After 21 long years of frustration and failures, of close calls and coming up just short, of spring trainings filled with hope and offseasons spent with regret, of entire careers without champagne celebrations for King Felix and Kyle Seager, of so much change, including three general managers, eight managers and two interim managers, of hundreds of players, of “Believe Big” to “True to the Blue” to “Sea Us Rise,” the Seattle Mariners are finally returning to the playoffs.

With an aching left thumb that he’s tried to play through for the last few weeks and kept him out of the starting lineup on Friday night despite his vehement protests, catcher Cal Raleigh walked to the plate to pinch hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game.

After flailing at a 3-1 slider and fouling off another slider from right-hander Domingo Acevedo, Raleigh didn’t miss the third straight slider thrown to him.

He launched a majestic fly ball deep into the night. As it climbed toward the right field stands, his teammates and 44,754 raised their hands in anticipation for jubilation. The ball smacked off the windows of the Hit It Here Cafe and turned T-Mobile Park into beautiful bedlam and joyous chaos with the Mariners 2-1 walkoff victory.

“The moment I knew it was fair, I just looked at the dugout and everyone was jumping up and down,” Raleigh said. “It’s not really a pressure moment. We’re having fun and playing baseball. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

Teammates swarm Seattle Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh after Raleigh hit a walk-off home run to beat the Oakland Athletics 2-1 and secure the Mariners first post season berth in 21 years. (Jennifer Buchanan / The Seattle Times)

As Raleigh circled the bases, putting both of his hands on his head and saying, “oh my god” as he neared second base, the sold-out crowd was sea of hugs and high-fives. Somewhere looking down on the starless night of Seattle, Dave Niehaus screamed “My oh my, I don’t believe it,” and shed a tear at what he missed.

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“The fact that we’re in our ballpark and there’s 40,000 people here tonight it’s better than maybe what you can even dream it could be,” manager Scott Servais said. “We have a lot of baseball yet ahead of us. We did end the drought tonight, which is a very special feeling. There’s so many kids that grew up in the Pacific Northwest that don’t know anything about the Mariners being in the playoffs, and now we get to show them.”

In the midst of the raucous celebration, Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners president of baseball operations, hugged Servais, the manager he picked to lead this team after being hired before the 2016 season. Their journey hasn’t been simple. It’s included a whirlwind of roster moves, countless changes to the organization, including a rebuilding plan after the 2018 season and plenty of criticism.

“We’ve waited a long time,” Dipoto said. “We worked hard. Everybody contributed in so many ways, from ideas to the work they put into the performance on the field. And we deserve this moment.”

When the 2001 Mariners, who tied the Major League Baseball record with 116 wins, lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, a return to the postseason felt like an inevitability if not a near every-year possibility. Instead, a fan base that first tasted the postseason with the “My Oh My” magic of Ken Griffey Jr. scoring from first on Edgar Martinez’s double to left in the Kingdome, celebrated postseason appearances again in 1997 and 2000 and felt unfulfilled in the failure of 2001 waited for years in disappointment and frustration, 21 to be exact, for a return to the postseason that never came despite promises and posturing.

Three months into a 2022 season filled with expectations of making the postseason, the Mariners seemed destined to push the drought to 22 years.

On June 19, they were shut out for a second straight game by the Angels, losing 4-0 to finish an awful homestand. They were 29-39 and listing toward another long summer of baseball irrelevance.

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“It wasn’t fluid. It wasn’t a linear road for us. We stumbled and we fell and I think that made us stronger,” Dipoto said. “And along the way, we found stars, we found leaders and we found we found a team that came together. I think what you see out there right now is a group of guys who believe that they can beat anybody.”

Led by a strong starting rotation and a stingy bullpen and energized by a 21-year-old rookie, whose mixture of talent and charisma has captured an entire fan base, the Mariners reeled off a stunning turnaround that included a 14-game winning streak going into the All-Star break. On Sept. 11, after taking two of three games from the defending World Series champion Braves at T-Mobile Park, the Mariners were 79-61. They had gone from 10 games under .500 to 18 games over .500 in a span of 72 games.  

By earning one of three American League wild-card spots in the expanded MLB playoffs, the Mariners ended the longest active drought in North American major professional sports. The weight of that unwanted distinction, which they inherited on Jan. 2, 2018 when the Buffalo Bills made the NFL playoffs, accumulated from an annoyance to a burden.

But instead of finding ways to excuse themselves from the drought, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and J.P. Crawford embraced the weight of all those seasons lost and expectations unmet. They made it their own to shoulder, knowing how gratifying it would be when they ended the streak themselves and celebrated with a city they would own.

“I’m going to remember this day for the rest of my life,” Crawford said.

Haniger wrote an impassioned letter to Mariners fans after the 2021 season, saying they would end the drought with a colorful modifier, and Gonzales said it was everything that the trio believed.

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“We had to own it to the end the streak and to end the drought,” Gonzales said. “And that’s exactly what we did. We took ownership of it. Even though most of us haven’t been, I don’t even know if Julio was alive if in 2001 (he was 2 months old), but a lot of us just took ownership and said, ‘This is our streak to end. This is our drought to end.’ That’s what we believed.”

Haniger, the longest tenured member of the Mariners dating back to 2017, was introspective as always. Rarely verbose, but always honest, when he speaks, he thought of those who didn’t get the moment to celebrate.

“I’m really excited for the city of Seattle and the whole sale Mariners organization,” Haniger said. “I think about a lot of the guys that came before me, a lot of the staff has been here and is gone. This is for everyone. I feel like it’s a celebration for everybody and I’m really happy that we got it done this year.”

He paused for a moment, and looked at his teammates covered in champagne and celebrating what they had done. With the intensity of a ninth-inning at-bat, he had something else to say.

“And we’re not done yet.”

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