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M’S Fans Dig It, Literally

Not only do they worship the ground Randy Johnson walks on here, now some of them actually own a little bit of it.

They scraped it off the Kingdome pitcher’s mound with their very own hands and shoveled it into their pants pockets. They fell to their knees and nails and tried to excavate home plate. They chased and hugged and mauled their heroes with such raw passion that it drove them from the field without so much as a victory lap - and that was probably a good thing.

The Seattle Mariners needed the rest. They have a game today.

With a 9-1 knockout of the California Angels on Monday afternoon, the Mariners won their first - look, they won their first anything, OK? - their first championship, their first valid excuse to celebrate, their first smidgen of honest-to-goodness respect.

They won parole after being sentenced to 19 years of haplessness.

Specifically, they won the American League West and entry into baseball’s expanded playoffs against the New York Yankees, but each and every Mariner understood that considerably more was at stake in this one-game staredown.

And so, it seemed, did every one of the 52,356 fans who showed up - from Seattle and Spokane and Portland and points unknown - on short notice and nearly turned the Kingdome into that retractable-roof stadium the ballclub so covets.

“This was about keeping baseball in Seattle,” insisted Johnson, the left-handed monster who threw strike after high-decibel strike past the Angels.

“This was about giving back to a city that hasn’t seen a lot of winning here and letting everybody enjoy the moment.”

So. Is this baseball town enough for you?

“No question about it,” confirmed third baseman Mike Blowers, who started the seventh-inning rally that blew the doors off the Dome. “Those people out there were voting on every pitch.”

And on every pitch, nerves were bared and larynxes ruptured. When Johnson got two strikes on Gary DiSarcina - just the second batter of the afternoon - the fans rose in anticipation of the strikeout. They got up again moments later just before Johnson punched out Jim Edmonds to end the inning.

Johnson had them up and down so often you’d have thought it was high Mass.

In a way, of course, it was.

It was high drama, too. Johnson was perfect - 17 up, 17 down - until Rex Hudler aimed a roller between the desperate dives of Tino Martinez and Joey Cora with two out in the sixth inning. Mark Langston, the pitcher the Mariners had given up to get Johnson six years ago, was only slightly less masterful. Helped by three double plays, Langston kept the M’s off the scoreboard until Vince Coleman singled home Dan Wilson in the fifth.

But then the Mariners managed to load the bases in the seventh and Luis Sojo - one of those “whozat?” players teams can’t win championships without - sliced a shot underneath California’s bullpen bench that cleared the bases. When Langston’s wild relay allowed Sojo to score as well, the joint erupted.

At 3:43 p.m., the joke was finally on somebody else.

“The only painful thing,” M’s manager Lou Piniella pointed out before the game, “is that one of these teams will have to see the other one celebrate.”

And it was especially painful for the Angels, who led the Mariners by 13 games on Aug. 2, went into a swoon for the ages, dropped three games behind Seattle with five to play and somehow resurrected themselves to force the playoff.

“It’s just unfortunate we had to end the season facing Johnson,” said cleanup hitter Tim Salmon, who struck out four times and made the final out looking at an off-speed beauty. “He’s the best in the league.”

That’s why, after Sojo’s hit, the rest of the game was a formality. The fans started up chants for Johnson and for Edgar Martinez, the people’s choice for Most Valuable Player. Even Dave Niehaus, the play-by-play voice who has hung in there as no one else has in what was once No Fan’s Land, took a bow from the booth.

My oh freaking my.

Between half-innings, 25 security cops - a pretty good Mariners crowd in bygone years - took up posts along the foul lines, knowing the ultimate futility of their mission to keep the converts off the field.

“It’s better at home,” said Piniella, whose team could have clinched the title in Texas but lost the last two games of the regular season. “The fans are such a big part of this. It was destiny coming back here in a way.”

A reward, but a nerve-racking one. Mariners fans have never been granted any hope, and the prospect of losing their competitive-at-last team unless voters approved a new stadium only increased the anxiety. In Cleveland, it was clear in May that the Indians - housed in a jazzy new home - were going to win the AL Central by a jillion games. In Boston, that Curse-of-the-Bambino whining is a contrivance compared to the ongoing despair of Marinerdom.

“Hey, I told you guys when we were 17 games out or 13 out or whatever not to count us out,” right fielder Jay Buhner said. “It just goes to show you anything can happen.”

Hmm. The next thing you know the Cougars will be back in the Rose Bowl and Naselle will win the State B.

And now for the anticlimax: the playoffs. The downside of Monday’s bliss is that the Mariners must do it again 24 hours later against the rested Yankees - and with their ace out of commission until at least Game 3.

“For that reason, it would have been nice not to have had to play today,” agreed Blowers. “But who would have wanted to miss this?”

After 19 years, not a soul.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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