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Originally published March 2, 2009 at 1:21 PM | Page modified March 2, 2009 at 9:20 PM

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Steve Kelley

How John Wetteland helped save baseball in Seattle

In a strange way former Yankees closer John Wetteland saved baseball in Seattle, by not saving the fourth game of the American League Division Series. Wetteland, the new Mariners bullpen coach helped build Safeco Field. "Glad to help," Wetteland said, sitting in the early morning sun in Peoria, Ariz.

Seattle Times staff columnist

PEORIA, Ariz. — Those of us who cherish the memories of 1995 still celebrate the Mariners who made it happen, whether it's Ken Griffey Jr., Norm Charlton, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez or Jay Buhner.

Every Mariner played his part and we look at them as the saviors of the game in Seattle. The guys who built Safeco Field.

But there is one player from that season we often neglect. One pitcher who helped start the roll that landed the Mariners in the postseason for the first time.

In a much different way, John Wetteland saved baseball in Seattle, by not saving the fourth game of the American League Division Series. John Wetteland, the new Mariners bullpen coach, helped build Safeco Field.

"Glad to help," Wetteland said, sitting in the early Monday morning sun.

For Wetteland, 1995 was his year of living dangerously. He was the Yankees' closer, pitching in his first postseason. It was a learning experience for him and one thing he learned was that he couldn't get Mariners hitters out.

It was Wetteland who gave up the game-winning home run to Griffey on Aug. 23, the moment that started all of the Mariners' magic. And it was Wetteland who gave up Martinez's grand slam that won the fourth game of the ALDS.

"Like I said, glad to help," Wetteland said, smiling good-naturedly.

And, in a different way, Wetteland was responsible for Martinez's series-winning Sunday night double as well, for even though Jack McDowell was on the mound, Yankees manager Buck Showalter stayed with McDowell rather than go back to Wetteland in Game 5.

"What was my earned-run average in that series?" Wetteland asked. "About 45?" (Actually, it was 14.54.)

"That was a very rough time for me," said Wetteland. "Whenever I pitched against the Mariners it was a personal nightmare. I think I beat myself going into that series, because you can't pitch with that kind of a mindset.

"I was a power pitcher, and if you're a dominant pitcher, you have to feel dominant and when a certain amount of players on a team kind of get your number early, it can really affect you. I talk to pitchers all the time about getting to the point where you beat a hitter before you ever throw a pitch. Well, the reverse happened to me."

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Wetteland fell behind 2-0 to Martinez and he remembers saying to himself, "I can't walk people. I have to challenge this guy." He threw a cautious fastball that tailed over the middle of the plate and Martinez rode it deep into the Kingdome din.

"It all happened in slow motion for me," Wetteland said. "That was the loudest place I've ever been and Edgar did what Edgar does. He destroys your mistakes.

"When a team starts to have your number early, then you start questioning yourself. I was very careful in the playoffs in '95 and that was a key to why I stunk. I was trying to be perfect and I'm not that kind of guy. I'm the kind of guy who should just let it go. But it took '95 for me to figure that out."

Two things Wetteland vividly remembers about that home run.

"I saw Edgar on television, and he spent a lot of time in the interview praising me as a pitcher," Wetteland said. "And I remember thinking, 'What a humble, wonderful man.' But, I should say, it didn't make what happened any sweeter."

Wetteland went to dinner with a friend after the game and the woman who seated them was excitedly asking him about the game, not knowing he was the pitcher who surrendered the grand slam.

"Were you at the game?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am," he said. "Probably had the best seat in the house."

In an odd way the nightmares of '95 ended up being as beneficial for Wetteland as they were for the Mariners.

The M's bullpen coach believes that an unexamined life is one not worth living and after the postseason failures of 1995, he spent much of the winter soul-searching.

"That was a watershed moment for me," he said of Martinez's grand slam. "I detested failure and all of 1996, I pitched with the memory of my failure in '95. From then on I understood how to process certain things because I kind of went through the fire. You get refined. I'm the kind of guy who likes to kick my own rear end."

This was before John Elway redeemed his NFL misses by winning two Super Bowls.

"I remember this was before [John] Elway won his Super Bowls and I was thinking, 'Am I going to be another Elway and be great in the regular season, but just can't get it done in the postseason?' " Wetteland asked himself. "So I decided in '96, that I don't care if I throw the ball 30 feet up the screen, I'm just going to let it go."

He became one of the greatest closers of all time. For the Yankees, he was Mariano Rivera, before Rivera. He had 43 saves and was the '96 World Series MVP. He was an All-Star that season and was twice more with Texas.

Wetteland is humble enough to accept the mistakes of '95.

So let's remember him when we walk into Safeco Field this summer. Who knows? If it weren't for John Wetteland, that stadium might not be standing.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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