CHICAGO — Mike Cameron had never seen anything like it. And chances are, he never will again.
But then, as long as Lou Piniella’s managing the Mariners, who knows?
Cameron was on first base via a single in the 10th inning of Tuesday night’s American League Division series-opening game at Comiskey Park.
The game with the White Sox was tied at 4-all. Edgar Martinez was batting with a 2-0 count.
Cameron, always a threat to steal, had drawn several throws from Sox relief ace Keith Foulke, a one-time Everett Giant. Now Foulke was about to witness something he, too, had probably never seen, not even in the Anything Can Happen Northwest League.
Piniella was emerging from the dugout and he was coming towards Cameron and he was taking him aside and he was saying something to him.
One pitch later, Cameron stole second. And in the Mariner dugout, Mark McLemore turned to his manager and said, "You’re good, aren’t you?"
To which Piniella responded, "Sometimes, I get lucky."
On the next pitch, Martinez didn’t get lucky. He just did his thing, clubbing a two-run homer and the Mariners were about to steal out of the South Side with a 7-4 win.
Now the $64,000 question. What the devil did Piniella say to Cameron? "I told him the NASDAQ was down 113 points and Cisco was a hell of a buy," Piniella said with a laugh.
Good line, but not the truth. And the truth will never be known, except to his players. And mum was the word with them.
Must have been — what would you say? — a bit risqué.
"I didn’t know what he was gonna say," said Cameron, recalling Piniella walking slowly, head down, from the dugout. "The only time you might see that happen is in Little League."
So what did he say, Mike? "I can’t tell you," he replied with a grin. Then, bright kid that he is, he ad-libbed, "He said ‘We’re gonna go out and have a couple of drinks after you steal this bag.’ "
Hey, it’s better than nothing.
Whether the steal broke Foulke’s concentration and caused him to serve up the fat one to Martinez, maybe only the pitcher knows. But it couldn’t have helped.
"The most important thing for me to do was to get in scoring position and for Edgar to get a good pitch to hit," Cameron said. "He did and he drilled it."
Don’t think Cameron didn’t get immense satisfaction out of playing a key role in this win. Besides his big steal, he had a run-scoring hit in the seventh that tied the game at 4.
All of this was done against the team that traded him two years ago without so much as a phone call to let him know he would be wearing a Cincinnati uniform in 1999. He found out watching TV while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
He tried to play down the revenge motive, but come on, Mike, this had to be as good as it gets, unless the M’s win the World Series. "Today was a very big game," he said. "For myself, it was my first playoff game and it just happened to be against the White Sox."
Right. And Ken Starr wasn’t happy to see Bill Clinton impeached.
This game was as good as it gets. It had everything. It had stellar defensive plays, two of them turned by the White Sox, who, ironically, were one of the worst fielding teams in the American League. It had outstanding relief pitching, and the M’s bullpen corps was absolutely marvelous, five pitchers giving up no runs and only three hits in 6 2/3innings. It had timely hitting, the M’s, of course, providing the timeliest.
"It was a total team effort," said M’s right fielder Jay Buhner. "We got big walks when we needed them, we got big hits when we needed them and we got big pitches when we needed them."
Two of the biggest pitches were delivered by the first man out of the bullpen, Brett Tomko, who relieved starter Freddy Garcia with one out and the bases loaded in the fourth and the White Sox leading 4-3. Tomko got the first man he faced, Jose Valentin, to fly out.
Now he was up against Frank Thomas, who crushed 43 home runs and drove in 143 runs this season. Every time Thomas came to bat, the crowd chanted "MVP."
Dramatic moment, eh, Mr. Tomko?
"You’re in the playoffs, the bases are loaded and the Big Hurt’s up," he said. "That’s awesome. That’s fun. That’s what it’s all about."
If you don’t get hurt.
He didn’t. He also got Thomas to fly out.
Frank Thomas is really big.
Tomko noticed. "He doesn’t look normal," the pitcher said of the 6-foot-5, 280-pound designated hitter. "He looks like he should be playing tight end or defensive tackle."
Which would be fine with pitchers. Likewise, Thomas may be thinking the M’s bullpen doesn’t appear normal, as slam-shut effective as it has been most of the season.
It seems a shame that the bullpen hasn’t come up with a catchy name for itself. "Sometimes, it seems like we have a zoo out there," Tomko said.
Which is not a signal for fans to feed the players. "As long as they don’t start throwing bananas and hotdogs at us," he said, "we’ll be all right."
This bullpen is much more than all right.
It very well could be the key to this series.
The bullpen and any well-chosen words the manager has to offer at unexpected moments.
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