He sits high behind the wheel of his loaded Chevy Suburban, maneuvering it like an armored personnel carrier through the narrow streets of downtown Seattle. The usual winter mist has given way to a heavy downpour, and visibility extends about halfway to the hood ornament. Jay Buhner believes he has room to slip his rig around the car that has stopped in front of him and to continue down Sixth Street. Buhner has always been a confident guy.
As he hits the gas, the mirror on the right side of his vehicle collides with the driver's-side mirror on the stopped car, plucking it off like an apple from a tree. The driver of the car hops out and bounces toward Buhner like a fighter heading for the middle of the ring. He doesn't appear interested in filling out insurance forms just yet. As he looks through the windshield of the Suburban to size up his opponent, he takes note of some strangely familiar traits: the sunken cheeks, the shaved scalp, the stubbly goatee, the knobby head that appears to come from a couple of million years back in the human evolutionary process. Wait a second. Is that? Could it he?
"I don't believe it—it's you!" the man says laughing. "It's Jay Buhner. All right! You're the greatest, Jay! We love you. Hey, check it out."
The man yanks on the collar of his jacket, showing Buhner that it's official Seattle Mariners outerwear. He returns to his car and proudly tells his passengers that it was Buhner, the Mariners' rightfielder, who smashed his mirror. Buhner waves and shouts an apology before driving off. He is late for his dinner reservation, but a table is waiting at the restaurant. He signs autographs for fellow customers, shakes hands and devours the remainder of the evening like a piece of perfectly broiled salmon. "Can you believe it?" says Buhner, sounding as if he has just won the lottery. "He didn't ask me to pay for the damage."
It is just another excellent adventure in the life of Jay Buhner, which, as Buhner likes to point out, is not a bad life at all.
Citizens of Seattle no longer cross to the other side of the street when they see Buhner coming toward them. They're more likely to run up and ask if they can rub his marble-smooth scalp for luck. Buhner still looks like some cybervillain from central casting who should be getting shot at the end of a Schwarzenegger movie, but Seattleites have discovered that he is, in fact, one of the most affable, approachable players in baseball.
In an age when many players do everything but wear rubber gloves to avoid contact with the fans, Buhner isn't afraid to go to a mall or a movie or to invite his whole neighborhood in Issaquah, Wash., over to look at the huge display of lights he puts up on his house at Christmas. He owns season tickets to the SuperSonics, and in his seat in the front row at Key Arena he usually winds up signing autographs from the start of the game to the finish. No big deal. Unlike many of his baseball contemporaries, he doesn't consider indulging his fans an experience akin to gum surgery.
"Let me ask you something," he says. "People coming up to you, asking for autographs, taking pictures, talking about the game, all that stuff—is that such a bad thing? I mean, think about it. Is that supposed to make me miserable? I think it's nice. Everyone likes a little pat on the back, a little friendly handshake."
It has always taken more than a few autograph pests to ruin Buhner's mood, and that was especially true this off-season, when he was savoring the joys of a 1995 too improbable to imagine. Before last year the 31-year-old Buhner had never hit more than 27 home runs or driven in more than 98 runs in a major league season, and the Mariners had never finished higher than third. Buhner was near the top of the list of overpaid underachievers, and baseball in Seattle was about as fresh and exciting as a Larry Holmes fight.
All that changed in the summer of 1995. Through all that rain came a bolt of lightning from the baseball gods. Ken Griffey Jr., also known as the best player in the game, went down with a broken wrist on May 26, but the Mariners regrouped and put on a charge that carried them from 13 games out on Aug. 2 to a first-place tie with the California Angels when the regular season ended. The Mariners beat the Angels in a one-game playoff to win the American League West and then outlasted the New York Yankees in an unforgettable Division Series. A team that had been ignored in its own town suddenly was being cheered not only in Seattle but also across the U.S. "Everyone had a career year," says Buhner. "After a while we just had to laugh about it. We'd just look at each other and say, 'Who's going to win it for us tonight?' Every night there was a different hero. It was an awesome thing to see."