No one was as awesome as Buhner, the free-swinging strongman in the cleanup slot. He hit 40 home runs and drove in 121 runs in just 126 games of the strike-shortened regular season. He set a major league record for RBIs-to-hits ratio (121 to 123) among hitters with at least 100 RBIs and finished fifth in the American League MVP balloting. As the Mariners made their epic comeback, Buhner entered some kind of Roy Hobbs-like trance, swatting dramatic home runs almost on cue. In September he homered in five straight games and finished with 13 homers for the month. His hot streak continued into the postseason. He hit .383 with three doubles and four homers in 11 playoff games.
By the time Seattle ran out of gas in the League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, there had been such an outpouring of community support for the Mariners that their disgruntled owners, who had been threatening to move the team, decided to stay in Seattle. So did Buhner. He scrapped plans to build his dream house in his hometown of League City, Texas, and said he would raise his family in the Northwest.
Buhner may not have been the Mariners' best player, but, scary looks and all, he was the poster boy for Seattle's division-winning season. He was a block of granite in the middle of the lineup, a popular and unshakable leader who never stopped assuring his teammates that their fairy tale would come true. "You can ask anyone," he says. "All season I said we were going to win the division." When the Mariners over-took the Angels, this tobacco-spitting country-music fan from the Lone Star State became a cult hero in Grungeland.
On the second annual Buhner Buzz Cut Night at the Kingdome last August, more than 700 fans were granted free admission to the Mariners game for sporting freshly shaved scalps like Buhner's. Two women and Buhner's son Chase (then one year old) were among those who subjected themselves to the hideous Buhner Buzz. For fans of the Mariners—and for the team itself—Buhner was the straw that stirred the double decaf cappuccino. "He was the one who could get along with everyone but who could still get on me or Randy Johnson or Edgar Martinez when we needed it," says Griffey. "There is one guy on every winning team that makes it all possible."
That player was the man they call Bone, a nickname that has nothing to do with his current coiffure. It is, in fact, a nickname for a nickname. "It's short for Bonehead," says David Buhner, Jay's father. "When he was in high school, he lost a fly ball in the lights, and it hit him square on the skull. The coach ran out to see if he was O.K., and Jay was fine. The coach said, 'It's a good thing you've got a bony head.' Ever since then, he's been Bonehead."
Maybe that's the problem with major league baseball these days. Not enough guys named Bonehead. Not enough guys like Bonehead.
Leah Buhner has three children—four if you count her husband and former high school sweetheart, Jay Campbell Buhner. He is the oldest kid in the family, and there's only one difference between him and the other three kids (daughter Brielle, 4, and sons Chase, 2, and Gunnar, 10 months): Jay's toys cost more.
Buhner has just finished showing off his two Suburbans and one Mercedes, his hunting trophies and his high-powered bass boat, which makes you glad you weren't born a bass. Now he whips open the doors to a storage shed in his backyard and asks, "You want to see my quads?"
The quads are his favorite toys. They are the three nifty little four-wheel all-terrain vehicles that Buhner uses to explore the lakes and hills behind his five-acre property. Chase doesn't get this excited about his Legos.
As Buhner gets all giddy at the sight of his little red buggies, you can't help but think: Now this is the way players with three-year, $15.5 million contracts are supposed to act. They should be like kids stepping through turnstiles at the carnival, eyes as wide as Scooter Pies, hearts hopping in anticipation of the next adventure. They should love their lives because, really, what's not to love?