Revisiting the 1995 Division Series

The mark of a compelling narrative is its lasting impact. Rising and falling action leads to an indelible climax and its cast of characters become renown and beloved. Their triumphs and accomplishments are remembered fondly and revered as time passes. Twenty years after its completion, the 1995 American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners continues to exemplify this personification for being the first series of its kind and its historical ramifications.

The 1995 season represented a period of great transition and uncertainty in Major League Baseball. A 232-day work stoppage between players and owners beginning in August of 1994 crippled the prestige of the sport and hindered its public stature. After briefly considering the use of replacement players in spring training, the game returned to the acrimony and frustration of a disenfranchised public. The season began a 144-game slate at the end of April as most teams sought to pick up where they left off prior to the longest work stoppage in baseball history.

Since their inception as an American League franchise in 1977, the Seattle Mariners had primarily languished in the second division. Competing inside the sterile Kingdome, the Mariners suffered 14 consecutive losing seasons after entering the league as an expansion team and faced possible relocation as ownership changed hands from George Argyros to Jeff Smulyan. After a near move to St. Petersburg under Smulyan in 1991, the Mariners were sold to Nintendo, with John Ellis and Howard Lincoln running the day-to-day operations. Under new leadership, the Mariners slowly began to rebuild a destitute farm system and by 1995 were in a position to compete for the postseason. As the Mariners began to legitimize themselves under manager Lou Piniella, ownership intended to move the team once again without a new ballpark on the horizon. With their long-term survival hanging in the balance, the Mariners acquired Vince Coleman and Andy Benes at the trade deadline. The moves appeared to pay dividends as the Mariners proceeded to win the AL West after trailing by as many as 12.5 games to the California Angels and unexpectedly claimed the division title in a one-game playoff, before facing the New York Yankees in the upcoming Division Series.

At one point the words “Yankees and October” fit together seamlessly like pieces of a puzzle. Entering 1995, the Yankees captured 22 World Series championships and 33 American League pennants. Though their claim as baseball’s most successful franchise was unmatched, the Yankees hit a tailspin following the 1981 season, failing to win a division and putting together a progressively worse showing in the coming seasons due to constant roster turnover and the impatience of owner George Steinbrenner. Dave Winfield eventually became Steinbrenner’s scapegoat for the Yankees shortcomings, culminating with a suspension from Steinbrenner in 1990 for attempting to obtain inside information on his once-touted slugger. Free of Steinbrenner’s micromanaging style, the Yankees began to gradually rebuild under general manager Gene Michael, who acquired proven commodities such as Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs, and David Cone to compliment a burgeoning minor league system. Under manager Buck Showalter, the Yankees progressively improved both on and off the field and by 1994 had the best record in the American League prior to the strike. Showalter earned AL Manager of the Year honors for his efforts and earned the credibility of the Yankees’ faithful.
Despite losing three starting pitchers to injury and residing under .500 in June, the Yankees qualified for the first ever Wild Card, thanks to a 25-6 finish. Their strong September showing earned captain Don Mattingly his first postseason appearance in what turned out to be his final big league season.

Typically, the narrative of two teams reaching the postseason for the first time in ages makes up widespread interest and appeal, but in 1995 each Division Series would be shown simultaneously across an ambitious television venture between NBC and ABC, known as the “Baseball Network”. As a result, the public would only be permitted to see one postseason game per day, and in an era before online streaming, would be restricted by viewership through inflexible regional coverage. Due to these external factors, the Division Series between the Mariners and Yankees would only be seen in its entirety by twenty percent of the country and stands as likely the greatest postseason series never seen.

Anticipation reached a fever pitch entering Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. For the first time since 1981, “The House That Ruth Built” was the venue for meaningful October baseball and as the pregame introductions commenced, the loudest ovations from the sellout crowd were for Don Mattingly and Buck Showalter. A product of the Yankees farm system, Showalter was third base coach for his predecessor Stump Merrill in the Bronx and became widely credited for the Yankees return to prominence. These accolades, however, were not fully endorsed by Steinbrenner, since he was hired during his three year hiatus from the game without his input. Wade Boggs, one of the primary acquisitions by Michael and Showalter during the 1992 offseason, opened the scoring in Game 1 with a two run home run against Mariners starter Chris Bosio in the bottom of the third inning. In a recurring theme throughout the series, the Mariners did not go down quietly as Ken Griffey Jr, the symbol for Seattle’s baseball resurgence, homered off the facing of the upper deck against David Cone in the ensuing inning. With the Yankees leading 4-2 after six innings, Griffey went deep for a second time against Cone, this time with a runner on base, tying the game at 4. Cone labored, but aside from Griffey’s heroics, left after eight innings with the lead, thanks in large part to a four-run seventh inning against Mariners reliever Bobby Ayala, capped off by a run-scoring double from Bernie Williams and a two-run home run from Ruben Sierra. Though the Mariners clawed their way back with two more runs in the ninth inning against Yankees closer John Wettleland, the Bombers won their first playoff game in 14 years by a 9-6 margin.

