How "The Kid" Helped this Kid Overcome Grief and Refuse to Lose
With Ken Griffey Jr. getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today, I'm reminded how sports can be so much more than a pastime. In 1995, the Seattle Mariner's improbable run to the American League Championship Series coincided with the most extended hardships of my life.
In January 1995, we lived in Bremerton, Washington - Mom, Dad, my younger brothers and sister, and me.
In December 1995, we celebrated Christmas in a new home in Aloha, Oregon - Mom, Stepdad, and we kids. The year had brought divorce, remarriage, Dad's death, and a transplant from friendships and familiarity. As a 14/15 year old, I also had the overblown tragedy of moving away from "the girl I was going to marry." Ah, yes.
In 1995, the Mariners broke from eighteen seasons of futility. These 'Cardiac Kids' mounted a comeback in the American League West standings in often spectacular fashion. "Refuse to Lose" galvanized a city and saved baseball in Seattle. "The Kid" was the once-in-a-generation talent whose midseason comeback from a wrist injury and flair for the dramatic defined the heart and soul of this team.
On August 24, Griffey smashed a bottom of the 9th inning, game-winning home run off the Yankees' closer John Wetteland. The victory pulled the M's back to .500, at 55-55, and propelled them toward a historic run. They would go on to win 24 of 35, finishing 79-66. The final victory was a one-game tiebreaker against the Anaheim Angels for the division crown, setting up a divisional series matchup against those same (damn) Yankees.
August 24 was also the day after my dad was hospitalized from multiple heart attacks. Quadruple bypass surgery failed to extend his life and he died on Sunday morning, August 27.
Amid all the shock, grief, and confusion, I found something solid in the Mariners run. I was certainly also blessed with a supportive extended family and church home. These were my public sources of comfort. But for all the love I received, a lot of grief and change simply has to be processed alone, in the moments you have to yourself. I spent a lot of those moments alone with my radio, listening to the inimitable Dave Niehaus give the play-by-play for Mariners games.
The Mariners refused to lose. And I was gratefully caught up into a greater story than my grief.
The Mariners dropped the first two games of the best-of-five series against the Yankees, the second one a fifteen-inning heartbreaker. They returned to Seattle needing to sweep three home games to move on in the playoffs. Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson secured the Game 3 victory and Edgar Martinez' two home runs led the way in Game 4's series-tying win.
Sunday, October 8, 1995. Six weeks after Dad died. I went to church and was blown away when my friend Brett Maddux offered me an extra ticket to attend Game 5 with his family! There we were - first base side, first row of the third deck sky view seats in the late (not-so) great Kingdome. I watched in the bottom of the 8th, as Griffey launched the Mariners to within one run with his fifth home run in as many games. The M's would tie the game later that inning. I bowed down as Randy Johnson entered to pitch in relief in extra innings on but one day's rest.
And I was there in the bottom of the 11th.
The Yankees had pushed across the go-ahead run in the top half of the frame, leaving the M's three outs away from going home. Joey Cora opened the inning with a bunt single. Griffey followed with a sharp single to put the tying run at third and the potential winning run at first. Edgar Martinez stepped up to the plate, having struck out in his previous at-bat against the same pitcher. Strike one. There would be no strike two as Edgar sent a hanging splitter into the left field corner for a double. Cora's run tied the game and I nearly jumped off the third deck from screaming as Griffey galloped from first to home, sliding safely for the game-winning, series-clinching, fireworks-launching run!
We chanted and cheered from the Kingdome, to the ferry terminal, and for the duration of the hourlong ride home. Elation followed a year of devastation, like I had never experienced.
The Mariners went on to lose the ALCS to Cleveland and miss out on the World Series. The fairy tale didn't conclude happily ever after, but the magic could not be dispelled. The Mariners have failed to make a World Series appearance to this day, while the Yankees were spurred on by this heart-breaking series to claim four titles in five years. (I'll save talk of the Evil Empire for another time). My beloved Seattle Supersonics basketball team gave their own valiant effort that year, finishing the 1995-1996 season 64-18, but losing the NBA Finals to Michael Jordan's Bulls in six games.
I learned a few things from Ken Griffey Jr. and the Seattle Mariners in 1995. I learned you don't have to win to overcome. You just have to refuse to lose; to possess an internal commitment to keep your head up and continue fighting. The Cardiac Kids showed me that even when your Dad's heart fails, and your own heart breaks, it ain't over until its over. Live while the life is in you.
And when life throws adversity, turn your cap around backward, flash a smile, and give it your best swing.
Congratulations to "The Kid." The best I have ever seen.