During the mid-1990s, baseball featured a resurgence following the heartbreaking players' strike that cancelled the end of the 1994 season. Two of the teams that broke through around this time that became perennial powerhouses were both absent from the playoff picture for at least 14 years--the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners. A decade of near-miss playoff berths in the '80s had devolved into some pretty awful baseball in the early '90s for the Yankees, and the Mariners were a laughingstock, having finished above .500 just twice during their 18 seasons since joining the American League as an expansion team in 1977. They were within 10 games of a playoff berth in only one of those seasons, and that was a seven-game deficit as a sub-.500 team in '87.
Fortunately for the two teams, they both featured very capable general managers who each had a real eye for talent: Gene "Stick" Michael and Woody Woodward. Under their watch, young talent was acquired through superb scouting of amateur players and trades. An obvious pre-Woodward move that was a boon for Seattle was the number one overall pick in the '87 MLB Draft, the son of a former All-Star outfielder who always seemed to have a smile on his face named Ken Griffey, Jr. Called up to the majors in '89 at the precocious age 19 after tearing up the minors, he became the greatest player to ever put on a Mariners uniform, beginning a streak of 10 straight All-Star appearances with the Mariners in 1990. "The Kid" would go on to hit a franchise record 417 homers, twice bashing 56 in a season, and unanimously winning the '97 AL MVP.
Woodward made a brilliant move in May of '89 by dealing starter Mark Langston to the Expos in exchange for an intimidating 6'10" flamethrowing lefty with little control named Randy Johnson. "The Big Unit" led the league in walks for three straight years before finally honing his control from 1993-95. He led the AL each year in strikeouts from 1992-95, capping that streak off with the '95 AL Cy Young Award. By the time he left Seattle in '98, he had struck out an incredible 2,162 batters in 1,838 1/3 innings, a remarkable 10.6 K/9. Seattle also fleeced the Yankees for power-hitting right fielder Jay Buhner in July of '88; "Bone" became an instant fan favorite and recorded the first of seven straight 20-homer seasons in '91. Buhner made a habit of hurting the team that gave him away, punishing Yankees pitching to a .283/.379/.578 triple slash in his career with 28 homers in 104 games.
In the midst of an awful 98-loss campaign in '92, a hitting expert third baseman named Edgar Martinez belted a league-high 46 doubles while winning his first batting title thanks to a .343/.404/.544, 164 OPS+ batting line. Injuries forced him off of third and superior defensive first baseman allowed to focus on developing his skills as a designated hitter. Martinez mastered the position so thoroughly that the award for the greatest DH in baseball every year was eventually titled the "Edgar Martinez Award." Like Buhner, he thrashed Yankees pitching, batting .317/.423/.542 with 44 doubles and 22 homers in 138 games against them.
With this talented core complemented by other fine young players like first baseman Tino Martinez and catcher Dan Wilson, the Mariners were primed for a dark horse run at the playoffs in '95. They fell behind by 13 1/2 games to the California Angels though, and they lost Griffey for a couple months on a phenomenal play in May. Things were bleak in Seattle, and there was a very real possibility that the team would abandon the city soon without a new stadium plan approved to replace the ugly Kingdome. Their fortunes turned on a walk-off homer by Griffey against the Yankees in his first game back, and they were tremendous down the stretch.
The Mariners went 19-8 in September and caught up to the free-falling Angels. Behind Johnson, they beat them in a one-game playoff for the AL West division title. Their Division Series opponent would be their newfound rival, who always seemed to show up in their biggest games--the Yankees.
The story of the Yankees' phoenix-like rise from last place in '90 to a playoff berth in '95 has been well-documented. Michael made a habit of shedding players who did not have any plate discipline or pitching poise. Gone were the days of Tim Leary and Mel Hall, and in were the days of Paul O'Neill, Jimmy Key, Wade Boggs, and their burgeoning center fielder, Bernie Williams. Losing Key to rotator cuff surgery was damaging in '95, but at the trade deadline, the Yankees added defending Cy Young Award winner David Cone to their rotation. They had also started the season slowly, but a red hot September led to the first ever AL Wild Card going to the Yankees. Their 14-year playoff drought was over and their longtime captain and first baseman Don Mattingly was finally going to play in the post-season.
The '95 ALDS was as epic as a best-of-five series could be, and it was impactful enough that a book was later written about it. The Yankees won a pair of close games in the first two matchups, both played at Yankee Stadium. A walk-off 15th inning homer by Jim Leyrtiz gave them a 2-0 lead and they needed to win just one of the next three games in Seattle to move on to the ALCS.
