SEATTLE – The night air has a snap to it.
Sweater weather is creeping in.
Summer days, fall nights.
The best time of the year.
The Olympics – for anyone who cares – are almost over for another four years.
NBA training camps open next week. For the first time in 16 years, Patrick Ewing won’t be wearing a New York Knicks uniform.
The football season is a month old. Still way too early to pick a Super Bowl champion, though you might not go wrong with the St. Louis Rams again.
An appealing college matchup pits Washington and Oregon – for the Pac-10 title? – Saturday in Eugene.
The baseball season is winding down. Pennant fever is in the air.
Inside Safeco Field, the stands are filling up, even as Mariner starting pitcher Aaron Sele throws the first pitch.
Game-time temperature is 75 degrees (that can’t be right). No wind, the pressbox speaker reports. The American flag in left-center field flutters slightly, nonetheless.
Tantalizing smells waft in from left field. Teriyaki? Tacos? Whatever, the mouth waters.
Not a cloud in the sky. A jet flies over.
The ballpark glows. As usual. What a sight it must be from 10,000 feet.
This is the kind of night you live for. Perfect weather. Great ballpark. Pennant race.
In the home clubhouse before the game, the Mariners are as loose as college kids on a Friday night.
They bound up the stairs into the clubhouse. Freddy Garcia takes them five steps at a time. (Couldn’t you see the headline: Mariner pitcher Garcia sidelined with broken ankle?)
Jay Buhner stands in front of his locker, arms folded, watching old films of the Rangers, paying close attention to the night’s starter, Ryan Glynn.
Buhner seems to really be enjoying himself of late. Maybe you enjoy a pennant race more when you’re 36.
He was like a kid at Christmas during the M’s late-season drive to the division title in ‘95. This one is more fun because the M’s haven’t had to play catch-up.
Still, the pressure is immense. Six days remaining in the season and the M’s have a half-game lead over Oakland entering the night’s game.
Isn’t this what you hope for when the season begins – a race to the end? If you’re a manager, not really, though a tight race does have an advantage. If you make the playoffs, you go in wired, not lethargic, as you might if you had wrapped up the title in July.
Sele’s first pitch is a ball.
Ominous? No, he gets out of the inning unscathed, though two runners reach base.
A game within a game begins. Scoreboard watching.
Eight hundred miles down the Coast, a zero pops up beside Texas on the scoreboard in the Oakland Coliseum.
In Safeco Field, the scoreboard shows heartening results for the Mariners. The Angels lead the A’s 2-0 after a half-inning.
Not that Jay Buhner notices.
“The less I know what’s going on, the better,” he says before the game. “There’s no sense in me worrying about it. I couldn’t tell you if Oakland has played already or if they’re playing tonight. I figure I’ll be able to tell by the reaction of the crowd during the course of the game.”
There are no collective groans, however, when the scoreboard flashes “5” next to “Oak” in the bottom of the first.
The fans tonight are much livelier than the weekend crowds. Still, the electricity that pervaded the Kingdome in ‘95 has yet to be felt in Safeco.
Maybe the biggest cheer of the night comes in the home half of the seventh when Alex Rodriguez gets his first hit in four games, a two-out triple, to end a 0-for-17 skid. Maybe it’s all he’ll need to get off to a good week.
The rest of the M’s also fatten up on Ranger pitching, which ranks near the bottom of the American League. In four games against the A’s last weekend, the M’s got only 20 hits. The most they had in any one game was seven. Tonight, they have eight hits after five innings.
Sele is in a playoff-type form, pitching a 5-0 complete-game victory against his old teammates. Anything special about this win? “Another game,” he shrugs.
Down the Coast, Oakland wins 10-3 to stay a half-game back. Mariner second baseman Mark McLemore says he isn’t aware of what the A’s did.
“Doesn’t matter what happens anywhere else,” he says. “We win the next five games, we’re in the playoffs, right?”
On the TVs stationed around the clubhouse, highlights of the A’s game are being shown.
Only seven or eight players are in the room.
None is watching.
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