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Mariners Earn Place On Page One And In Our Hearts

TUESDAY, SEPT. 26, 1995

Welcome to Mariner Nation.

Congratulations. You have evolved from a cult into your very own country - and you have done it as quickly as Dave Niehaus can giddyup his larynx from “Belted, deep to right!” to “Fly away!”

Look here: You have nudged consolidation and Randy Weaver off the Front Page, at least temporarily.

Cruelty to animals and our cantankerous coroner are hitting well down in the order of lunch-counter conversation.

Instantly, incredulously, the talk has turned to baseball.

Seattle baseball.

Fastballs up and home runs out. Pinch-hit heroics and cliffhanger finishes. A pennant race.

First place.

One area code over, the baseball team that’s forever been a rusty Ferris wheel with one basket perpetually stalled at the bottom has transformed itself into Space Mountain.

And we’ve all jumped on for the ride.

OK, maybe not all of us. Even after Tino Martinez’s home run Sunday dotted the exclamation mark on the most improbable Mariner comeback in a month of improbable comebacks, no doubt there are still some holdouts - even among those inclined to athletic fandom.

Still burned up by the betrayal of the strike, they are. Put off by millionaires. Bored by baseball. Immersed in NFL fantasy leagues.

Or perhaps they’re not in range of the modern media - television, radio, the backyard fence.

These are isolated pockets of resistance.

You know because if you were cleaning out the garage on Sunday and your batteries went kaput, you could still hear your neighbor’s radio across the alley. You know because when Martinez’s blast rocketed into the Kingdome’s right-field stands, a cheer went up a block away.

This has been building since the 24th of August, when Ken Griffey Jr. - lost to the Mariners for 73 games because of a broken wrist - announced his return with a game-winning homer against the Yankees. It has intensified dramatically in the past week.

Somebody named Doug Strange saves the M’s with a homer in the ninth. Another somebody named Alex Diaz punches out Oakland with a dinger. Manager Lou Piniella can’t miss, whether it’s picking pinch hitters or running in three different pitchers to face three different batters.

If only he’d go halvies with you on a lottery ticket.

Never has this region been galvanized by baseball. A mere 152,803 passed through the portals of the Kingdome in the space of three nights to witness the magic.

And here?

A soccer dad can’t wait for Saturday morning’s game to end, what with the van gassed and ready for the four-hour drive and Randy Johnson penciled in to pitch that night.

Couples on a dinner date decide the menu is secondary to finding a sports bar with the right satellite coordinates.

Your aerobics instructor - who couldn’t locate the Kingdome with a compass - asks, “How about those Mariners?”

At DJ’s Sound City, the only Ticketmaster outlet in Spokane, Mariners transactions have “tripled, at least, since two weeks ago,” reported Brian Chester, the manager at the Northtown store.

“It’s been nuts, but it’s been fun. And everybody on the phone wants to know about playoff tickets, which we don’t sell. I’m an avid fan myself and a guy comes in looking for three tickets to tomorrow’s game and I end up spending 20 minutes talking baseball. Everybody’s watching and everybody’s listening. And right now, Dave Niehaus rules.”

My oh my. For 19 years, the Mariners’ play-by-play voice has been dropping that phrase on us, coaxing us to care. Through hopeless Augusts and irrelevant Septembers, he’s been little more than background noise.

Now he’s our soundtrack, and he’s loud, proud, on a cloud. The talking heads on ESPN teased him for it the other night, but they don’t understand that even with the volume turned up past 10, Niehaus has found the perfect pitch for his audience.

The hard-core riveted to Niehaus for 19 years may be sniffing about all these front-runners and comelatelies, but geography alone does not a bond make. It’s taken nearly two decades for Mariners ownership to get the message that Seattle is a baseball town - and the Northwest a baseball region - if only it’s presented with a baseball team.

And so the new ownership has - going millions of dollars in the red and still fishing for the means to get to October. Tim Belcher from Cincinnati. Andy Benes from San Diego. Vince Coleman from Kansas City.

The magic number is five.

No explanation is necessary for you citizens of Mariner Nation.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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

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