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July 4, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Jay Buhner


First thing’s first.  I am a Seattle Mariners fan.  I grew up in the Kingdome, I will always miss the Kingdome, and to my dying day I will always say that the Kingdome was a much better place to watch a game than most people give it credit for.  The Mariners might have sucked in the 80's and most of the 90's, but the Kingdome was fun.

However, that being said, growing up as a Mariners fan was not exactly what you would call a successful childhood.

Do you want to know how many times a Mariner hit more than 30 home runs between the years 1977 and 1992?  Well, you would probably guess zero, but in truth it actually happened once.  Yes, I know, hard to believe.

A Mariner player actually hit 30 home runs in a season once.  And I would bet money you wouldn't have known it was Gorman Thomas in 1985.  Yes, that's right, Gorman Thomas.  Did you know that “Stormin' Gorman” played a year and a half for the Mariners?

Don't feel bad, I bet he doesn't remember it either.

So, anyway, this was the history we had as Mariners fans growing up in the 80's.  We had one guy in our history who could hit home runs.  And that guy wasn't even a Mariner in the first place, he was more of a castoff from the Brewers.  The best we could hope from guys who came up through our farm system was Jim Presley.  Who you might know better as "the stiff who is going to keep Edgar Martinez from making the Hall of Fame."  But that's a different topic for a different essay altogether.

We had Jim Presley in our history, we had Ken Phelps in our history, we had Dave Henderson in our history, and we capped it off with the supremely underrated (but not really a home run hitter) Alvin Davis. 

That was it.  Those were our home run legends.  Those were the Seattle Mariner equivalents of Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Gehrig.  That was our Mount Rushmore.

And you wonder why the suicide rate in Seattle is so high.

But then, in the summer of 1988, things changed.  In the summer of 1988, there actually appeared some hope on the horizon.

On July 21, 1988, the Mariners traded the Yankees for a kid named Jay Buhner.

Now, if you are a fan of Seinfeld, you might have actually heard of this trade.  Yes, it was the infamous Ken-Phelps-for-Jay-Buhner trade.  Or, as a lot of people know it, the Frank Costanza "How the hell could you trade Jay Buhner?!?" trade.  To this day, it is easily one of the five most important transactions in Mariners history.

By the way, when you read about this trade, you will see that a lot of people in the media tend to refer to it as "the worst Yankee trade of the decade."  Or "the reason the Yankees sucked so bad in the early 90's." 

But don't believe the hype. 

Go look up Ken Phelps' stats and look at how amazing he was in the late 80's.  On paper, the Yankees traded little more than a prospect who hadn't done jack crap for one of most destructive hitters in baseball.  I mean, come on.  You would have made this trade too if it was 1988.

So, out goes Ken Phelps in the summer of '88.  And in comes Jay Buhner.  Or, as 14 year old me thought he was named, “Jay Bunner.”. Since most of my knowledge came from what was written on the back of baseball cards back then, I didn't realize that "uh" was actually pronounced the same as “you”. 

So he was “Jay Bunner” to me for a while until he actually played in his first game.

Now, when most people think of the Mariners' amazing renaissance in the mid 90's, the first thing that they think of is Ken Griffey Jr.  They think of Junior hitting home runs, making great catches, and wearing his hat backwards.  Either that or they think of Randy Johnson.  Or maybe they think of Edgar Martinez.  For years, those three guys have always been considered the holy trinity when it came to the Mariners playoff core.

But here's the thing.  Are you ready for this?

Jay Buhner showed up as a star before any of them.

That's right.  Jay Buhner became a Mariners regular the minute he came over from the Yankees in 1988.  He was there six months before Griffey, he was there a year before “The Big Unit”, and he was there at least a year before Edgar Martinez ever became a regular. 

Jay Buhner was a starter first.  He was a Mariner before "the 90's Mariners" were born.

Oh yeah, and remember how I said that the Mariners never had any great power hitters for the first twelve seasons of their existence?  Well forget that.  The minute Jay Buhner showed up, he became the man.  I saw him take batting practice at least twenty five times that summer, and when Jay Buhner came up to take batting practice, you got your glove ready. 

And you moved back.

To the day I die, I will always say that Jay Buhner was one of the three best batting practice monsters I have ever witnessed in person.  It was Dave Winfield, it was Jose Canseco, and it was Buhner.  Those were the guys. 

If you were in the Kingdome bleachers before the game (as I was often), and one of those three guys came up to the plate, everyone in the left field bleachers stopped talking.  And they got into position.  Because you were about to see some moon shots.  And Buhner might have been the best of them all.

In the summer of 1988, Steve Balboni hit a home run off Dennis Eckersley that went into the second deck of the left field bleachers in the Kingdome.  It was an epic shot.  People talked about it for months.  A few years later, Mark McGwire hit a home run off Randy Johnson that went into the second deck as well.  Again, it was shown on Sportscenter endlessly.  It was one of the longest home runs of the year.

