My Favorite Seattle Sports Year

Originally Published:  June 16, 2012

This isn’t going to be a calendar year kind of deal.  And, essentially, I’m going to be talking about a 13-month period, but whatever.  It’s my blog I’ll do what I want.  Also, details are going to be sketchy at best, because it’s been a while (and we don’t have a whole lot of great records of the era on the Internet).  Without further Apu …

The year is going to start on September 1, 1995.  The Mariners beat Mike Mussina and the Orioles 4-3 to pull to within 6.5 games of the first place California Angels.  Obviously, we all know the story of the 1995 Mariners, so I’m not going to rehash the same material over and over again.  Suffice it to say, if my year is technically going to incorporate most of 1996, then by law I HAVE to include the finishing run of the 1995 Mariners!  I don’t think you’re allowed to be a Seattle resident if you forget to include the 1995 Mariners in any discussion ever.

While we all know the story, I’ll give a quick recap:  The Mariners were as much as 13 games back of the California Angels on August 2nd.  The Mariners went on a run of epic proportions; the Angels tanked like we haven’t seen anyone tank before.  This led to a 1-game playoff in which the Mariners won in dramatic fashion.  Then, the ALDS against the New York Yankees (a year away from their first of many World Series runs in the Joe Torre era), the Mariners went down 0-2 before storming back to win the series in the Kingdome 3-2 on Edgar’s double.  The season ended in heartbreak (as they all do) in six games in the ALCS against the Cleveland fucking Indians (who would go on to lose to the Braves in six games in the World Series).

Nevertheless, that month and a half stretch defined the sport of baseball for Seattle.  Prior to that, Seattle baseball fans had only known abject failure.  Prior to that, Seattle hardly had any baseball fans period!  That bandwagon was as empty as empty can be.  But, it sure filled up considerably following the Refuse To Lose run.

My year ends with the end of the 1996 Mariners season.  The last game was played on September 29, 1996.  Even though the Mariners were decimated by injuries and turnover on the pitching side of things, this was still a good team with an all-world offense.

Alex Rodriguez, who was but a bit player on that 1995 team, was handed the short stop job out of Spring Training by Lou Pinella (notorious for not playing young guys) and, in his first full year as a starter, posted this line:

.358/.414/.631/1.045

Of course, as you might recall, A-Rod lost out on the MVP to this line:

.314/.368/.643/1.011

Eventually, I’ll single out a post as to why it was inherently retarded to give Juan Gonzalez the MVP over A-Rod, but suffice it to say that act of betrayal still grinds my gears to this day.

Of course, the Mariners didn’t JUST have A-Rod and his 36 homers, 54 doubles, 15 stolen bases, 123 RBI and 141 runs scored … God damn Juan Gon … they also had Ken Griffey Jr’s 49 homers, 26 doubles, 16 stolen bases, 140 RBI, and 125 runs scored; Jay Buhner’s 44 homers, 29 doubles, 138 RBI, and 107 runs scored; Edgar Martinez’s 26 homers, 52 doubles, 103 RBI, and 121 runs scored.  You can also throw in Dan Wilson’s best offensive season ever (18 homers!), and even the competent first base work of Paul Sorrento (who we picked up after foolishly trading away both Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson in the offseason to pick up Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis from the Yankees … think we could’ve used Tino & Nelson in 1996 and beyond?).

The 1996 Seattle Mariners hit 245 home runs, which was one of the best all-time home run totals for a team in a single season.  Weirdly enough, the Baltimore Orioles that same year hit 257 home runs which, I believe, was the all-time record at the time (of course, it would later be broken by the 1997 Seattle Mariners and their 264 homers – a record that stands to this very day).  The Mariners needed all 245 of those dingers, because let me tell you, their pitching was ABYSMAL!

Randy Johnson started the season looking to continue his 1995 Cy Young ways.  The Mariners were 5-0 in his first five starts.  Then, a set-back in Milwaukee caused the Big Unit to go only 3.2 innings.  At his next start in Texas, he could only go 2 innings.  Something was seriously wrong.  They held him out of his next start, so he didn’t pitch again for 11 days.  He came back, though, pitched five innings of winning baseball against the Royals, and that was it.  Randy tried to come back in August out of the bullpen, but once again he was shut down (this time for good) after August 24th.

