Seattle Mariner leftfielder Vince Coleman set off fireworks again last Friday night—but this time there was a curtain call instead of a summons to appear in court. After smacking his first career grand slam, against the Oakland A's at the Kingdome, Coleman rounded first with his fists in the air like a champion prizefighter while pink fireworks exploded 250 feet overhead. Even though the fourth-inning shot served only to cut the Oakland lead to 6-4, the 51,500 roaring fans refused to sit until their new hero, who not so long ago was baseball's pariah for heaving a firecracker in the direction of fans, stepped out from the dugout and acknowledged them. By night's end the crowd had even more to cheer about: a 10-7 come-from-behind win that gave Seattle sole possession of first place in the American League West.
Never before in their inglorious 19-year history had the Mariners been alone in first past May. "Usually by now, reporters are writing about our September swoon, and we're shooting to finish at .500," said slugging rightfielder Jay Buhner. "And I'm usually in the locker room planning my off-season fishing trip to Montana."
Never before in Seattle had there been back-to-back crowds of 50,000 until last Saturday night, when a sellout crowd of 54,589 watched Mariner ace Randy Johnson fan 15 Oakland batters on the way to a 7-0 victory. "There's a buzz here, a total buzz. The noise in this place is incredible," said the bald Buhner, who provided the pyrotechnics that night with his 36th and 37th home runs of the season. "What hair I have, it stands on end."
Never before had Seattle been so wired for baseball. The three-game series with Oakland drew a franchise-record 152,803, with nearly 103,000 of those tickets purchased during the week of the series. The euphoric weekend culminated on Sunday with Tino Martinez's two-run, ninth-inning homer, giving Seattle a 9-8 victory. From the ubiquitous coffee kiosks to the grunge clubs, the Mariners were the topic of conversation. But a lot of the talk was about the vote to decide whether the team would get a new open-air stadium. It was announced on Monday that the referendum to raise the 8.2% sales tax .1% to fund the new stadium had failed to pass by 1,535 votes. Would the Mariner owners stick to their threat to sell the team, possibly to out-of-town interests, just as the club took on the look of a winner?
The Seattle stretch run—the California Angels' stupefying slump and 21 Mariner wins in their last 29 games allowed Seattle to make up 13 games in the American League West between Aug. 2 and Sept. 21—was reminiscent of the 1978 American League East title drive, when the New York Yankees made up 14 games on the Boston Red Sox. Mariner manager Lou Piniella was the rightfielder on that Yankee team. "There's a big difference in what's happening here and in 1978," said Piniella before last Saturday's game. "That Yankee team chasing Boston was a World Series team that was used to pressure situations. This organization has had two seasons above .500. It's an unfair comparison.
"We've used different weapons. With Ken Griffey Jr. out [ Seattle's superstar missed 73 games with a broken wrist], we've created our own identity. We didn't have to rely on one person. If you'd told me in spring training that we would have four players who would knock in 100 runs—and one of them wouldn't be Junior—I'd have looked at you funny."
The Mariners also have received significant contributions from some late-season pickups. At week's end righty Andy Benes had gone 6-1 since being acquired in a trade on July 31. Reliever Norm Charlton had had 13 saves since joining Seattle on July 14. And Coleman had batted .305 since signing with the Mariners on Aug. 15, after the Kansas City Royals released him. Coleman has kept a low profile since the 1993 firecracker incident, but he was bubbling over after his homer. "Most memorable play of my career," said Coleman, who also turned 34 that day.
The next night Johnson, seated at his locker with an ice pack the size of a small glacier on his pitching arm, was the Mariner most brimming with excitement. "You can feel the electricity out there," said Johnson, the favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. Last Saturday's victory raised his record to 16-2, lowered his league-leading ERA to 2.56 and boosted his major-league-high strikeout total to 275. "The fans have been so boisterous. When there are 19,000 fans here, they make the noise of 50,000. When there are 50,000, it sounds like a quarter of a million."