Sadly, it was not meant to be, as the Mariners ripped the Yankees' and their fans' hearts out with three straight wins in Seattle, a streak highlighted by blown saves, an Edgar game-tying grand slam, and Griffey setting a record with five homers in a five-game series. Cone threw 144 pitches in Game 5, desperately clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth, but a bases-loaded walk to Pat Strange tied it and ended his night. His manager, Buck Showalter, no longer trusted the bullpen, even though a hard-throwing up-and-comer named Mariano Rivera had thrown scoreless ball in the series to date.
The game moved to the 10th and thanks to a clutch hit by Randy Velarde, the Yankees actually took a one-run lead on Johnson, pitching in relief. Starter Jack McDowell entered in relief to try to close out the Mariners, but to no avail. A two-run double by Edgar ended the series, and the Mariners mobbed Griffey at home plate after he scored the winning run. Baseball in Seattle was saved (a change of heart led the local council to approve the construction of what is now Safeco Field), though at the expense of Mattingly's career.
Over the next few seasons, the rivalry would continue, highlighted by Dwight Gooden's no-hitter, intense brawls following beanballs (likely encouraged by former Yankees player-turned-Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who loved to beat his former team), and the rise of their two amazing shortstops, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. The Yankees won the World Series in '96, '98, and '99 while the Mariners reached the playoffs in '97, though a late '90s slump led to Griffey's and Johnson's respective decisions to depart. It would take until 2000 when the teams would meet again in the playoffs. Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick was now in charge, and A-Rod was the star of the team, though he was nicely complemented by Edgar, Buhner, center fielder Mike Cameron, and first baseman John Olerud.
The Yankees' core of course featured Jeter, Bernie, Rivera, and Tino Martinez, the former Mariners first baseman. This time, it was the ALCS, and the Mariners jumped out to a 1-0 lead at Yankee Stadium and seemed poised to take a 2-0 lead when the Yankees were scoreless for 16 straight innings. The offense erupted with a seven-run eighth to capture a 7-1 lead and tie the series. Led by Roger Clemens' one-hit, 15-strikeout shutout in Game 4 at Safeco Field, the Yankees took a 3-2 series lead back to Yankee Stadium. The Mariners held some hope, as they had a 4-3 lead in the seventh in the hands of Arthur Rhodes. Trade acquisition and ALCS MVP David Justice had other plans though, as he socked a three-run bomb off Rhodes to give the Yankees the lead and avenge Edgar's double of five years prior, effectively ending Seattle's exciting season. The Yankees closed out the 7-4 victory and won their third straight World Series title.
A year later, the two teams were back in the ALCS, and Seattle was the heavy favorite. They had lost A-Rod to free agency but added Japanese phenom Ichiro Suzuki, who went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2001. The Mariners were unbelievable, breaking the '98 Yankees' AL record for victories with 116. Like the Yankees of the late-'90s, they just seemed to be an incredibly deep team. They had a damn difficult lineup with Ichiro, Cameron, Edgar, Olerud, and slugging second baseman Bret Boone, and their rotation had a threat in each spot with Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele, and Jamie Moyer.
To the shock of the baseball world, the '01 Yankees pretty much steamrolled the best team in baseball in five games. They opened the series with back-to-back wins in Seattle behind strong pitching from Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, then after losing Game 3 in a 14-3 blowout, they tied Game 4 at one in the eighth with a Bernie Williams homer off Rhodes (their whipping boy) and walked off dominant closer Kazuhiro Sasaki on a two-run homer by rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano in the bottom of the ninth.
Another strong performance by ALCS MVP Pettitte the next day ended the series and the Yankees won their fourth straight pennant.
Seattle has not returned to the playoffs since then. After back-to-back near-miss playoff seasons in '02 and '03, they fell into a still-active, decade-long malaise thanks to some awful GMs to follow Gillick (Bill Bavasi and Jack Z). Despite terrific seasons from Ichiro and 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, they have posted just two over-.500 seasons since 2003. Their 12-year playoff drought is longer than all other teams in baseball except for the Royals and Blue Jays. Maybe things are on the rise now that Robinson Cano is in Seattle and they have other superb players in" King Felix," Kyle Seager, and Hisashi Iwakuma. Maybe one day Yankees/Mariners will have the cache it once did. For now though, all we can do is look back upon those late-'90s and early-2000s days and marvel at the intensity shared by these two teams whenever they matched up.
A bonus GIF for you Yankees fans who hate the Kingdome because of 1995. Crumble, you filth, crumble! (h/t Greg Kirkland)