(Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Seattle Times on April 4, 1989.)
OAKLAND — In case anyone had forgotten, after scads of scandals about paramours and parimutuels, baseball is still a game of inches.
That was the distance between the left-field foul pole at Alameda County Stadium and Darnell Coles’ bash in the sixth inning last night. It slid to the outside of the pole with two runners on base, taking with it the Seattle Mariners’ last chance to turn opening day into something other than a 3-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
“I thought it was gone,” said Seattle Manager Jim Lefebvre, who was defeated in his debut.
“I thought it was gone,” said Coles, who also had missed a home run — by a dozen feet — in his first-inning at-bat.
“I thought it was gone,” said pitcher Mark Langston, who might have started his last opener for Seattle.
What was gone was the game, and though Lefebvre lost the first outing against his old club, he said he was satisfied with the effort.
“If we play 162 games like that, I’ll take my chances,” he said. “We played well, very well. We pitched well. We played well.
“You want to win, but the signs were good, strong. Intensity like that is what we were talking about all spring, what we were shooting for. And our kids were right in there battling like veterans.”
Indeed, but for an error by shortstop Omar Vizquel, who also made a handful of dazzling plays, the four rookies who started for the Mariners gave good accounts of themselves.
Ken Griffey Jr., center of attention, hit the second big-league pitch he ever saw to the wall in center field for a double. He hit two others to the warning track, the second after fouling off five two-strike pitches in a magnificent eighth-inning at-bat against left-hander Rick Honeycutt.
Vizquel misplayed the second chance he had, overthrowing first baseman Alvin Davis on Carney Lansford’s grounder in the third. That mistake was compounded by Mark McGwire on Langston’s next pitch. He drove a ball into the left-field seats which, combined with his first-inning sacrifice fly, put Seattle in a 3-0 hole.
“I was excited, nervous,” Vizquel said. “But never again will I give a runner too much credit like that. I rushed my throw when I should have set myself and made the good play.”
Vizquel followed by showing why, while he might not get Griffey-sized attention yet, he may contribute as much to the Mariner future. In the sixth inning, he was hit in the ear by Dave Parker’s bad-hop grounder, dropped it, picked it up and calmly forced McGwire at second. In the eighth, he robbed McGwire of a hit by going deep in the hole.
Third baseman Edgar Martinez was flawless in the field and hit two line drives, the first of them a single that drove in Seattle’s first run in the fifth. “I feel half and half,” he said. “Good about my play, bad about the game. But I feel like we can play with anyone, and this game showed it.”
Left fielder Greg Briley came up with a key walk in the fifth off Oakland starter Dave Stewart, pushing Jeffrey Leonard into scoring position after his leadoff single. “We were OK,” Briley said, “but we’ll get better.”
Langston was having none of that “good effort” business, however.
“It definitely felt different, a feeling of confidence that we could come back,” the pitcher said. “But to me, there is nothing really good to come from a loss. It leaves a bitter taste.”
Langston was the primary reason for the feeling of confidence.
He overcame early problems, and after McGwire’s two-run homer in the third, body-slammed the best batting order in the game, Jose Canseco or no. The Athletics got only five hits, only two after the homer.
“That pitch was a slider that hung high and must have looked as big as that orange,” Langston said, pointing to a fruit basket sent to him by an old friend. “But after that I told myself, `That’s all they’re going to get.’ ”
But after Coles chased Oakland starter Dave Stewart by following his just-foul home run bid with a run-scoring single, Seattle faced the best bullpen in baseball. “With that group,” Oakland manager Tony La Russa said, “I’m the envy of every manager in baseball.”
Sure enough, Gene Nelson came in with two runners on base and struck out Leonard and Briley, the latter with an unhittable pitch.
Nelson cruised through the seventh inning after Dave Valle’s leadoff single. Honeycutt started the eighth to get left-handers Griffey and Alvin Davis, and Dennis Eckersley got the final four outs, the first in the ninth with the help of third baseman Lansford’s diving stop that robbed Leonard of a hit.
Langston matched the group out for out over the last innings of what may be his last opening day start for the Mariners. Trade rumors still dog him.
“I’m putting all that behind me as best I can now that opening day has come,” he said. “I have no control over it so I just go out and pitch and don’t listen to trade rumors.”