Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #7 – “Baseball’s Greatest Series” by Chris Donnelly

17 07 2016

A week from today I’ll be in Cooperstown watching the induction of my childhood icon, Ken Griffey Jr.  So this is going to be Cooperstown week on the blog!  It won’t be a ton of baseball cards this week – I’ll try do some posts relating to my trip or the guys inducted.

If Junior had a book out, like the autobiographies by Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, I’d have read it for sure.  His dad has one, however, and I did read that one.  Also, Junior’s teammate on the Mariners, Randy Johnson, went into the Hall of Fame with Pedro and Smoltz, but he doesn’t have a book either.  So I found one that discusses The Kid and the Big Unit’s first playoff team.

book cover Baseball's greatest series

Title/Author/Publisher: “Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners and the 1995 matchup that changed history” by Chris Donnelly (Rutgers University Press, 2010, 347 pages)

To be honest, the title nearly steered me away from this book.  I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call this the game’s greatest series.  I’m generally OK with a little hyperbole, but to say the quarterfinals of Major League Baseball’s 1995 championship “changed history” kind of puts it on the same plane as Bell’s invention of the telephone, Waterloo, or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.  Could use a little qualifier, like “baseball history” (which is still a little strong), or “the landscape in Seattle”.

Description:  Donnelly starts off taking you through the background.  From the Yankees hiring of Buck Showalter and the waning of Don Mattingly’s career, to the start of baseball in Seattle, the following 2+ decades of futility and the 1989 draft where they almost didn’t pick Ken Griffey Jr.

More than any other theme, but not exclusively, the book tends to look at it through the prism of baseball in Seattle.  The Mariners needed a new Stadium, and at the end of the 1995 season the vote for a new venue to replace the Kingdome was imminent.  If a new park wasn’t built, the Mariners likely would have moved to Tampa Bay.  And in 1995 they didn’t start well.  In last place as late as July 16th, and 13 games back as late as August 3rd, they were sparked by the return of Griffey, who had been out after breaking his wrist in May.  A Cy Young performance by Randy Johnson, a batting title by Edgar Martinez and an epic collapse by the Angels helped them to take the division.  The Yankees secured the Wild Card with a late surge of their own.

Griffey 1995 wall

At this point, Connelly walks you through the series with a chapter devoted to each game.  Because of the strike-shortened season, the road team hosted the first 2 games to minimize travel.  So the Yankees won the first 2 games at home, including a 15-inning thriller in game 2.  But back in Seattle, the Mariners took hard fought games 3 and 4 to set up a winner-take-all game 5.  The crowd in Seattle was raucous and that was on display in game 5 more than ever before.

Though I’d mentioned the title had some hyperbole, this deciding game was nothing less than a classic, as David Cone outdid Andy Benes for 7 innings.  But in the 8th, he ran out of gas, giving up a Griffey homer and walking in a run to leave the score tied 4-4.  Both teams missed opportunities in the 9th, and then brought in their aces Jack McDowell and Randy Johnson, who had pitched 2 days earlier.  The Yankees pieced together a run in the top of the 11th, and it looked bleak for the Mariners.  But Joey Cora bunted his way on and Griffey singled.  Edgar Martinez doubled down the line and Griffey came all the way from first to give the Mariners their first playoff series win.

Griffey_slide_1995

The book covers the aftermath.  Despite losing to Cleveland in the next round, Seattle had voted for a new ballpark, which kept baseball in the city.  A few years later, the Kingdome was demolished.  And the Yankees stripped apart certain components of their team, firing manager Buck Showalter and making what was considered a questionable hire in Joe Torre.  They would win the World Series in 1996.

My review:  As noted, I was a little slow to getting to this book.  I did eventually read it, however.  And overall, I enjoyed it.  It starts slow, which made it tough at first.  The background and a lot of the part about the season just kind of drags.  The chapters covering the series are the best reading of the book – Donnelly really captures the drama of a 5-game series – describing each inning, and in the higher leverage moments, each pitch.  He gives you background of the dramatis personae in a way that tells the story well.  From young rookie Alex Rodriguez, to Martinez, Griffey, Johnson, Mattingly, Showalter, McDowell, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte – there are a number of great careers at an interesting crossroads.

It’s a good book that’s worth a read, particularly for fans of the Mariners.  As a baseball fan, I enjoyed learning more about baseball in Seattle and the play-by-play account of the series.

Other Notable nuggets:  As you can imagine, this book has a lot of great back stories:

  • Jack McDowell was a highly touted signing by the Yankees, and while he had a good 1995 season, he was far from a fan favorite.  He tended to pitch better on the road, and flicked off the fans in New York during a rough stretch in September.  He was traded in the offseason.
  • David Cone, on the other hand, started his much more notable run with the Yankees in the 1995 season.  He almost pitched them to victory in game 5, but he’d go on to pitch a perfect game and earn his 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th championship rings with the club.
  • Every time I read about Edgar Martinez, I realize how underrated he’s been.  The guy was basically the toughest out in the Mariners lineup, and at this point was viewed as the guy to pitch around – even more so than Griffey.  Maybe more important than his series-winning walk-off was his grand slam in the bottom of the 8th that capped a 5-run comeback to move the series to game 5.
  • Griffey was phenomenal, too.  He hit 5 homers – one per game.
  • Tino Martinez and Jay Buhner didn’t have as notable hits as Griffey or Edgar – but both had OPS over 1.000 in the series.  Tino impressed the Yankee brass enough that they signed him in the offseason.
  • Mattingly struck out 3 times in game 3 – but had a great series aside from that.  The Yankee captain went 10 for 24 with 4 doubles and a homer in his last hurrah in the big leagues.  He faced fellow Evansville High graduate Andy Benes in what was the biggest confrontation of either players’ careers.  Mattingly doubled off him to make it 4-2 in game 5.
  • There’s a great note about the last game in the book:
    • “The games’ greatest hitter had just doubled in the game’s greatest player, giving the game’s greatest pitcher the victory”

I always try to pick a card out for any book I’ve read.  The one subset I found was Collector’s Choice, which had postseason highlights.  I could go with the card of Mattingly in this subset, but the Edgar Martinez card seems more appropriate.

1996 UD CC Edgar Martinez 371

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