A pair of pitchers named Andy took the mound for Game 2, each unaware of the upcoming events which eventually catapulted this game into one of the most memorable in postseason history. Andy Pettitte, the Yankees 22nd round draft pick in 1990 out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, took the mound for the Yankees in his playoff debut opposing the Mariners’ deadline acquisition Andy Benes. Pettitte, a rookie, who pitched in the bullpen in April, eventually earned Showalter’s trust, winning six of his final seven decisions down the stretch, while exhibiting the poise of the 18-year veteran he eventually became. Vince Coleman, another late season acquisition for the Mariners, shocked most fans with an opposite field home run in the third inning against Pettitte, as the Mariners struck first. Coleman, who hit just five home runs for Seattle in 1995, earned a reputation as a dangerous base stealer, swiping over 100 bags in his first three big league seasons playing for Whitey Herzog‘s St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1980s. With the Mariners, Coleman provided veteran leadership and was one of only two Mariners’ players with prior postseason experience. Benes used the slim margin to his advantage, pitching valiantly with a 2-1 lead into the sixth inning, when Sierra rudely greeted him with a towering home run to right field to even the score. The next batter he faced was a fellow Evansville, Indiana native Don Mattingly.

The Yankees captain longed for a moment like this. A chance to compete for a world championship. Mattingly arrived as a rookie one year after the Yankees bowed out of the 1981 World Series and experienced the team’s rapid decline firsthand, coinciding with his own decent from AL MVP to a marginal contributor, due to severe back trouble. Mattingly made this moment count, launching a solo home run to right center field and ending Benes’s night. “This one by Mattingly, oh hang on to the roof!”, bellowed broadcaster Gary Thorne, in a moment that many say was the loudest in the history of Yankee Stadium. The game eventually moved into extra innings deadlocked at 4 a piece, as relievers Norm Charlton and John Wetteland extended themselves in their fourth innings of relief by the twelfth, essentially running on fumes. With two outs in the inning, Griffey stepped up to the plate and homered for the third time in the series against the Yankees and the second time against Wetteland since August 24th. Trailing once again, the Yankees responded in the bottom of the inning.

With third-string catcher Jorge Posada pinch running for Wade Boggs at second base and the Yankees down to their final out, Sierra launched a booming double off the left field wall to score Posada and tie the game before lead runner Bernie Williams was gunned down at home plate. Twenty five-year-old rookie Mariano Rivera, initially an afterthought on the Yankees postseason roster, preserved the tie with 3.1 innings of scoreless relief sending Game 2 to the 15th inning. Facing Tim Belcher at 1:22 AM, Jim Leyritz, the longest tenured Yankee, homered over the outstretched leap of Jay Buhner in right field to give the Yankees a 7-5 victory and most importantly a 2-0 stranglehold on the series.

As the venue shifted to the Kingdome for Game 3, the Mariners found themselves one loss away from elimination, facing perhaps their last game ever in the Pacific Northwest. Three days after out-dueling fellow trade partner Mark Langston in Game 163, all hopes of extending the season turned to Randy Johnson, who represented the Mariners best hope of getting back in the series. With the Yankees one victory away from advancing, Showalter bypassed Scott Kamieniecki, opting to go with Jack McDowell and sweep Seattle. Featuring a predominantly right-handed lineup against Johnson, Bernie Williams homered from the right side of the plate to give the Yankees an early advantage in the fourth inning. McDowell pitched four scoreless innings to open the proceedings, before Tino Martinez tagged him for a two run home run in the fifth inning to give Seattle a 2-1 lead. Martinez, a former U.S. Olympian, came into his own in 1995, hitting a career high 31 home runs, and unbeknownst to him at the time, was auditioning to become the Yankees first baseman for the upcoming season. Martinez added another RBI in the following frame, as part of a four run Mariners inning. Johnson befuddled the Yankees for much of the night, striking out ten in seven innings of work, to record the first victory for the Mariners in the series, while providing a beacon of hope. Using five pitchers on the evening, the Yankees fell to the Mariners 7-4 and suddenly looked vulnerable with the next two games of the series also taking place in the Kingdome.

