Having lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, I've seen a disproportionate number of Mariners games as compared to the rest of the majors. While I've been to a couple games at Coors (my wife got a Todd Helton foul ball), its one night at Safeco in 2004 that takes the "best game I've experienced" title.
Mariners vs Red Sox - If you've happened to read my "MLB team likability ranks" from yesterday, you're familiar with the fact that for whatever reason, when I get tickets to Mariners games they're often playing the Boston Red Sox. You're also familiar with my opinion on the Red Sox: their fans are some of the biggest bandwagoners in all of pro sports. July 19, 2004 was no exception to this. "Sawks" fans were crawling all over the bleachers, an infestation of red and blue, mostly comprised of Seattle area residents who felt like rooting for the anti-Yankees was cool and trendy. I've never been able to explain the number of Red Sox fans present in a stadium an entire continent away, but it's an undeniable Safeco calamity. These games always degenerate into a war of fans: the Red Sox groupies trying to force out "Sweet Caroline" before the bottom of the 8th and the hometown faithful doing their best to drown out the aliens. There's incentive to rise to the occasion when the scoreboard commands you to "Get Loud", because if you don't, the insufferable front runners will. There's something at stake in these games, even when there isn't. As an obligation to root, root, root for the home team, I've come out of my shell to heckle Tim Wakefield or Terry Francona as the occasion warrants.
July 19, 2004 - In a 162-game context, this game didn't mean anything particularly significant. In hindsight, you may have already recognized that this would be the year that Boston would break the curse. In mid-July, however, none of us had any notion of that.
My father-in-law had gotten the tickets for this one, some pretty nice seats on the lower level of the first base side. I'm not normally the type to engage in baseball small talk with strangers, but for whatever reason I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me, a curmudgeonly fellow in his sixties who represented the plague of Sox fans. This guy, however, wasn't your typical baseball novice. First off, his accent gave him away as a genuine Bostonian. The guy was a stereotype of the New England vernacular, straight out of the Wahlbergs. Besides that, he was an embittered old Red Sox fan who had seen his share of misery. Sometime around the seventh inning he confessed to me that this was the first live game he'd been to since the late 1970's. The reason?: Bucky F-ing Dent. Grizzled old Sox Man had been there when the Yankees' slugger ripped out Fenway's heart, and, like any good superstitious baseball fan, refused to attend another Sox game in person lest he bring bad luck. Only that week had his daughter talked him into recscinding that vow, but throughout the game you could tell he was uncomfortable, wincing with every scoreless Red Sox frame and wringing his hands like he was suffering from some serious MLB-PTSD.
The 8th inning loosened him up. A steady supply of beverages probably greased the skids, but whatever reluctance to optimism my Bostonian friend had been harboring was smashed by a Jason Varitek three-run shot that broke a 1-1 tie. To this point, I'd felt a bit sorry for the guy. Twenty-some years of self-imposed baseball purgatory were being escaped in a moment, and I could appreciate a genuine ball fan. However, Varitek's shot suddenly had this guy's mouth running, and I was getting a little bit salty. As an aside, it's important to recall that Varitek - a staple of the Red Sox renaissance of '04 - had been acquired from the Mariners along with pitcher Derek Lowe in what has to be one of the worst trades of this century. For those who don't remember, reliever Heathcliff Slocumb was the return. Add it all up, and a Varitek HR was a gut shot to Mariners' sympathizers.
After adding a run in the bottom of the 8th, the Mariners were down to their final inning and facing Red Sox closer Keith Foulke. Safeco was as split as the '16 presidential election, half of it's inhabitants buzzing with the prospect of a Red Sox win and the contingency of home faithful biting their tongues and scowling across the diamond. By this point, all pleasantries with Sox Fan had been suspended and I was hoping just to gut out the final frame without telling him to shut up. That's when lightning struck, back-to-back, in the form of Miguel Olivo and Edgar Martinez. Olivo's solo shot with one down in the 9th sent a ripple of fear through the Red Sox fans, and the guy next to me started running out of words. Then, Edgar - who for whatever reason didn't start this game and came in as a pinch hitter - turned the tide with one swing, mashing a Foulke offering over the left field wall. Safeco' defenders erupted, and Sox Fan audibly gasped. I afforded a sideways glance toward him to see him slump into his seat, bewildered. I've no doubt that Bucky F-ing Dent was dancing across his subconscious as Edgar touched home to tie the ballgame.
Headed into extras, the outcome now felt personal. Mariners fans could sense a knockout punch, and the outsiders were reeling from the dramatic swing. Each Boston pitch felt like a struggle to simply survive at this point, and the guy next to me had become so silent that I worried he may need to be resuscitated. The wheels fell off in the 11th with former Rockies pitcher Curtis Leskanic on the hill for the Sox. It was Olivo again who started the rally with a single through short, followed up by a walk and an Ichiro sacrifice bunt. Leskanic put Randy Winn on intentionally to load the bases with one down, and now the gentleman next to me had his eyes closed and noticeably flaring his nostrils. I don't think another person in that stadium wasn't on their feet, and the crowd was going crazy. I was with them, frenzied over the smell of blood and unjustifiably anxious to see the Red Sox squatters get their collective souls ripped out.
Bret Boone was up to the task. Sensing the palpable need for drama, Boonie eschewed the sacrifice fly and rather scorched an absolute laser over the centerfield wall. A walk-off Grand Slam sent the place into utter pandemonium. I jumped and shouted and hugged strangers, suddenly oblivious to the tortured soul next to me. It wasn't until after we'd sung some celebratory jock-jam in unison that Red Sox Fan drifted back into my periphery. He sat, completely motionless, hat in his hands and staring glassy-eyed across the sea of exuberance. I've never been so emotionally conflicted in my life as a fan, and I wavered between an "in your face!" and a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
I didn't need to think for long, because without any warning the man bolted upright and glowered at me. "Bucky F-ing Dent," is all he said, half muttering to himself, and with those words he slunk into the aisle and disappeared.
Fast forward to October of 2004 and a part of me couldn't help but to think of the old guy and feel a sense of satisfaction for him. It's nice to think of the catharsis that World Series must have been for him. All the same, I'm still glad that we got him that day. For once, the good guys prevailed. I'll forever be indebted to Bret F-ing Boone. That's my favorite MLB game experience.