But here's the deal.  I saw Jay Buhner put one into that second deck almost every single day.  Except he did it during batting practice.

For good reason, Ken Griffey Jr. will always go down in history as the Mariners' home run guy.  But if you were there in the late 80's/early 90's, you would know as well as I do that Buhner was the power hitter who first got the fans buzzing.  I had never seen anyone like him before.  Especially on a no-name crappy franchise like the Mariners. 

I mean, my God, we weren't supposed to have sluggers like this on the Mariners.  We weren't supposed to have monsters like this.  We were supposed to have guys like Greg “Pee Wee” Briley.

Jay Buhner was mostly just a batting practice legend his first year-and-a-half with the Mariners (he got hurt a lot his first few years), but there was one day in New York where he finally came out to the world and announced that he was a slugger to be feared.  And I will never forget it because I was watching it on TV.

Wade Taylor was pitching for the Yankees, and he thought he could get a fastball on the inside corner past Jay Buhner.  And, uh, well, he didn't.  Buhner hit that ball so hard that it cleared the fence in left center, it went over the big empty space behind the fence, and it actually went OVER THE AMBULANCE that the Yankees had parked outside the stadium in case there was an emergency during the game.

That ball must have gone over 500 feet.  I remember seeing that home run on TV and thinking, "Holy s***!"  And I wasn't the only one, either.  I remember both the Mariners and the Yankees announcers commenting that they had never seen a ball go over the ambulance before.  And Buhner didn't just barely clear the ambulance, he hit it way over the ambulance.

From that point on, Buhner as a home run hitter was on EVERYONE’S radar.

Of course anyone who ever followed the Mariners knows what happened next.  Griffey came onto the scene in 1989 and he became the face of the franchise.  Then Randy Johnson showed up.  Eventually Edgar Martinez was given a chance to play.  Pretty soon, these three guys (along with Buhner) became the core of one of the best teams in baseball.

But I will always remember Jay Buhner as the guy who became the star first.

Between 1977 and 1988, there was not a lot of hope if you were a fan of the Mariners.  Seriously, there was almost no reason to come to the game.  A lot of the time I would only go to the Kingdome because I felt like eating a hot dog.  We had no stars, we had no legends, we had no fans, we had no interest. 

We had no hope.

But in 1988, Jay Buhner showed up, and Jay Buhner was INTERESTING.  He was way more interesting than anyone we had ever had on the team before.  This guy had power.  This guy had mega power.  This guy had a cannon for an arm.  And, unfortunately, I think a lot of his importance to the franchise has sort of been forgotten over time.

Did you know that Jay Buhner wound up playing fourteen seasons for the Mariners?  Did you know he was a Mariner for longer than Ken Griffey Jr.?  Did you realize he is ranked third in career Mariner home runs, and is fourth in career games played?  Did you know that he finished top 20 in the MVP voting three different times? 

Oh, and this is my favorite one.  Remember how I said that prior to 1992 no Mariner had ever topped 30 home runs in a season?  Well Jay Buhner managed to do it three times in his career.  In fact, to this day, he is one of only three Mariners who have ever done it three different times.  The other two guys, well you might have heard of.  Their names are Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.  That's pretty good company.

By the way, the three seasons that Buhner topped 30 home runs?  In all three seasons, he actually topped 40.

So here's to Jay Buhner, one of the most beloved, yet forgotten, legends in Mariners history.  People nowadays just know him as the bald guy who gets fans to shave their heads, or as the guy who once hosted "Buhner Buzz Cut Night" at the Seattle Kingdome.  They only know him as the spokesman who does wacky commercials for car dealerships on the radio. 

But if you grew up in the Kingdome in the 80's and 90's like I did, you will remember him as a lot more than that.  You will remember him as the guy with the cannon in right field, the guy who no one dared to take an extra base on, because he would throw you out.  You will remember him as the guy who hit all the mammoth home runs into the upper deck, the ones that would make you “ooh” and “ahh”. 

Basically, you will remember him as Ichiro before Ichiro.  You will remember him as Griffey before Griffey.

"Jay Bunner" will never make the Hall of Fame, but I will always remember him as the guy who made the Mariners interesting for the first time ever in their history.  He won't make the Hall of Fame, but he was the first Hall of Fame-caliber player we had.  He might not ever be remembered as fondly as good old #24, but then again, who would?  

#19 who played next to him was sure pretty darn good.


Mario Lanza is a well known pop culture writer and internet columnist, whose "Funny 115" countdown of funniest Survivor moments currently has more than half a million readers. However his true love is baseball. He claims that growing up in the Kingdome taught him a lot about humility.

You can check out Mario's Survivor work at

1 comment:

Chris Alef said...

Amen brotha Mario.