Without Randy, these pitchers were lost.  The team ERA was 5.21.  Sterling Hitchcock was not what was advertised, with his 5.35 ERA.  Bob Wolcott, after a promising end to the 1995 season, was not a guy we could count on for the long haul (with his 5.73 ERA).  Chris Bosio’s last legs finally gave out after 9 starts (he would, later that season, be shoved into the ‘pen, with fair-to-middlin’ results before retiring at season’s end).  You know things are bad in your rotation when you’re asking Bob Wells (an okay long relief guy) to come in for 16 starts.  You know you’re asking for trouble when you’ve got an aging Terry Mulholland starting 12 games.  The only thing the Mariners were able to do right in this star-crossed season was trade for Jamie Moyer (an absolute STEAL from the Red Sox for Darren Bragg), but even the ageless one (who was not so old at the time) wasn’t enough to save this season.

Nevertheless, this was a fun team to watch from April through September.  Hell!  After a 9-2 victory on Saturday, September 21st, the Mariners were 83-70 and only 1 game out of first place!  With ALL the trials and tribulations this team suffered, they STILL had a chance at the end to replicate 1995’s mind-blowing glory!

But, the Mariners lost 6 of their final 8 games to finish 85-76, 4.5 games out of first.  Oddly enough, the California Angels got to enact some revenge, beating the Mariners 2 out of 3 in this stretch.  Of course, as chance would have it, our season ended (as it almost ALWAYS does) with a 4-game series in Oakland.  They beat us 3 out of 4 in what would become (foreshadowing alert!) a nasty trend of getting our asses kicked by the A’s at the ends of seasons (except, of course, when Stephen Strasburg is on the line; then the A’s just roll over and die!)

1996 was the year I went from being a bandwagon Mariners fan to being a hardcore bandwagon Mariners fan.  I watched (or listened to) damn near every single game that season.  I joined the fan club.  I bought whatever memorabilia they had to offer.  I even got to attend a game!  On April 15, 1996, I went to my first-ever Mariners game.  We sat on the third base side, in the lower bowl of the Kingdome, and I witnessed the greatest comeback in Mariners history!  The California Angels went up 9-1 after a 6-run explosion in the top of the 4th (which included a Mike Aldrete grand slam off of Edwin Hurtado).  The Mariners got 3 runs back off of two homers in the bottom of the 4th (Sorrento and a 2-run job by A-Rod).  The Angels scored once more to make it 10-4 after five.  Then, the M’s really turned it on:  2 runs in the 6th, 4 runs to tie the game in the 7th, and 1 more run in the 8th on a Jay Buhner single to cap off the victory.  Norm Charlton closed it out in the 9th and that, my friends, was my first live experience of a Mariners game.  11-10.  I even have the scorecard somewhere at home to prove it.

And while that 1996 team ultimately disappointed, it was still entertaining throughout the entirety of the season.  And that’s really all you can ask of a team.  Be entertaining throughout, and give yourself a chance to make the playoffs in the end.

Which – segue alert! – was what the 1995 Seattle Seahawks ended up doing; their season starting on September 3, 1995.

Going into the 1995 season, the Seahawks were coming off of three straight last place finishes in the AFC West (including that horrifying 1992 season where we were 2-14, yet only the second-worst team in the NFL and thus saddled with Rick Mirer).  However, there WAS reason for optimism.  Tom Flores was finally ousted from his job as being the worst-ever Seahawks head coach.  Dennis Erickson – fresh off of a career coaching the Miami Hurricanes to two national championships – was brought in to turn this team around.  That he left college to coach the Seahawks just as major sanctions were about to be brought down upon his school is only a coincidence, I assure you (Pete Carroll).  AND, the Seahawks drafted in the first round Joey Galloway!  A burner with the hands of a GOD.  This team, if nothing else, would be leaps and bounds more exciting than the last three they’d put on the field.

And that was true, though it didn’t start out that way.  The Seahawks lost their first two (to our division rivals who finished with better records) and 6 of their first 8.  The lowest of low points came in an overtime loss down in Sun Devil Stadium to the inept Arizona Cardinals (who would finish the season 4-12).  But, the Seahawks turned it around the very next week in beating the Giants at home.  That kicked off a streak where the Seahawks won 6 of 7 games!  Though, really, it should have been a 7-game winning streak.  In the middle there, the Seahawks lost a game in the Kingdome to the New York Jets (coached by Rich Kotite, who ended the season 3-13).  As it turns out, the Seahawks couldn’t stop being stung by these underachieving teams, and that’s ultimately what kept them out of the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the Seahawks were 8-7 and had an outside chance of making a Wild Card in week 17.  Yes, they were going into Arrowhead Stadium to face the number one team in the AFC … but the Chiefs had the number 1 seed locked up!  Surely they wouldn’t try all THAT hard!  Except, they did.  They kept all their starters in and they throttled us 26-3.

