SEATTLE – The man they call “Mr. Mariner” was ready for the celebratory night that had been 21 years in the making.
Alvin Davis played on a Mariners team in 1991 that popped champagne when it got its 82nd victory because it clinched the first winning season in club history – a full 15 years into its existence. And so the thought that the Mariners on Friday would finally end their two-decade playoff drought filled Davis with … pride was the first word that came to mind.
“I don’t want us to just gloss over the fact that it’s been a rough road to get here,” Davis said, milling around the batting cage at T-Mobile Park before the game. “So we should enjoy it.”
The man who delivered the biggest hit in Mariners history was ready, too. Edgar Martinez, author of the 11th-inning double – aka “The Double” – that brought home a flying Ken Griffey Jr. with the run that clinched the 1995 Division Series over the Yankees, has had the same roller-coaster jumble of emotions as everyone else.
“I’ve been feeling up and down – frustrated when we lose games,” said Martinez, who watched intently from behind the cage as the Mariners took batting practice before the game. “I’ve been into it so much more than in the past few years. It’s been a long time, but from the beginning you could see that they have a really good roster. I liked their chances of getting into the playoffs.”
And now, after an excruciating, maddening, interminable, at times enervating wait, that’s exactly where the Mariners are. When the Mariners completed their 2-1 victory over the Oakland A’s, on Friday night, in the most dramatic and thrilling manner possible, it was time for a cathartic release that the most cynical Mariners fans were beginning to believe would never come.
“It was not going to end any other way,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “This is what we do.”
Cal Raleigh, the stocky catcher with the catchy nickname of “Big Dumper,” was the one who wrote his name into Mariners lore for perpetuity when at precisely 9:28 p.m., with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the game tied at 1-all, he launched a 3-2 pitch from A’s reliever Domingo Acevedo, on a scorching path to the “Hit It Here Café.” It was a walk-off homer that set off total jubilation from the sellout crowd.
And from the Mariners players, who had been poised on the dugout railing and burst onto the field en masse to greet (and pummel) Raleigh, to hug and leap and cavort as one does when the weight of the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports had been lifted. Eventually, the players and staff linked arms in one big circle to perform the baseball Riverdance that has become their trademark.
The party continued in the clubhouse, where champagne flowed – poured from specially marked bottles with labels that read, “Clinched!” – bear hugs were bestowed, and the dancing raged on.
“Everyone is together,” third baseman Eugenio Suarez said. “It’s not only the players; it’s everybody. That’s why we celebrate in the middle of the field, to let everybody know that the Seattle Mariners are not just a team, it’s a family.”
Of the finish, Suarez said, “We had a dream, and today the dream came true.”
The Orioles, who pushed Seattle sometimes to the brink of doubt and despair down the stretch, fittingly won their game over the Yankees earlier in the day to stay alive. Had they lost, the Mariners would have qualified for the playoffs in the top of the third, while the A’s were batting. Mariners manager Scott Servais had said that if that happened, he would react with a smile and a “3-second hug” and then return his attention to the game. But it seemed only right that when the Mariners smashed down the door to the playoffs that had been locked and double-bolted since the George W. Bush administration, it would open via a victory.
“The Mariners do special things. It just takes a while between the special things,” said Servais, holding a lit victory cigar. “We need that to happen a little bit more frequently, but hats off to our team. Our players have busted their butt all year long. They dealt with some adversity, and you’ve got to fight through it. A number of guys have stepped up. It’s been phenomenal.”
All night, the crowd hung on every pitch, trying to will the Mariners to a rally. Seattle starter Logan Gilbert did his part with a brilliant, career-best game, shutting down the A’s on three hits and a run over eight innings. But as has been the case often this year, the offense struggled as well, and the game went to the brink before Raleigh’s hero turn.
“I mean, it was the same energy in the dugout as it was in the stands,” Jarred Kelenic said. “This is what we dreamed about. This is why you play baseball. And for Cal to put a good swing on that ball and drive it out of the ballpark, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“It was really a surreal moment,” Servais said. “Everybody’s on their feet. The crowd was so into it tonight. They have been behind us all year, but we had the right guy at the plate. Cal has the ability to slow it down. And he had a good pitch to hit, a slider that hung and he took advantage of it. Good for him, good for us, and now we move on.”
Much like this clinching game, the Mariners made their fans sweat until nearly the end of the season. They endured an inopportune cold stretch in September that sorely tested the fans’ belief system (to use a phrase that was the favorite of Don Wakamatsu, one of six Mariners managers after Lou Piniella and before Servais who tried, and failed, to lead the Mariners back into the playoffs).
On their final road trip, which was supposed to solidify their playoff position, the Mariners instead lost seven of 10 games to three losing teams, blowing an 11-2 lead in one of them. They then came home and were shut out in bleak fashion on Tuesday by the Texas Rangers, another also-ran. But a win Wednesday restored order (and faith), and then a thrilling extra-inning win Thursday put the Mariners on the brink.
This has been a Mariners team that, like many of its predecessors, severely tested the patience of its fans. But in a unique fashion, not accomplished since the 2001 Mariners team that won a record 116 games, it broke through the dreary parts and came out the other side as one of the three American League wild-card teams (in the first year that MLB expanded its wild cards by one in each league).
It was a team led by its youngest member, the ebullient Julio Rodriguez, who at age 21 showed the talent of a superstar and the charisma of a diva – but without any of the ego. Not since Griffey had the Mariners had a wunderkind of his ilk, and the fan base was mesmerized by his presence, not to mention his skill set. Rodriguez did not play Friday, remaining on the injured list with a strained back, but he celebrated with customary gusto.
The Mariners, after barely missing the playoffs last year, got off to a lackluster start in 2022, sitting at 29-39 on June 19 – a perch that prompted calls for Servais’ job. But a 14-game winning streak reinserted them into the playoff chase before the bumpy finish that tried Edgar’s patience.
He was not alone, but the finish Friday – heart-stopping and heartwarming simultaneously – was worth all the palpitations.
“Unbelievable day. Unbelievable year. And we’re just starting,” Dipoto said.
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