It happens so fast, sometimes. A moment ago, two runs behind, the game seemed almost over, the stadium lethargic; too much of the same thing has already happened this season. The Mariners have trailed almost the entire game after the Twins got to Doug Fister early. Only two months in, and they’ve already seen eight walk-off losses, 14 losses that came down to the game’s final plate appearance. They’ve had an eight-game losing streak. And who’s up this inning? No one to inspire. Jose Lopez, Josh Wilson, Rob Johnson. Edge-of-your-seat kinds of baseball guys.
But Jose Lopez hits a double into the right field corner, and Josh Wilson slaps a single up the middle, and all of a sudden, there is hope. It’s 5-4, nobody out, and the go-ahead run is coming to the plate.
Today is Monday. On Saturday, the Mariners played the Angels in Anaheim; Félix Hernández pitched eight innings, allowing only a single run, but the Mariners batters failed to back him up with anything more than a single run of their own. After walking Hideki Matsui, the first batter of the Angels ninth, Hernández gave way to Brandon League — who, after a scoreless ninth and top of the 10th, ended the game by allowing a grand slam to Kendrys Morales. On Sunday, still playing the Angels, the Mariners led 7-2 in the fifth. But a gradual crumble led to a final death-blow — a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. Another walk-off loss for Seattle. They returned home defeated and demoralized. Here, now, the tables are turned. One win can’t erase the memory of all the losses. But it can, for a moment, give everyone something to celebrate — give everyone something meaningful to hold on to.
And as though some magic has passed over them, the people who have been comfortably in their seats for the past two hours rise. They grab their cameras, flashes of lenses and phones glittering in the stands. Something has been awakened. Not for Rob Johnson, though. Even when it’s 2010 and the Mariners are 19-30, and with all due respect to him, this is not a moment for Rob Johnson.
As Griffey steps up to the plate, Dave Niehaus notes that his playing time has decreased dramatically over the past few weeks, even as the team has struggled through an eight-game losing streak. The Kid is 40 now, and in this, his second season back with the Mariners after a decade away, it is painfully obvious how much has changed in the years since he left. Everything no longer comes naturally. That swing can no longer connect the way it once did; when the ball leaves the bat, he no longer flies around the bases. His role has been reduced to that of a pinch-hitter — a role in which he is 2-for-5 this season.
But when he steps into the box — when he sweeps his bat over the plate, then pulls it up behind his head, where it stays moving, ever-ready — when he takes a swing at the first-pitch fastball from Twins closer Jon Rauch and the crack of the bat rings out above the stadium noise — it’s so easy to forget. To be, in that moment, transported to the thousands of moments that came before this. Back to Cincinnati, six years ago on a packed-house Father’s Day: the sound, the bat dropped straight to the ground, the skip around the bases as people flew out of their seats, watching number 500 soar into right field — his father and family there, smiling.
You can see him, there over a decade prior, rounding the bases right after his dad had done the same, the elder Griffey standing in the dugout with his hands on his hips and a grin on his face — disbelief. There was a lot of that.
And there, crossing home plate as the foundations of the Kingdome shook, mobbed by his jubilant teammates; to all those games in that postseason, the home runs, again and again silencing Yankee Stadium, bringing the Mariners back to life. That one home run in particular — Game 5, against David Cone, down 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth — not a sliver of hope, a tiny beam seeping through a hair’s-width crack, but a burst of impossibly bright light.
And beyond those still, there are all the other moments. Inconsequential, you could call them. But taken together, they become far more than the sum of their parts. Two decades’ worth of elation. No wonder everyone is on their feet. How could they not be? How could you not remember how things were — how they could be again, for just this second?
The ball goes foul. Exhale.
On the next pitch, he swings again. It’s chopped. It should be a double play. That should be it: more deflation, any hope now resting on Casey Kotchman with two out — basically over.
But JJ Hardy’s throw from second comes up short, and Junior reaches safely. No magic. The runner didn’t advance; there’s one out now. Michael Saunders is called on to pinch run. The broadcast doesn’t even show him walking off the field.
Griffey is gone.
More than 20 years ago now, Griffey stepped into the box at the Oakland Coliseum for the first time as a major leaguer. The weight of the world on his shoulders, as Niehaus said on the broadcast. Drafted first overall, the son of star, the expectations of a franchise burdened by more than 10 years of futility. He swung, made contact — the weight fell away. A double all the way to the bottom of the wall, and there he was on second, looking as though he can’t believe it either.
Two weeks later, the first pitch he saw in the Kingdome out of the park. As if it was easy. Unbelievable, but then, what wasn’t with him?
Kotchman grounds into a double play.
Three days later, in a press release, Griffey announces his retirement. “I feel that without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my team-mates, and their success as team is what the ultimate goal should be,” the statement reads. It is 75 years to the day that Babe Ruth retired, and that night, the Mariners win: 2-1, on a two-out infield single from Ichiro.