A Precursor to Greatness

One of my very first sports memories is the very first no-hitter in Seattle Mariners history. June 2nd, 1990. Randy Johnson, against the Detroit Tigers.

I was five years old and quite possibly the biggest little Mariner fan in the world. I wore a royal blue cap emblazoned with the team’s familiar gold “S” every single day (seriously, there are very few pictures from my childhood where I’m without that hat). The M’s were my entire being at that point in my life. I could name all the players on the team right down to the most obscure: Bryan Clark, a veteran relief pitcher; Dave Cochrane, the ultimate utility player; Jeff Schaefer, another utility man who was so irrelevant he would later be replaced on the front of his 1992 Donruss card by a picture of Tino Martinez. And of course I had my favorites, too: Ken Griffey Jr., Alvin Davis, Edgar Martinez, Omar Vizquel, and yes, the six-foot-ten-inch southpaw, Randy Johnson.

We didn’t always stay all nine innings back then. I was young enough to necessitate an early bedtime and my brother was even younger, so attending a full game was, for us, as rare as a no-hitter. But on that particular day I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the ballpark along with my dad. And we weren’t leaving until the final out was recorded.

Through the fog that shrouds the memories of childhood, I remember standing and cheering during the ninth inning. We were in our usual spot in the Kingdome, 300 level, first base side. When Tigers catcher Mike Heath swung at a high fastball to end it, everyone on hand went nuts. There hadn’t been much to cheer about in the annals of Seattle Mariners baseball and this was one of the franchise’s first noteworthy triumphs. It was a memorable evening, one nobody in attendance would ever forget.

No-hitters are unique in that way. There is no other individual achievement in sports that seems to capture the hearts and minds of fans like a no-hit effort. There is superstition involved, drama with every pitch thrown, and bouts of terror each time bat meets ball. Perhaps that’s why an entire fan base found itself engrossed in a contest some 2,000 miles away on Tuesday night, paying witness to another momentous event in team history.

Frankly, we should have seen this coming. James Paxton had been remarkable in his previous start, striking out sixteen Oakland Athletics en route to the most dominating performance of his five-year career. He’d been on a roll prior to that, too, having helped the team to victories in his four previous outings.

On this night, Paxton would take the mound in his native country of Canada against the team that had once selected him in the first round of the 2009 Amateur Draft. The first pitch unleashed to Toronto’s leadoff hitter, Teoscar Hernandez, was a fastball for a strike; three pitches later, Hernandez swung through another heater and became the inaugural strikeout victim.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson was the second man to the plate for Toronto. He, too, went down in a flailing heap – though in fairness, he forced Paxton to labor through a five-pitch at-bat. A pair of strikeouts to begin the game – Paxton would finish with seven strikeouts altogether – and it was clear that the six-foot-four-inch lefty had his best stuff working.

The Mariners’ offense did its part, pouncing on Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman for five runs in five innings. A pair of runs in the third, another pair in the fourth on a Mike Zunino home run, and then an all-but-meaningless fifth run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly. The M’s would finish with 12 more hits than their opponent, an onslaught that was certainly more than enough to support their ace.

After the scoring outburst, the attention shifted to defense. The final nine outs of the ballgame were by no means uneventful. The seventh inning came to its demise only after Kyle Seager made a spectacular diving snag along the third base line to prevent an extra-base hit from spoiling the occasion. That was immediately preceded by first baseman Ryon Healy digging a one-hop toss from shortstop Jean Segura out of the SkyDome’s unforgiving turf.

The bottom of the eighth began with fireworks, as left fielder Ben Gamel ran down a long fly ball with a leaping grab on the warning track. Shortly thereafter, Dee Gordon slid to his knees to secure a hard-hit line drive in center, bringing Paxton ever closer to his place in the record books.

With every fan holding his or her breath and every player likely teeming with adrenaline, the tall left-hander took to the hill in the ninth inning and calmly dispatched of the first hitter he faced. A single pitch to begin the frame that Anthony Alford couldn’t resist, resulting in a foul pop-up down the right field line for out number one.

That flipped the lineup and brought leadoff hitter Teoscar Hernandez back for his fourth crack at Paxton. Just as he did in his initial encounter, Hernandez struck out swinging yet again, and suddenly the 29-year-old from Ladner, British Columbia was one final out away from something truly special.

The scene could have been drawn from a movie script. The only man standing in the way of Paxton’s feat was the aforementioned Donaldson, Toronto’s best hitter and a former American League MVP. He strolled to the batter’s box, dug in, and took an aggressive hack at the first pitch he saw, a fastball up in the zone.

Time may as well have ceased by then. The world paused for a moment. Anyone witnessing this battle did so with frayed emotions and a bundle of anxiety. There are nerves, and then there are no-hitter nerves – the latter requiring nothing short of an elephant tranquilizer to properly quell.

With tension looming, Paxton delivered his 99th pitch of the contest. Donaldson, never one to get cheated at the dish, uncoiled and drove his bat through the zone, blistering a chopper that seemed headed towards left field. For a split second, oxygen failed to exist for every Mariner fan looking on – but wait! Seager, positioned perfectly, snared the ball on a hop, set his feet, and sent the last assist of the evening across the diamond. Healy hauled in the throw for the game’s final putout at almost the same time he pumped his fist and kicked off the postgame celebration. And there, standing at the base of the mound, was the big Canadian. With both arms raised toward the sky, he looked to the first base dugout and was mobbed by a rush of teammates. His first no-hitter intact, Paxton reveled.

By the numbers, it was the sixth no-hitter the Mariners had ever achieved. More than any of the others, however, this one felt most comparable to the team’s first some 28 years earlier. The no-no spun by a 26-year-old Johnson in 1990 was a precursor to greatness. Johnson had struggled with consistency and control throughout his career to that point. He had mixed flashes of brilliance with periods of disappointment. The no-hitter, though, seemed to stabilize all the talent the future Hall of Famer possessed in his magical left arm.

By comparison, Paxton, too, has faltered many times throughout five years in the majors. His ability is undenied, and yet he has dealt with his own share of inconsistency, as well as injury. But just like Johnson before him, perhaps an accomplishment of this magnitude can serve as the turning point for a future filled with landmark moments.

You remember no-hitters. I’ll always be able to recall the first one I laid eyes on. Somewhere, a young Mariners fan will hold onto Tuesday night’s gem as the first of his or her own. And for the rest of his life, James Paxton will never forget where he was and what he did on May 8th, 2018.

2 thoughts on “A Precursor to Greatness”

  1. I remember earlier, I think that season, Brian Holman, who also came to the M’s in the deal for Mark Langston, had a perfect game for 9 2/3 innings until he threw a home run ball to Ken Phelps.

  2. Since I can’t edit my comment, let me correct myself. Holman was perfect for 8 2/3 innings. Also, for new fans, the M’s traded their ace Mark Langston to Montreal for Brian Holman, Randy Johnson, and Gene Harris.

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