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Wednesday, August 25, 2004 - Page updated at 03:01 P.M.
Larry Stone / Baseball reporter
For the Mariners, the good old days have never seemed sweeter. Or more elusive.
As the misery of the present grows, so does the reverence for the glorious past. And that glory is starting to seem like a lifetime ago, growing more distant with each passing day.
In that light, Jay Buhner's induction into the Mariners' Hall of Fame last night at Safeco Field was eaten up by hungry fans, for whom the nostalgia meter has been going haywire of late. Something special is slipping away, and the reminders are everywhere, most strikingly in the daily standings.
Edgar Martinez announces his pending retirement. Lou Piniella comes back to town with Tampa Bay and all the Devil Rays' Mariners connections. And now Buhner, the heart and soul and clown prince of those raucous, rollicking 1990s teams that turned Seattle into a baseball town, is put in the M's Hall.
It's just another reminder that those special days are over, if not forever, then for the foreseeable future. The Mariners may win again, but it will be far trickier to build a club with the overwhelming charisma and crowd appeal of the Buhner-Martinez-Griffey-Johnson-Piniella Mariners.
Buhner was there at the forefront of the renaissance, and we were reminded repeatedly yesterday at the packed luncheon at the Sheraton honoring him as well as the on-field ceremony at Safeco just what a gutty, emotional leader he was for this team.
"The 10 years I spent here as manager, I had the good fortune to manage outstanding professionals like Jay," Piniella said. "It makes it easier for a manager, it really does, when you have a little problem you don't want to address yourself. You go over and whisper to a guy like Jay, 'Jay, could you help me out?' And it's done."
The accolades flowed yesterday at the luncheon, where the head table consisted of, among others, Piniella, Tino Martinez, Edgar Martinez and Alvin Davis, along with a cross-section of former and current teammates and coaches. Ken Griffey Jr., Joey Cora, Omar Vizquel, Roger Clemens and Mark McLemore sent along video tributes.
There was also recognition of his long association with Cystic Fibrosis, and a humorous recounting by trainer Rick Griffin of Buhner's myriad injuries 89 of which are documented on an anatomy chart in the M's training room.
Dave Niehaus, who along with Davis comprised the welcoming committee for Buhner into the M's Hall of Fame those three are the only members said jokingly, "Alvin, we have a certified lunatic joining the Mariners' most exclusive club."
In confirmation, when it came his turn to speak, Buhner told Niehaus he was ready to "come clean" about the long-ago mysterious disappearance of Niehaus' favorite white-tasseled shoes, which were eventually returned colorfully decorated. "I think I know who might have had something to do with it," Buhner told Niehaus.
Davis, in turn, gave an emotional tribute to Buhner, who succeeded him as the leader of the Mariners and hardened their mentality as the team morphed from its losing tradition into one that, in 1995, saved baseball for the city.
"He, to me, was the epitome of a professional," said Davis. "He was a guy that just grabbed on to what it means to be a professional baseball player, and he took it to the nth (degree). He was the heart and soul of this team for a number of years, and one of those key guys that allowed this franchise to become the franchise it is today."
Martinez said that playing with Buhner was one of the highlights of his career: "He played hard, played to win, and all those injuries he had proved it. The other players were watching. We knew that was the way to play the game. So it was very contagious."
And then it was Buhner's turn to speak, at least when he wasn't breaking down. Both at the luncheon and later at the induction ceremony, surrounded by family, his emotion overflowed.
"The bald head and goatee were a security blanket," he said. "Deep down inside, I'm a little bit of a softy. But that's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with crying in baseball.
"I was not one of the greatest players to wear this uniform, but I guarantee one thing: No one loved and cherished the game more. I lived, breathed and slept baseball. It's not often a person is honored for fulfilling his life dream."
On the field yesterday, before the ceremony, Buhner talked of the special hold that the 1990s and early 2000 Mariners his Mariners still have on this city.
"I think everyone around here is pretty smart. They have good enough baseball knowledge to know it all started in '95. It was a group of guys that stuck around a long time and the city had a chance to grow up with myself being here 14 years, and now the last of the Mohicans, Edgar it's going to close that chapter."
But Buhner, still bleeding Mariners blue, believes that the renewal of good times lies ahead. As he suffers with everyone else through this season, reminiscent of so many other lost seasons in his early Mariners days, he feels the local anger rising and has a unique Buhner spin on it.
"I'd rather have it that way," he said. "I'd rather have fans with high expectations and be upset and pissed off about that. Because that means they expect a lot around here, and that means a lot of things have changed around here, from attitude to everything. I'd rather have it that way than the other way."
His role in changing that attitude more even than the home runs and the Buhner Buzz Cuts and the fence-rattling catches is what put Jay Buhner in the club's Hall of Fame last night, and made fans yearn for those lost days.
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