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Another Breathtaking Game

Mon., April 1, 1996

The banner looks great, by the way. Or it will if the smoke ever clears.

Cough, cough. Damn indoor fireworks. On a scale of one to Rathdrum prairie, the air quality on any given opening night in the Kingdome will bring tears to your eyes. Although this time, that may have been the point.

This city needs something with a little ventilation. A retractable roof stadium. Somebody see to that.

Oh. Sure. The Seattle Mariners already did.

And 57,467 and ESPN were here Sunday night to celebrate it. There was a toast to the stadium in the works and a toast to saving baseball’s life in Seattle and a toast to all the pulp fiction finishes of September and October and, finally, a toast to the banner.

The banner. It was raised to the roof - you don’t just hang ‘em on the fence anymore - with the proper pomp and lasers. It’s white, measures 20 by 30 and hangs over Ken Griffey Jr.’s head when he’s playing a batter to pull.

Under the compass rose logo of the Mariners, it reads, “1995 A.L. West Champions.”

Sounds as good as it looks.

And the look Sunday was eerily familiar - a virtual carbon copy of the improbable events of last October. Alex Rodriguez, the franchise apparent, stroked the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 12th inning for a 3-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox - but only after Randy Johnson had struck out just about everybody wearing gray and the bullpen had dug down for second and third helpings of moxie.

Oh, and there was a big hit by Edgar Martinez. But you already knew that.

Even had the Mariners lost, paramedics wouldn’t have been dashing around treating broken hearts.

For a couple of days, at least, the 1996 baseball season in Seattle will be mostly about 1995. When you’ve never known a past, you obsess on any facsimile you can find.

“I know Lou and the team are focused on the season just starting,” said Mariners President Chuck Armstrong before the opener, “but I think you could say that the city of Seattle deserves this night.”

So they dimmed the lights 50 minutes before the first pitch and on came the highlights on the Diamon-dvision screen. And while the response was warm and genuine, it was hardly the din of October.

It was the sound of 57,000 saying, “You had to be there.”

Fact is: It never again will be as good as it was when Joey Cora bunted and danced around Don Mattingly’s tag, or when Edgar had Dave Niehaus hollering for the rye bread, or when Junior found passing gear rounding third base.

It never will be as good as it was when the Big Unit took his dramatic walk to the bullpen.

It can’t be. Even a World Series figures to come in second. This was first love, and you know what they say about that.

Now, the Mariners of ‘96 may well manufacture their own memories, though not unless they do better than 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position - Sunday’s statistic of consequence. And they should. The roster revisions have been many and traumatic, but the essence of what won games for Seattle in ‘95 is the same.

“And it’s good to know we have a chance of Junior playing 162 games,” said Piniella, who lost his star to a broken wrist for 73 games last season. “That’s a good feeling.”

Yes, the pitching situation looks scary. But a year ago, Piniella came north with a starting rotation of Johnson, Chris Bosio, Dave Fleming, Bob Wells and Tim Davis. Is Johnson, Sterling Hitchcock, Bob Wolcott, Edwin Hurtado and Paul Menhart so much worse?

Hey, Mariner pitchers struck out 21 Sunday night, equaling a club record. What’s that bumper sticker say? “Visualize World Series”?

Besides, 60 percent of last year’s starting rotation had turned over by season’s end. The ‘95 M’s were always a work in progress - right up to the American League Championship Series when Bob Wolcott was pulled out of a hat - and so are the ‘96 Mariners. They have to be. Right now, Piniella has more infielders on the active roster (10) than pitchers (9).

That’s one truth. Another is that there are real baseball-town expectations now. The next time young Wolcott walks the bases loaded with no outs, the reaction will be exasperation, not sympathetic anxiety.

But for the time being, there’s a euphoric hangover. Seattle was the biggest draw in the Cactus League. Nearly 12,000 fans turned out for batting practice Saturday - bigger than eight home crowds a year ago. A record 13,000 season tickets have been sold. The M’s will be on TV 120 times this summer.

Of course, this is the easy part - coming up with gas money for the bandwagon. The test - for the Mariners and the smitten - will come in July or August, should the chips ever be down.

“If the Angels go up by 13 games this year,” Piniella said, “it’s over.”

How do you like that? The maestro of the magic act already has decreed that there will be no encore.

Hey, the smoke has cleared. And that banner does look great.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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

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