The Seahawks finished that season 8-8, but what a ride!  The Seahawks would continue to experience such highs and lows throughout the tenure of Dennis Erickson, as his teams could never seem to put it all together.  Still, 1995 gave us hope for a brighter future.  A brighter future we wouldn’t ultimately realize until Erickson was fired and Mike Holmgren was hired, but that’s neither here nor there.

As for the Seattle Supersonics, the future was NOW!  Those early 90s Sonics teams were young and flashy and exciting.  They got their feet wet in an era where old powerhouses (the Lakers, the Celtics, the Pistons) were giving way to new powerhouses (the Bulls, the Jazz, the Suns).  After George Karl took over, he took the Sonics to the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns.  In fact, that Sonics team was a crookedly officiated Game 7 away from facing the Bulls in the finals!  The 93/94 season saw a Michael Jordan-less Bulls team lose in the second round to the New York Knicks (so, essentially, with Jordan retired after leading his team to three consecutive championships, this meant the NBA Title was wide open).  The 93/94 season also saw the Seattle Supersonics with the best record in the NBA at 63-19.  They went up 2-0 in the best-of-five series against the Denver Nuggets before blowing the next three to become the first-ever #1 Seed to lose to a #8 Seed.  The 94/95 Sonics weren’t quite as good, finishing 57-25 in the Tacoma Dome.  They lost to the #5 Seed Lakers in the first round.

So, for the 1995/1996 Supersonics, it was do or die.  George Karl was on the hottest of hot seats after two consecutive first-round exits.  As chance would have it, the season started on November 3, 1995, in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The Supes lost 112-94.  They came home and, the very next night, opened Key Arena with a 103-89 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.  The Sonics would go on to a 38-3 home record in the refurbished Key Arena that season.  It was absolutely electric!  17,000 fans every game!  This team was an unstoppable killing machine!

Of course, the way this roster was constructed, it was absolutely perfect.  The cancerous dead weight was gone (no more Kendall Gill or Sarunas Marciulionis).  In their place, we brought in Frank Brickowski and Hersey Hawkins – just what we needed!   Both great teammates, both important contributers in their own ways.  The Brick was a defensive enforcer in the paint when we needed one.  And Hawk was the outside sharpshooter we’d been lacking since Dale Ellis and Dana Barros left!

With Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, and Detlef Schrempf leading the way, all of our role players (including Big Smooth drawing out the other team’s big man while nailing threes like crazy; Vincent Askew as a defensive stopper at guard to go along with The Glove’s already top-notch D; and Mac-10’s steady leadership off the bench at point guard) complemented this team like nothing I’ve seen since.  Somehow, someway, Wally Walker had compiled the perfect team.  He would go on to destroy that perfect team the very next off-season thanks to signing Jim McIlvaine to a cost no one in his right mind ever would have matched … but for one magical season, even Wally Walker couldn’t fuck shit up.

The 95/96 Supersonics finished with the best record in team history, 64-18 (one game better than that fateful 93/94 team who lost in the first round to the Nuggets).  Unfortunately, 95/96 was also Michael Jordan’s first full season back from suspension his excursion into baseball.  With his usual cast of characters, and with the influx of a focused Dennis Rodman, the Chicago Bulls posted the greatest record in NBA history, 72-10.  I had high hopes for the Sonics this year, especially considering one of those ten defeats came at our hands.

But, first, we had to get out of the first round.  The #1 seed Supersonics were playing the #8 seed Sacramento Kings.  Key Arena was on fire as the Sonics took Game 1.  But, those same crazy doubts returned as the Sonics dropped Game 2 in pathetic fashion.  Believe-you-me, those were a couple of the LONGEST days of my life as the Supes went down to Sac-town for Game 3.  Fortunately, the Sonics got the monkey off their backs, winning both road games to take the series 3-1.

In the meantime, the Bulls swept the Miami Heat 3-0.

Once the Western Conference Semis rolled around, the Sonics were back to that same loose and carefree team we’d watched all regular season.  They dispatched the Houston Rockets in 4 games, which was about as impressive as you can get considering the Rockets were coming off of two straight world championships.

In the meantime, the Bulls made quick and easy work of the #5 seed New York Knicks, 4-1.

Going into the Western Conference Finals, I was rooting for the #2 seed San Antonio Spurs over the #3 seed Utah Jazz.  Personally, I just thought we matched up better against the Spurs.  It was not to be, as the Jazz beat them in six games.  So, with the 1995/1996 season starting with the Jazz, here they were again, the lone obstacle between us and the NBA Finals.

