(A shaft of light shines through the stands as the Safeco Field crowd watches Mike Cameron double in the 2001 All-Star Game. Seattle Times photo by Alan Berner).
I’ve arrived in Anaheim to cover what I’m pretty sure will be my 18th All-Star Game, unless I’ve forgotten one along the way. That happens when you get old. That total includes every game since 2000, six in the 1990s, and the 1987 game in Oakland. It doesn’t count the one I went to at Dodger Stadium in 1980 as a civilian, when Ken Griffey’s homer sparked the National League to a win. Yes, the National League used to actually win these things once upon a time. And that was Ken Griffey Sr. His son would give me many thrills as well in the Mid-Summer Classic.
I’m a sucker for the All-Star Game; well, not so much the game itself, though there have been some great moments over the years; but more the pagaentry and sentiment and pre-game introductions and festivities. Moments like Ted Williams being brought out in his wheel chair at Fenway in 1999; Willie Mays taking a lap in San Francisco in 2007; the All-Century team being introduced in Atlanta in 2000 (and getting to interview them, including my hero, Sandy Koufax, in a hotel ballroom the day before the game); Forty-nine living All-Stars taking a bow at Yankee Stadium in 2008.
That stuff really gets to me, sap that I am. The Home Run Derby has gotten a little stale, but watching Griffey Jr. hit the warehouse at Camden Yards was amazing, and Josh Hamilton’s power show at Yankee Stadium two years ago was one of the most exhilirating things I’ve ever witnessed.
As for the game itself, I’ll always remember Ichiro’s inside-the-park homer in San Francisco, Roger Clemens getting shelled in Houston in 2004, Hank Blalock’s pinch-hit, two-run homer Chicago in 2003, the first game that “counted”; Torii Hunter’s great catch to rob Barry Bonds in Milwaukee in 2002; Cal Ripken Jr.’s homer in Seattle in his farewell season of 2001, and Tommy Lasorda’s pratfall while coaching third; Pedro Martinez’s electric outing in Boston in 1999, when he struck out the first four batters he faced, and five of six; Ripken winning the MVP Award with a three-run homer in Toronto after winning the Home Run Derby the day before; and Tim Raines hitting a game-winning triple in the 10th inning in Oakland in ’87 to break a scoreless tie.
The most powerful All-Star mental image I have is of commissioner Bud Selig throwing his hands up in exasperation in 2002 in Milwaukee, when it became apparent that the teams were out of pitchers and the game would have to be declared a tie. It was definitely a surreal moment, leading to expanded rosters designed to make sure that never happens again, and a rule giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league. I’ll debate the merits of that some other time.
But I’m rambling. The purpose of this post is to remember when the All-Star Game was in Seattle, almost precisely nine years ago (July 10 of 2001, to be exact), and to advance a theory I’ve been kicking around for awhile: Namely, that the staging of the All-Star Game at Safeco Field in 2001 can be pinpointed as the absolute peak of major-league baseball in Seattle. Or, to put it another way, it was all downhill from there.
It was, at least in my memory, perfect. In every respect.
Safeco Field was still sparkling new — it had opened in July of 1999 — and we were proud to show it off to the world. The weather was glorious (and I looked back at the files to verify this). The city was buzzing with baseball fever. The Mariners had reached the All-Star break with a ridiculous 63-24 record (.724 win percentage) and a 19-game lead on second-place Oakland. Let me say that again: a 19-game lead on second-place Oakland.
It seemed as if the baseball renaissance that had been jump-started in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series — “The Double” to beat the Yankees — was about to reach its zenith. Anything and everything seemed possible in mid-July of 2001. Led by this insanely exciting, still-mysterious outfielder from Japan, the Mariners were practically unbeatable. Bret Boone was pounding the ball, Mike Cameron was making everyone forget Griffey, Edgar was still Edgar, John Olerud was Mr. Steady, Lou was Lou. Pat Gillick, the man in charge, had proven to have a Midas touch when it came to signing free agents. He had hit with virtually every one, from Jeff Nelson and Arthur Rhodes to Aaron Sele, Mark McLemore and Stan Javier. They appeared to have the combination of talent and leadership that cities thirst for, all showcased in the glorious outdoor stadium — with real grass! — that we still couldn’t quite believe had actually been delivered.
The Mariners took eight players — eight! — to the All-Star Game: Ichiro, Boone, Martinez, Nelson, Cameron, Olerud, Kaz Sasaki and Freddy Garcia. Lou Piniella, appropriately enough, was a coach on Joe Torre’s American League staff.
At that very moment, with the baseball world focused on Seattle, it seemed like a World Series championship, or championships, was on the brink. The M’s were selling out the ballpark virtually every night. Seattle had become a Mariners’ town, absolutely no question. They were on the threshold of something huge.
At least, that’s the way I remember the All-Star Game of 2001, which turned out to be memorable in its own right by virtue of Ripken’s wholly appropriate homer. The sun was shining on Seattle baseball, literally and figuratively.
Then 9/11 hit, and the thrill went out of the Mariners’ season. They fizzled in the playoffs, and returned to reality in 2002. Lou left, and then Gillick. The bottom fell out shortly thereafter, with 99 losses in 2004 — the first of what will soon be five last-place finishes in the span of seven years.
The fans still turn out in nice numbers, considering the product. Seattle still cares about the Mariners. But the magic of 2001, epitomized by the All-Star Game at Safeco Field, is nothing but a distant memory.
The reality is, it may never again be quite as good as it was in July of 2001.