspired against Jepsen’s silent act of time-consuming defiance towards Jones. The tension had been momentarily broken.

The pattern resumed. This time, Jepsen delivered. Jones broke for second, then froze. A pitchout, as Conger leapt to his feet and snagged the toss at shoulder level. The runner retreated to the sanctity of first base. Ball one. Jones had not succumbed to the chess match.

Another pitch. Another ball. Jones remained on first. But he needed that extra bag. He craved it. Everyone in the building knew it, no one more so than Jepsen. And thus he spun and fired. A pickoff attempt. But wait! The ball got by the first baseman Navarro and suddenly Jones was on his way towards scoring position. A battle within a battle, won by the scampering thief. Jepsen and the Angels had lost this round. They responded by intentionally walking Seager. All eyes turned to Logan Morrison.

***

Manager Lou Piniella emptied his bench with a third consecutive pinch hitter. Doug Strange, a switch-hitting journeyman infielder, strode towards the left-handed batter’s box and stepped in to face Russell. One out, with Diaz waltzing around second.

With first base open, the Rangers could have elected to walk Strange if they chose, but that would mean bringing the winning run to the plate, a move only the most brazenly foolhardy would attempt. Instead, they’d take their chances with the 31-year-old backup who, like so many of his teammates, was in the waning stages of the best season of his career.

Who knows what would have happened if manager Johnny Oates had acted against conventional wisdom and put Strange aboard to set up the double play. Maybe Vince Coleman would have lifted a routine fly ball to left field immediately thereafter, as he went on to do anyway, holding both runners at their respective bases. With two away, maybe Joey Cora would have come to bat and grounded out to first base, as he did just minutes later. Maybe walking Strange wouldn’t have hurt one bit, and maybe Texas would have gone on to win the game and gain ground in their own pursuit of the AL West crown. These are all questions we’ll never be able to answer, because the stars simply didn’t align in this manner. Instead, the Rangers pitched to Strange.

***

Logan Morrison was the embodiment of unfulfilled potential. He had once been among the then-Florida Marlins’ top prospects, a power-hitting first baseman who was versatile enough to ably man the outfield, too. But then social media emerged and LoMo, as they called him, became better known for his prolific Twitter account than his on-field exploits. Marlins manager Jack McKeon had once jettisoned Morrison to the bench, then to the minor leagues, because he didn’t like the fact that his young player was issuing 140-character opinions in rapid succession. It didn’t help that Morrison’s play was suffering, as well. Hence, following the 2013 campaign, LoMo became expendable.

The Mariners’ offseason acquisition of Morrison was met with little fanfare, coming just one day prior to the franchise’s landmark signing of free agent Robinson Cano. Even as time passed and the season commenced, Morrison was hardly more than an afterthought. He assumed a platoon role as a part-time designated hitter/first baseman, an interchangeable part in a three-headed timeshare of two lineups spots.

The 26-year-old got off to a slow start, then was struck by injury. He sat out half of April, all of May, and the first 10 days of June before finally returning to the lineup nearly two months later. He began to hit, earning more playing time than before. He seized first base after Justin Smoak got hurt, but then drastically cooled off in July. An injury to his only other competition, Corey Hart, kept Morrison’s playing time from regressing along with his play. Continued reps allowed LoMo to heat back up in August, then segue the scorching summer surge into September.

As he dug into the batter’s box on this particular evening, no Mariners hitter was as hot as he was. If there was anyone in the lineup the Angels didn’t want to see at this point in time, it was probably Morrison.

He took strike one from Jepsen. No sense in rushing things. Though he had made a habit of being overly aggressive earlier in the year, LoMo had exhibited a bit more patience in weeks since. Seeing a strike was no longer a burden. Instead, he waited for the right pitch.

Jepsen twirled a ball that Morrison eyed to even the count. One-and-one. The weight of the moment lifted for a second, then just as quickly reemerged. Jepsen looked to Conger for a sign, Morrison stood ready for the third pitch of the at-bat, Jones and Seager distanced themselves from their respective bases. Jepsen set. Jepsen delivered.

***

It was gone.

There was no waiting, no anticipation, no teasing of emotions. Russell released his initial offering and Strange unloaded upon it with all the pent-up fervor of a man who, like a rowdy child sent to his room, had been waiting for an opportunity to come out and play. Bat met ball and the reaction was vicious.

Up, over, and out. Beyond the blue monster that comprised the Kingdome’s right field wall, over the out-of-town scoreboard that had been affixed to that very wall, and out into the depths of the 100-level bleachers. A two-run home run.

A crowd of 20,410 onlookers went batshit insane as fireworks rained down from the concrete ceiling of the dome. Strange, who made $195,000 in salary that season and may have earned it all in that one at-bat, casually made his way around the basepaths and stepped on home plate for the decisive game-tying run. From the loins of defeat, Strange and the Mariners had spawned, well, a momentary respite from the prospect of losing.

Two innings later, however, Ken Griffey Jr. would drive a single to left field scoring the evening’s hero, Strange, to win the game in dramatic, walk-off fashion. It was the pinch hitter, the unassuming backup, who played a role in each of the team’s final three runs.

***

There was no waiting on pitch number three. You don’t wait on mistakes, and Jepsen made a mistake. Morrison destroyed it.

Gone, to right-center field, just a few yards and a stadium away from a home run belted some 18 years and 364 days earlier.

The once-embattled first baseman rounded the diamond and emphatically landed upon the dish, high-fiving his teammates on the way back to a dugout that was going nuts. The book read 3-0 now, in favor of the visiting Seattle Mariners. They would hold on for a 3-1 victory, moving just one game back of the second American League Wildcard spot and a trip to the postseason.

Were it not for a single day in between, exactly 19 years would have passed since Doug Strange blasted his pivotal, season-defining homer in a 1995 campaign that bore the Mariners’ first playoff appearance. Nearly two decades later, Morrison crushed a shot that may indeed come to define the 2014 Seattle Mariners season.

For every comparison between one magical year and another year holding some promise, there are any number of dismissive scoffs rendering the juxtaposed moments incomparable. This year is not that year and vice versa.

But on one late-summer night in September of 2014, not unlike a similar late-summer night in September of 1995, fans rejoiced a team they had fallen in love with. They celebrated an unexpected moment given to them by an unexpected savior that would punctuate an unexpected success of a season. Baseball, they were reminded, was meant to be fun. And this moment, just like that moment before it, was absolutely, one-hundred-percent fun.

2 thoughts on “History, Home Runs, and the Unexpected Arrival of Fun”

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