Buhner links Seattle's sad past, successful present
Updated: Wednesday October 10, 2001 9:35 PM
By Jeff Pearlman, Sports Illustrated
SEATTLE -- Two or three times per season, the Seinfeld punchlines run into one another. It happens when Ken Phelps, the Mariner DH of a generation lost, wanders into the Seattle clubhouse for a visit. He looks around, maybe grabs a bag of sunflower seeds, then -- nostalgia. He spots Jay Buhner.
For 16 years, Buhner has been Phelps' favorite player. That's because, for 16 years, Buhner has kept Phelps' otherwise obscure career alive. It is our generation's Brock-Broglio. On July 21, 1988, the Mariners sent Phelps to the Yankees for Buhner and pitchers Rick Balabon and Troy Evers.
Phelps lasted the season in the Bronx, helping New York accomplish absolutely positively squat.
Balabon and Evers disappeared.
Buhner has become a Seattle legend.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, as the Mariners gathered for a voluntary workout the day after their 5-0 loss to Cleveland in Game 1 of the Division Series, Buhner held court. His season, thus far, has been frustration after frustration. Multiple trips to the DL with a tear in the plantar fascia of his left foot. A minor league rehab stint. Then more time on the DL. And more time. In all, he played 19 big league games, hitting .222 with a pair of home runs.
Still, Buhner is a nonstop Happy Face. He has experienced the lowest of Seattle lows. He's played behind some of the worst pitchers in modern memory -- the Bobby Ayalas and Gene Harrises and Brian Fishers. He lost 98 games in 1992. He watched three of his close baseball friends, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, bolt town for greener graft. "There have been some trying times," he says. "When I arrived here, it was from an organization that only knew winning. Here, there was no history. The players sold themselves short."
He attributes much of the turnaround to Lou Piniella, who arrived in '93 with an intense scowl and a win-win-win attitude. Unlike Bill Plummer, the Mariners' previous manager, Buhner says Piniella earned instant respect. It came with his history: A World Series champion as a Yankee outfielder. A World Series champion as a Reds manager. A winner, straight up. "He meant business," says Buhner. "It was obvious."
So does baseball's baldest star. In his 14 major league seasons, Buhner's hit 310 homers and driven in 965 runs. He was an All-Star in 1996. Best of all, he's had fun. When Buhner isn't smiling, it's generally because his bushy goatee is camouflaging the grin. Even at age 37, closer to the finish than the beginning, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
"If we win the World Series, you'll never get that ring off my finger," he says. "I've done as much as anybody to get here. I've traveled with the team. I've worked out. I've cheered. I've talked to the guys. I think of myself as a key part."
Thirteen years after Ken Phelps, he is the dean of the Seattle Mariners.