Despite losing Game 3, the Yankees remained confident in closing the series in Game 4 against Chris Bosio, making his second appearance of the series. After burning McDowell in Game 3, the Yankees turned to Kamieniecki, a member of the club since 1991, to close the series in a timely fashion. In the first three innings, the Yankees looked to bury the Mariners with a 5-0 lead, buoyed by a two-run single from Don Mattingly and a two run home run by Paul O’Neill. Since the middle of August, the Mariners adopted the mantra of “Refuse to Lose” and began to gain confidence with each passing victory. Trailing by five runs with the season on the line, designated hitter Edgar Martinez stepped up to the plate for possibly the biggest at bat of the season with two runners on base in the bottom of the third inning. Regardless of prolific power numbers, Martinez remained a relative unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest. Initially a third baseman by trade, Martinez eventually shifted to the DH spot in 1994 and became a force to be reckoned with. Martinez quickly responded with a three run home run in Game 4 and essentially willed the Mariners to a spirited comeback. The Mariners eventually took a 6-5 lead on Griffey’s 4th home run of the series, but it was a Martinez grand slam against Wettleland that propelled the Mariners to an 11-8 victory. With seven runs batted in, the Yankees had no answers for Martinez with their wounded bullpen, as their pitching provided little resistance with the pressure squarely on their shoulders entering Game 5.

Sunday afternoon in Seattle, typically a time for Seahawks’ football, was the scene for a do-or-die Game 5 with a trip to the ALCS on the line. During pregame warmups, broadcasters Brent Musburger and Jim Kaat pointed out the contrasting styles between the Mariners and Yankees facing elimination.

As the Mariners seemed relaxed and confident, the Yankees were feeling tense and the pressure of Steinbrenner’s Big Brother eyes to win this series. Showalter, Mattingly, Boggs, Cone, Mike Stanley, and Randy Velarde did not have contracts for 1996 and if they did not win this game, “The Boss” was prepared to make sweeping changes. Game 1 starter David Cone took the ball in Game 5 opposing Andy Benes in the first ever postseason matchup between pitchers acquired at the trading deadline. Similar to Game 2, the Mariners received a home run from an unlikely source. Joey Cora, a middle infielder, who hit just two home runs in the regular season, took Cone deep in the third inning for his lone postseason home run. The Yankees quickly responded on a two-run home run in the fourth inning from O’Neill, before the Mariners tied the game on a run-scoring single by Jay Buhner in the Mariners next at bat. Mattingly, playing in what turned out to be his final big league game, singled home two runs to give the Yankees a two-run advantage. With everything on the line, Cone and Benes labored, but it was Cone’s pitch count that began to become a factor after Ken Griffey Jr. homered for the fifth time in the series to tie Reggie Jackson‘s postseason record and inch Seattle a run closer in the eighth.

Despite Cone’s pitch count ballooning to 147, Showalter did not trust anybody in his bullpen, even his most effective reliever, an unknown rookie out of Panama named Mariano Rivera. The rookie eventually got his chance when Cone walked pinch hitter Doug Strange with the bases loaded to tie the game. Rivera stranded the runners by fanning Mike Blowers but the damage had been done and the game moved to extra innings, knotted at 4 apiece.

Randy Johnson and Jack McDowell pitched out of the bullpen in extras despite both pitching on a single day of rest and proved effective into the eleventh inning. Against a tiring Johnson, the Yankees pushed a go-ahead run across in the eleventh on a run-scoring single by Velarde and stood three outs away from a trip to Cleveland. Not trusting Wetteland or any other reliever in his bullpen, Showalter chose to stay with McDowell and paid dearly once Cora and Griffey reached base on successive singles to open the bottom frame. Edgar Martinez faced McDowell with a 2-0 count and promptly sent the Mariners to the ALCS on a play now referred to as “The Double,” scoring both Cora and Griffey for a 6-5 victory and a series win after trailing 2-0 just over 48 hours earlier.

The trials and tribulations of the 1995 Division Series has significant ramifications for both the Mariners and Yankees. Despite falling two wins short of reaching the World Series, the euphoria of the Mariners postseason run prompted the Washington state legislature to approve a deal for a retractable roof facility for the 1999 season, eventually becoming Safeco Field, keeping the Mariners in Seattle for years to come. The loss by the Yankees in Division Series sparked fire in George Steinbrenner who proceeded to revamp the team as expected.

In a span of two months, the Yankees had the look of a vastly different club. Don Mattingly chose to retire, while other prominent Yankees such as Mike Stanley, Jack McDowell, and Randy Velarde were shown the door. Manger Buck Showalter also chose to depart, opening the door for Joe Torre, who led a Yankees’ team with just nine members from 1995 to a World Series championship the subsequent year. In a sport which features over 162 games and multiple tiers of playoffs, rare are the games and series which stand the test of time from a historical perspective.

Nearly twenty years to the day of its completion, the 1995 AL Division Series continues to resonate. Participants such as Buck Showalter and a twenty year old Alex Rodriguez remain fixtures in the game today as adversaries in the AL East. Nine players from each roster spent time with both the Mariners and Yankees in some point in their careers, many in prominent roles. As the first ever Division Series in baseball history, the five game classic provided credence to the wild card and legitimized their eventual paths to the World Series. While there have been many games and series that share the sense of moments and drama of 1995, few capture the pageantry and place in the future in the game and events that eventually shaped two decades of baseball.

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