There may never be a way to satisfactorily explain the Great Angel Calamity of 1995, but given enough time, one monumental rationalization can always be managed.
The Angels didn't choke away the American League West championship--they simply and graciously threw themselves upon the sacrificial altar for the good of the game.
Threw themselves up there so that baseball could be saved by the Seattle Mariners.
Good of them, don't you think?
Because--and let's call an Allanson an Allanson here, shall we?--if Randy Johnson had somehow sprained a biceps striking out every Angel on the roster and the Angels had somehow come back to win that one-game playoff, 2-1, on a wild pitch by Bobby Ayala in the 16th inning, where would the American League playoffs be today?
Very likely, all but swept away.
It would have been Cleveland, 3-0 over Boston; New York, 3-0 over California; and Cleveland, 4-0 over New York, any minute now.
Had they survived Seattle, the Angels would have limped into New York on no days' rest, lost the opener, as the Mariners did; lost Game 2 (Mike Harkey would have started), as the Mariners did; and, in all probability, lost Game 3 in Anaheim, with Jack McDowell overwhelming an exhausted and emotionally depleted home team.
Instead, the Mariners had Johnson in reserve for a Game 3 resurrection, then got seven RBIs from Edgar Martinez in Game 4, then rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 11th in Game 5, then opened the American League championship series with a stirring, inexplicable winning performance from 22-year-old rookie pitcher Bob Wolcott, beating the mighty Indians, 3-2, in only his seventh major league start.
Could Mark Holzemer have done the same?
Tonight, the Mariners step onto Jacobs Field with a real chance of taking a 2-1 series lead over Cleveland and regaining home-field advantage. Johnson starts for Seattle, on four days' rest finally, and if the Mariners can win one of the next three games after that, they can bring back Johnson, at the Kingdome, for Game 7.
Or, they can lose the next three and still walk away acclaimed as true credits to their profession. Because if the Mariners haven't quite given fans a reason to believe in baseball again, they have at least given them a reason to watch baseball again.
At this point in baseball's reconstruction era, that makes the Mariners genuine baseball heroes.
And isn't that a mouthful: The Seattle Mariners--The Best Thing To Happen To Baseball Since Baseball's "A World Series Every October" Warranty Ran Out.
Cal Ripken Jr. helped, too, providing valuable evidence that not all major league players are whining, jaking, self-absorbed, clock-punching egotists. But seeing as how Ripken plays for the Baltimore Orioles, he traditionally sets aside his shovel shortly after Oct. 1.
The Mariners have steamrolled into prime time, despite the networks' resolve to keep as many important baseball games as possible off prime-time television, and they have done a magnificent job of picking their spots. For example, they waited until after the O.J. Simpson verdict to play the first playoff game in the franchise's 19-year existence.
From there, a few million wandering attention spans were fit to be grabbed, and the Mariners obliged with three come-from-behind victories in as many days, climaxing with Ken Griffey Jr. in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 5.
"Refuse To Lose" has become the Mariners' motto through all of this, possibly because "Refuse To Switch Over To 'Space: Above And Beyond' " is a tad too cumbersome. The Mariners are a better P.R. campaign than Bud Selig ever could have dreamed of--Selig isn't anywhere near that clever--and they are here, enthralling both the tourists and the purists, because of, yes, The Wild Card.
The wild card made "Refuse To Lose" possible, because without it, the Mariners would have started building for '96 the first week in August. Trailing the Angels by 13 games at the end of July, Seattle had nothing left to play for except an outside shot at the wild card. Lou Piniella admitted as much at the time. Because a wild-card bid still loomed, Piniella persuaded management to trade for Andy Benes and Vince Coleman.
Without that carrot, there would have been no need for Benes, no reason for Coleman. If anything, the Mariners would have taken the other tack--they'd have broken up the team, dumped some contracts and started grooming the kids for next year.
The wild card gave the Mariners a reason to play out the regular season. When the Angels provided their unexpected assist, the division title all but ambushed the Mariners. Yes, they could make the playoffs. Yes, they could win the West. Across the city, adrenaline levels skyrocketed.
What next, the pennant?
The World Series?
Well, why not?
Stranger things have happened, as Mark Langston will tell you.
In the aftermath of the Mariners' pulsating Game 5 triumph over the Yankees, one overheated eyewitness wrote in the next day's newspaper that the Seattle-New York series by itself "almost" atoned for the lost postseason of '94.
Hardly. No one and nothing will ever atone for that fiasco. Not a thousand Edgar Martinez home runs. Not a dozen Bob Wolcott no-hitters. During their brief visit to the playoffs, the Dodgers complained that crowds were down. After 1994, they're lucky anybody showed up at all.
After 1994, all baseball can do is shut up and keep putting up innings the way the Mariners are doing. Show the people what it was about baseball they liked in the first place. Game-winning hits in the bottom of the ninth in October. Bottom of the ninths in October. Top of the firsts as well.
The Mariners are doing their part, above and beyond the call of duty. For that, we can thank the wild card playoff format. And--give them their due--we can thank the Angels, too.