The Sonics embarrassed the Jazz in Game 1, 102-72.  Game 2 was much closer, but the Sonics still held serve at home with a 91-87 victory.  I probably had wild delusions of sweeping the Jazz just like we swept the Rockets, but they were too good for that.  Game 3 went to the bad guys 96-76.  Game 4, however, was a hard-fought, back-and-forth affair that the Sonics ended up stealing 88-86.  That brought us to Game 5, in Key Arena, to clinch the series.  This one, the Jazz wouldn’t give up so easily.  It went into overtime and, I believe, Jeff Hornacek hit the game-winning three point bomb to take the game 98-95.  After that, the Sonics were embarrassed right back in Game 6, 118-83.  Which brought us to Game 7, in Key Arena, for all the marbles.  The city was on edge, but the arena was rocking.  And the Sonics did what we all dreamed they’d do, beating the Jazz 90-86 with some late free throws to clinch it.

In the meantime, the Bulls swept the Orlando Magic 4-0.

Yes, the 72-10 Chicago Bulls – in my opinion (which will never waver) the greatest team of all time – blew through the Eastern Conference playoffs with an 11-1 record.  The Bulls had punched their ticket on May 27th in Orlando, Florida (in front of Shaq and Penny Hardaway and all the rest).  The Sonics, meanwhile, didn’t finish off the Jazz until June 2nd!  So, not only was the greatest team of all time our final hurdle in this magical season, but they had an extra week’s worth of rest!

Nevertheless, I still had confidence.  Not a lot, mind you, but I was a 15 year old kid, so I hadn’t yet been crushed by the depth of losing with which this city has since pummelled me.  This was a 7-game series.  If we could steal a victory in one of the first two games, we would have Home Court Advantage (something I really believed would make a difference, considering our home record to date).

But, of course, the Bulls were the Bulls, and they made quick work of us.  Down 0-2 in the series, the teams flew to Seattle for three straight (in the Finals, it was the dreaded 2-3-2 format).  OK, fine, the Bulls did their thing at home.  That just meant the Sonics would have to do THEIR thing at home.

Except, the Bulls came into our home and absolutely stomped on our throats.  At the end of the first quarter, the Sonics were down 34-16 and you could feel this team giving up hope.  It was a lost cause.  These Bulls were just too damn good!

It’s unfortunate, because while this series started with three straight Bulls victories, it didn’t end up as bad as people remember.  One thing we were severely lacking in the series was Nate McMillan’s leadership.  He’d been injured, but for Game 4, nothing was going to keep him out.  We still had basketball to play, God damn it!  And even though he was only able to play 14 minutes, you could see a considerable shift in the energy level of the Sonics.  We held Jordan to 23 points, we held Pippen to under 10, and Shawn Kemp kept Rodman out of his head while scoring a game-high 25 points.

Game 6 was more of the same.  Our defense FINALLY showed up to the party and shut down everyone not named Michael Jordan (because, seriously, no one is ever going to shut down Michael Jordan).  Down 3-2, the Sonics still had a long way to go, but who knows?  What if the Sonics went from being the first-ever #1 seed to lose to a #8 seed, to being the first-ever NBA team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win 4-3?  It could happen!

On June 16, 1996, the Sonics tried to test that theory, but ultimately failed.  The Sonics got off to a poor shooting start in the first quarter and the Bulls just kind of coasted from there.  Our defense wasn’t the problem, but no one outside of our Big 3 could do anything (a particularly poor performance out of Hawk, going 0 for 4 from beyond the arc in finishing with 4 points).

And that was that.  An amazingly wild ride ended in defeat.  That Sonics team was and remains to this day my favorite team ever, in any sport.  And what happened?  Wally Walker had to go in and tinker, THAT’S what happened.  You know who DIDN’T tinker after missing out on the Finals in 95/96?  The Utah Jazz.  And they were rewarded with back-to-back Finals appearances.  Granted, they lost both (because, seriously, Bulls), but THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN US!

We lost Kemp, we lost some of our role players, then we lost Karl.  And then we lost our team!  Kinda puts a nice bow on everything, doesn’t it?

We don’t have winners in Seattle.  I was born in 1981, so I wasn’t alive to see the only professional championship.  We’ve had two teams reach the finals in their respective sports since I’ve been alive, and obviously 2005 is nothing to write home about with baseball and basketball.  In theory, 2001 could be in the running, but neither the Sonics nor the Seahawks even made the playoffs!

So, really, what year could it possibly be other than 95/96?  From September 1, 1995 through September 29, 1996:  that was my absolute favorite year-plus of Seattle Sports.  I was 14 & 15 years of age, right in the sweet-spot of sports fandom (before age and losing made me jaded), and all the teams I watched were at the very least entertaining.  If not the absolute best I’d ever seen.  I hope I never forget about this year in sports, because we may never have another one like it ever again.

I like to look on the bright side of things.  Except no, no I absolutely do not.

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