As you can see from the photo above, provided by the Mariners, it’s moving day at Safeco Field. The truck is being packed up with equipment and will head off to Peoria, Ariz., where spring training begins with pitchers and catchers reporting a week from tomorrow.
In other words, with the Super Bowl over, it’s now officially baseball season. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to supersede yesterday’s unfortunate second-half light failure at the Superdome with a baseball blackout yarn — one that I happened to witness. This one involved Lou Piniella and Randy Johnson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr. — and Kevin Costner, kinda.
It was an Aug. 14, 1997 game at Camden Yards between the Mariners and Orioles — a preview, as it turned out, of the division series, won by Baltimore in four games. (As an aside, I’ve always felt that was the most disappointing outcome in Mariners’ history, as that was the one and only year the team had all their superstars together in full bloom; four Hall of Famers — talent-wise, at least: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez. In 1995, A-Rod was a barely used rookie. In 1996, Johnson started only eight games because of back injuries, and by 1998, he was traded in July. This was the sole year they all played together in their prime — along with 40-homer man Jay Buhner — and they couldn’t get out of the first round).
But anyway, back to Aug. 14. I happened to be on that road trip, filling in for our beat writer, Bob Finnigan. When they turned on the lights for the game that Thursday night — after batting practice had already begun, if I recall correctly — one of the banks didn’t go on. An entire side of the field — the first-base/right field side — became increasingly shadowy as the sun went down.
Here is my story from the game. I remember there being a lot of huddling and meetings among officials of both teams and the umpires as the delay dragged on interminably. Although it wasn’t totally dark on the field, Randy Johnson was scheduled to pitch that night, and the Orioles were understandably wary of facing him with dim lighting from the first-base side. The Mariners, on the other hand, were facing a bunch of games in a row, including a doubleheader against the White Sox two days later, and didn’t like the prospect of playing two the next day as well.
I recall Piniella being very cranky afterwards, when the game was finally postponed after 10 p.m., following a 2 hour and 25 minute delay that was never explained to the large, restless crowd at Camden Yards. Joe Strauss in the Baltimore Sun wrote: “Much of the confusion stummed from the number of people involved in the decision. Foss (Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss) contacted Mariners general manager Woody Woodward and Budig (American League president Gene Budig) while Clark (crew chief Al Clark) was continuously conferring with player representatives Mike Mussina and Dan Wilson as well as Orioles GM Pat Gillick and both managers. With a capacity gate at risk, Angelos (Orioles owner Peter Angelos) urged that every attempt be made to play the game.”
In fact, were late indications that they indeed planned to play the game — but by that time the Mariners had showered and some had left the ballpark.
“As we were going back outside to tell the umpires and the Baltimore executives that we would play a split doubleheader tomorrow, they decided we would play tonight,” Piniella told reporters afterward. “By this time, our players were undressed. My starting pitcher (Johnson) had taken a shower.
“They said, ‘You’ve got to play.’ I said, If you do play, it will be without us. We’ll have to forfeit.’ It was true. I wasn’t trying to be belligerent in any way. But once our guys showered, especially the starting pitcher, it was over.”
Umpiring crew chief Al Clark told a slightly different story, saying that the decision had already been made to call off the game because of safety issues.
“I don’t know if the Seattle club perhaps wants to take a chance of losing a Ken Griffey Jr. or a Jay Buhner in less than ideal circumstances, or the Orioles want to risk losing a Cal Ripken or a Rafael Palmeiro,” Clark said that night. “Why put yourself in that situatin when it can be alleviated? I think that’s acting resonsibly.”
It was a real mess, obviously. But the juicy part didn’t occur until years later, when whispers began to be heard that the REAL reason the game was called off was to protect Cal Ripken Jr., whose record streak of consecutive games played was still alive. Ripken had already broken Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 in late 1995, but he certainly wasn’t ready to sit out — that wouldn’t occur until September of the following season.
One version of the story was that Ripken had incurred some kind of injury that would have prevented him from playing that night, and so the Orioles concocted a light failure to keep the streak alive. But the version that prevailed — and is still heard to this day, even though it has been thoroughly discredited — involved actor Kevin Costner, of all people. The urban legend that emerged is that Ripken had caught Costner — a family friend — in bed with his wife that night, gotten in a scuffle wtih him, and then called the Orioles and told them he couldn’t play. In various versions it’s because he’s too upset, or somehow got injured in the fight. And that’s when the Orioles came up with the blackout gambit, according to this tale — to protect no-show Ripken from losing his streak. If you want to see how pervasive this story remains, google Ripken, Costner and streak.
A couple of problems with that storyline, however. One, Ripken was in the posted lineup. And two, he was seen at the ballpark during pre-game warmups, appearing perfectly fine. The Baltimore Sun story includes this sentence: “At about 9:20 p.m., Orioles starter Scott Kamieniecki began walking toward the bullpen as Cal Ripken emerged to soft toss along the first-base line.”
Doesn’t sound like a guy who had gotten into a dustup with Kevin Costner, does it? Ripken himself debunked the story on NPR in 2008, as reported by the myth-busting website Snopes, which shot the whole Ripken rumor to smithereens:
“It’s easy to check the facts of that one. I remember it very well. The bank of lights went off and Randy Johnson was pitching for the Seattle Mariners. And we were deciding what to do about that. Was there enough visible light out there to actually see a guy throwing over 100 miles per hour? The bank was just over our dugout. And I physically went out and tested it for the umpire. I was in discussion with the umpires. I was definitely there, I was ready to play…I’m sure I was on camera a number of times being out on the field.”
I don’t remember there being any talk that night about Ripken being absent, or unavailable. Who knows how these things get started? All I know is that it was one of the more memorable games I didn’t cover.