It is Opening Night at the Kingdome, a bull market for hope. The premature scent of freshly inked World Series tickets is in the air.
It’s all fudge and fireworks and, with the home team ahead as the eighth inning approaches, nothing is going to wring an ounce of festive from the atmosphere.
Until Bobby Ayala begins to warm up in the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.
“Booooooo!” the catcalls begin. “Booooooooooooo!”
With the home team hitting on the first night of the most promising baseball season in Northwest history, a sellout house - most of it anyway - is momentarily preoccupied jeering a beleaguered 27-year-old relief pitcher with a finicky forkball.
Just for warming up.
Subsequent events have confirmed it, but it became official that night:
Bobby Ayala is the most hated athlete in the brief history of Northwest major league sports. And it isn’t even close.
Visiting villains - we’re thinking John Elway here - don’t count. Nor do pro wrestlers.
The Sonics have had their share of the sullen and the unlikable - even the truly dangerous, like John Brisker, once regarded as the meanest man in the old ABA. But fans never seemed to work up much bile for busts like Alton Lister and Benoit Benjamin - and as much as they’re maddened by Shawn Kemp, they’re mostly mesmerized.
The Seahawks? Dan McGwire was disparaged, but not despised. Rick Mirer took his booing too graciously to be sincerely reviled.
Fact is, until the dawn of Refuse to Lose, the region saved its reverence for the football team - and in some respects still does. Repugnant as he was, Brian Bosworth was ridiculed only after he could no longer play. Scabs were tolerated. A Florida jury convicted Brian Blades of manslaughter, but in the Kingdome, he’s adored.
And for 19 years, the Mariners were always too pitiable to be despicable.
No, maybe it’s the proletarian instinct of the rugged Northwesterner, but fans always found it much easier to hate the bosses - George Argyros, Ken Behring, Barry Acklerly.
So who is Bobby Ayala?
“He’s the anti-Christ,” a caller to Seattle’s KJR Radio said recently. “I mean it. He’s Satan’s love-child.”
And why are they saying those terrible things about him?
Maybe because of Aug. 15, 1995. Relieving with a 6-2 lead, Ayala surrenders two RBI singles and a three-run homer to Kirby Puckett and the M’s lose to Minnesota, 7-6.
Or last July 25 - a three-run double by Brad Ausmus, Detroit wins 7-4. Or Sept. 27 - a walk, a bungled bunt, a three-run gopher ball to Oakland’s Scott Spiezio. Or just last month - Yankee catcher Joe Girardi’s 415-foot homer to dead center off Ayala beating the M’s 6-5.
See a pattern emerging here?
But nothing cemented Ayala’s reputation quite like Game 1 of the 1995 American League divisional playoffs. Seventh inning, 4-4 game, runner on first. Enter Ayala.
Wade Boggs singles. Bernie Williams doubles. Paul O’Neill hits a sacrifice fly. Ruben Sierra homers. Don Mattingly doubles.
Exit Ayala. From the game, and from every fan’s heart.
“When disaster strikes so many times,” offered Dr. Jim Roubos, a Spokane psychologist and M’s fan, “it’s hard to forget. You have these lingering images.”
It wasn’t always so. If your memory is not too clouded with disaster, you’ll recall that for a time, Bobby Ayala was a perfectly adequate closer. Eighteen saves and a 2.86 earned run average in 1994, 13 saves and 3.18 in his first 31 appearances of ‘95.
Bobby, we hardly booed ye.
Then something happened. From July 16 to July 29 of 1995, he allowed nine runs in 9-1/3 innings.
Interestingly, July 16 was the day the M’s signed Norm Charlton.
A month later, Norm had the closer’s job - and Ayala has saved exactly three games since. Now every appearance is cause for trepidation. Sports bars could multiply their profits selling pitchers of beer for the dollar equivalent of his ERA.
Bobby can’t be probed about his woes. He no longer speaks to the media, explaining that “some things were written and said that hurt.”
Like what? That he couldn’t get an out if you spotted him the o and the u?
Manager Lou Piniella, who can’t get through a game without a smoke or through a week without shuffling his pitching staff, sticks with Ayala without explanation. No reliever in baseball has yielded more home runs and still he gets the ball with the game on the line.
Yet, if Piniella gasses Ayala, statistical logic would dictate Charlton go, too. Their ERA’s are nearly identical. Charlton has blown four saves this year, in spectacular fashion.
“My reaction is the same when Charlton comes in,” admitted Roubos. “Why does he have to let three guys on before he gets the three outs?”
But Charlton - by bailing the M’s out in ‘95 when Ayala self-destructed - has earned a certain grace, though it’s probably running out. He is “The Sheriff,” mythologized by Dave Niehaus, looked up to in the clubhouse.
Besides, the best thing Piniella could do is not throw good Charlton after bad Ayala. Excluding a blowup against Milwaukee, Charlton has a 2.63 ERA when Ayala doesn’t pitch - and 5.55 following him.
“It’s human nature to need a villain,” said Roubos, “and he’s stepped forward to take that role.
“Maybe it’s the way he looks a little nervous out there. Maybe his goatee adds to it, and the fact he kind of flings himself when he throws a pitch. He doesn’t look all that comfortable with himself out there.”
Neither is anyone else. So they boo.
When he managed in New York, Piniella heard Ed Whitson heckled so mercilessly that he couldn’t pitch at Yankee Stadium. Et tu, Ayala?
“One or two good appearances and they’ll be back on his side,” Piniella told a Seattle newspaper last week. “That’s not going to happen in Seattle.”
Is that an admonition? Or a challenge?
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review