April 11, 2011. On a whim, I decided I was going to go to the Mariners game. It was going to be Felix Hernandez’s home opener and I was sure it would be a special night. None of my friends had any interest in the team by the time I was ready to go to the stadium on that cold Monday afternoon, so I headed out for my bus alone. No matter, though, I was going for baseball. I had endured 6 long months without seeing a game and nothing was going to stop me.
For Felix Hernandez’s home opener, I anticipated an energized crowd. A once in a lifetime talent was going to make an appearance for the first time since September and people were going to show up. I anticipated a buzz in the air once I reached Sodo. I always like to be one of the first people to enter Safeco Field on game night. I like watching fielders take grounders, hitters swing for the fences in batting practice and young fans eager to catch the eye of one of their heroes. I got a bit of a late start and was going to arrive at Safeco right at about the time the gates opened, so I figured I would be out of luck. I was wrong.
I was one of the first people in line to enter the stadium. I waited no more than ten minutes until “Centerfield” blared through the speakers along with memorable calls by Dave Niehaus. That familiar horn sounded which signaled the opening of the gates. I was in.
I made a bee-line for the Mariners’ dugout, by far the best place to get a good vantage point of batting practice in addition to the possibility of interaction with players. I struck up a conversation with one of the ushers and we traded stories, both about baseball and life in general. I told her of my potential job opportunities and she told about watching her grandchildren grow up. By the time we both realized it it was 6:45 and it was time for me to take my seat in the center field bleachers. The usher, however, wouldn’t let me do that to myself and offered me a seat just above the dugout. Of course, I gladly accepted. As I sat in my seat, however, I looked around the stadium and was shocked.
The stands were empty. The official attendance was announced at 13,056, which made it the lowest-attended game in Safeco’s history, but the number of fans in the stadium couldn’t have been more than 10,000. That was okay though – the few fans that did make the trip out to the park were about to witness a Felix Hernandez masterpiece. Against the lowly Blue Jays Felix was sure to get a win, even with the subpar offense usually provided by his teammates.
The first inning went by uneventfully – neither team scored a run. In the second, however, the Blue Jays got on the board with one run – a run that the Mariners were unable to match in their half of the frame. In each of the third, fourth and sixth innings, Toronto was able to add two more runs onto the board, forcing Felix to the showers early. In his home opener he gave up 7 runs in 6 innings, a result that drove a vast majority of the spectators home.
Being a diehard baseball fan, I wasn’t going to leave before the final pitch was thrown, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling down about the game. It was a low moment in a season that had yet to see a full week of baseball in Seattle. I would stick it out though, just because I missed baseball that much. I couldn’t leave Safeco.
The Mariners put a run on the board in the 7th. It was Milton Bradley’s first home run of the year and would turn out to be one of only two he hit in his short 28-game season. It was a nice moment in an otherwise disappointing game and I wouldn’t have to go home knowing that I had seen my team get shut out.
Just for fun, Saunders started the 8th inning with a single. It was nice to see one of the Mariners’ (at the time) top prospects succeed. Brendan Ryan followed with a walk. Two batters later, Ichiro hit a single, loading the bases. There was a bit of a buzz around the stadium, although seemingly unwarranted, considering the team was down 1-7 and wasn’t exactly prone to putting up dazzling offensive innings.
But then Luis Rodriguez walked. Milton Bradley walked. Jack Cust walked. Justin Smoak gave us a glimpse of what we were hoping we traded for by hitting a single to left, driving in Rodriguez and Bradley. The game was legitimately getting interesting, with Miguel Olivo coming to the plate with the tying run on second.
It wasn’t to be in the 8th, however, as Olivo ended up grounding into a double play to end the inning. It was easy to see the way this game would end – in typical Mariners’ fashion, we would be talking about “what could’ve been” afterward and looking for the “small victories.” We could say that the game was a learning experience for the young team and simply move onto the next one.
The Mariners had different plans. Saunders again led off the inning with a hit, this time ripping a double to right field. Brendan Ryan followed with a well-placed sacrifice bunt, sending Saunders to third. Adam Kennedy then grounded out, which led to Ichiro being intentionally walked. There were two outs and Luis Rodriguez came to the plate. The same Luis Rodriguez that entered the inning with a .091 batting average. He was 0-2 with a strikeout on the day.
Ichiro was allowed second base, but all eyes were focused on L-Rod. The first and second pitches came and went, both strikes. The ‘Rally Jig,’ which had been playing throughout the last couple of innings, was in full effect (editor’s note: if you haven’t been to a game where they play the Rally Jig, you haven’t lived).
With an 0-2 count, you could feel the stadium holding its collective breath with every pitch. The next was a foul ball. The Mariners were inches away from losing the game. Rodriguez took the next pitch, but ended up fouling two more off. After taking another ball, he made solid contact, but the ball went foul again. On pitch ten of the at-bat, Luis did it.
Luis came through in a big way. He gave the Mariners a win that most believed was impossible. He capped off one of the greatest comebacks in Mariners history. Luis Rodriguez, the unlikeliest of heroes, became Seattle’s favorite sports figure, if only for one night.
This is why I love baseball. Go back and watch that video again. Look at all of the fans after Rodriguez won the game. Every single fan there is feeling the same feeling. That feeling is impossible to describe. I had been to my fair share of Mariners, Seahawks, Huskies and Sounders games, but there was nothing like this game. I was high-fiving people I had never seen before, reveling in an atmosphere that doesn’t come around every day. It’s always fun to see your team dominate a weaker opponent, but there is something special about a comeback win, especially to this degree.
Whenever people come out with pessimistic posts about the Mariners’ 2012 season, I remember this game. Sure, the stats showed that the Mariners’ shot of winning was close to 0% after a few innings of the game. Yeah, Luis Rodriguez was a .091 hitter coming into that final at-bat. Some say that the numbers are stacked against the Mariners this year – that they’re as good as finished.
I didn’t leave Safeco Field that night, and I’m not writing this season off. I suggest you don’t either. You might miss something amazing.