In Seattle, The Magic Is Really Back

Even in your own neighborhood, some otherwise solid citizen cannot tell you whether the record Ken Griffey Jr. covets is one by Roger Maris or Roger Miller.

Someone - maybe even in your own family - might not know from Brent Gates, or believes him to be Bill Gates’ no-account brother.

And there must be some pocket of resistance, some black hole Dave Niehaus’ voice cannot penetrate, some place out of the coverage area, where the Magic Number - for all anyone knows - might as well be a new scratch game.

Hey, there were unoccupied seats in the Kingdome Tuesday night, so a few brains must remain unwashed - but only a few, considering the Seattle Mariners will top 3 million in attendance tonight.

But as of this morning, there is no more Magic Number.

Only magic. Again.

No, strictly speaking it is not the same euphoriant that seduced the Northwest in 1995. No Refuse to Lose. No raising the roof every time the count on one of the bad guys reached two strikes.

There was little laughter and not much whimsy - unless you count the “Free Marv” bedsheet banner some sex-trial maven draped in dead-center.

“It’s always a little more serious when you’re expected to win,” conceded second baseman Joey Cora.

This was business. That was pleasure.

But no matter the packaging, the Mariners are champions of the American League West, having punched out the Anaheim Angels 4-3 on Clinchfest Tuesday - Cleveland going over the top and Baltimore nailing down at least a tie in their respective precincts, as well.

Afterward, there were the requisite hugs and high fives, and an appropriate amount of champagne spilled - this time out of relief as much as joy.

One more ballet on the precipice.

“I’d never believe how mentally and physically draining this year could be,” said shortstop Alex Rodriguez. “That’s why this champagne tastes that much sweeter.”

More than a statement, the evening was a symbol.

With Randy Johnson on the mound and Junior on fire, Seattle might have been expected to pull the wings off the Angels much as it did in the playoff of ‘95 - that game more a product of a summer of love than of pennant pressure.

This time, the M’s didn’t so much eliminate the Angels as outlast them.

After a staggering blast off the bat of Jay Buhner in the first inning - a three-run homer, his 40th, into the second deck of the left-field bleachers for a 4-1 lead - the M’s couldn’t keep the powder dry, managing just three hits the rest of the way.

Johnson, meanwhile, allowed the Angels three solo homers, and battled out of a big jam with the help of a base-running blunder by Jim Edmonds and a perfect throw from Roberto Kelly in the eighth.

Then Heathcliffhanger Slocumb put 52,884 - and 39 teammates - through his routine hell in the ninth before Jack Howell and the Angels went down swinging.

“The only reason I came out of the game was that I’d thrown a lot of pitches,” said Johnson, who shook off manager Lou Piniella once in the eighth. “Let’s let Sloc come in and see what it’s like to finish off a championship.”

Hey, thanks, Unit.

“This is by far,” said Rodriguez, “the most intense game I’ve ever played in.”

A-Rod was a spear-carrier in ‘95 and a phenom in ‘96 when the M’s played themselves out of contention early in August. This year, he was one of the reasons the M’s had to win.

Piniella told the superstars as much during a team meeting in Los Angeles at the end of August.

“It really hit home with the main guys of the club,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve never been in a meeting more intense. He motivated the hell out of me.”

And, in turn, the M’s helped motivate Piniella.

“The lessons this team learned are invaluable,” he insisted. “You can’t pay for them, can’t buy them. It’s about playing in front, where everybody is trying to beat you. Being the hunted and not the hunter.

“We played well all year, but what pleased me the most is that we rebounded from some tough losses with resiliency - and that’s a pretty good indication that we had something going in the right direction.”

It’s true. The M’s have lost seven times in September, virtually every one of them a punch in the gut, all-but-counted victories gummed up by a bullpen still taking a step back for every two steps forward.

But they’ve never been more than temporary setbacks.

And for one night, Junior didn’t have to answer any questions about chasing Maris’ record - or is it Miller’s? - because everyone wanted to talk about what he wanted to talk about. The playoffs. Baltimore.

And beyond.

“A flag,” Griffey said. “Sitting up on my mantle. I can always go to my dad’s house and look at it, but I’d like to have one at my house.”

Needless to say, that goes for his 3 million friends, as well.

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

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