Hardball Memories: "New York" Vinnie on the '95 Mariners and the Grassroots Campaign to Save Baseball in Seattle

  • By Casey McNerthney
  • Posted 3/26/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22918
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Radio and television personality "New York" Vinnie Richichi was hosting a morning show on Sports Radio 950 KJR AM in 1995 when the Seattle Mariners shocked the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. That victory and the attendant "Mariners fever" – less than a month after King County voters had rejected a new baseball stadium – inspired Washington lawmakers in a special legislative session to authorize taxes for stadium bonds, which led to construction of Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park) and saved the Mariners from moving to another city. This conversation with Richichi, recorded on Oct. 8, 2020 – 25 years to the day after baseball Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez hit "The Double" to defeat the Yankees – recalls that 1995 season, the climate of Seattle sports in the 1990s, and how things changed because of that improbable Mariners season. Some questions and answers have been edited for length.

"Starved for Something"

Richichi (b. 1955), a native of Jackson Heights, New York, started in radio in the 1980s. He came to KJR in 1993 after years doing sports at KRQR and KDBK in San Francisco. He stayed at KJR until 1998, when went to KIRO Radio, where Richichi worked until 2007. He also was a Seahawks Gameday and sports reporter at KCPQ 13 TV from 2002 through 2008, worked as part of the Mariners Radio Network in 2009, and worked for Fox Sports Northwest from 2007-2009 before co-hosting the “Vinnie and Cook” midday show on Pittsburgh’s KDKA from 2010 through 2014. Richichi has also hosted Drivetime Radio since 1994. 

Casey McNerthney: What was the scene like 25 years ago? For people who weren't here, what did it feel like? What was the city like? How is it different?

"New York" Vinnie Richichi: Seattle was a much smaller town. Now we look around, we see buildings and everything going on. There’s been a couple world championships, the Storm have won four, and the Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl three times. But at that time, the only thing that had ever really happened was that the Sonics had won their world championship ... So, we were starved for something. And then all of a sudden – in ’95 in August they were dead in the water, and a lot of people start to think ah, it’s just another year for the Mariners. Nothing’s going to happen. But everything started to fall into place. And as everything fell into place, people started to pay attention. And all of a sudden what nobody ever believed was ever going to happen started to capture the imagination of the city.

Don't forget we were just off the baseball strike [from August 1994 to April 1995]. A lot of people were saying, “I'm not interested in baseball anymore. I'll never go to a game again. I'll never watch.” In early August I think there was, I don't know, 13,000, 14,000 people going to the Kingdome and watching the games. And there were always more fans for other teams almost than there were for the Mariners. And then all of a sudden, things started to move. They made a couple of trades at the deadline and a few new guys came in and next thing you know the team started to play so much better than they had before. All of a sudden, they were in the pack with the Angels, and they had this brand-new thing called the wild card that nobody ever really thought about before or heard about before because it was brand new. And the next thing you know: boom. They’re starting to get into the thick of it. They’re starting to play good ball.

CM: How would you explain to people who weren't here what the attitude was about the Mariners possibly leaving?

NYV: I think there were a lot of people who didn't care. I think there are a lot of people who had had it with baseball, who said, "Who really cares? This team is never going to do anything." You know, it was that kind of Seattle that you get sometimes where it's like, "Oh we don't want, you know, we don't want a new stadium." The task force that they had appointed back in ... I think it was in ‘93, had delivered their report and recommended to keep the Mariners, they needed a new stadium. They need to consider building. And you know, the typical attitude in Seattle was, "What's the matter? The Kingdome isn't good enough?" And the reality was it wasn't good enough.

On July 19, 1994, shortly before a Mariners game, four Kingdome ceiling tiles fell nearly 180 feet into the stands behind home plate, which forced the Mariners into a 22-game road trip that ended with the Major League Baseball players strike. The Kingdome needed $51 million in repairs. It reopened in November 1994, and was imploded on March 26, 2000.

Pounding Clyde Ballard

CM: There was that story … where you got a call from somebody in Olympia where they said, "Hey, we’re going to do a special session. We’re going to turn this around."

NYV: Right. That was after the ballot thing had lost [on Sept. 19, 1995]. The Mariners had announced that they were going to lose the club, that they were going to sell the club. They were going to get rid of it. And this was the first time that they announced it – not to be confused with the time in [1996] when they announced it at Christmas time. They basically had said that, well, we had the election, the election lost and now we're going to explore all of our options. And I knew that was not good because "all of the options" meant that they were going to sell the team, that they were going to get rid of it. And I remember being on the morning show and … the guy that owns the ambulance service out in Wenatchee was the Speaker of the House ...

Clyde Ballard was the Republican House Speaker from East Wenatchee and told reporters that House GOP members had serious questions about using tax dollars to build a stadium. On October 5 – three days before Edgar Martinez hit The Double that beat the Yankees in Game Five of the American League Division Series – Ballard said House Republicans would not "just vote yes." He told The Seattle Times many Republican lawmakers did not want to give the Metropolitan King County Council authority to raise taxes for the county share of the stadium without a vote – a move that House Minority Leader Marlin Applewick (D-Seattle) said would kill the plan. The same day as Ballard voiced objections to using tax dollars, Governor Mike Lowry announced he would call a special session a week later, though there was no guarantee on stadium financing. On the first day of the special session, October 12, Ballard and Senate Majority Leader Marc Gaspard (D-Puyallup) each decided not to hold a vote despite a rally at the capitol by Mariners and Seahawks fans.

NYV: I remember one morning I went on the air with [co-host] Michael [Knight] and we just started pounding him [Ballard] and saying, "Listen, here's this guy's number. You call them up and you tell them, 'Listen, we're not gonna buy Washington apples on this side of the state. And you can tell all your apple growing pals over there that they can stick their apples because we're not gonna buy them and we’re not going to tell people to buy them.' ... They called this guy up and they said, "Hey, we’re not gonna buy apples. We’re going to economically boycott products from Wenatchee, from Central Washington." That did the trick. So many people called this office as so many people called the secretary that he called [Mariners chairman and CEO] John Ellis and said to John: "Tell him [New York Vinnie] to stop it."

And then Ellis called me and we met in back at [Pioneer Square restaurant F. X.] McRory's, and he said, "You got to call these people off because they're murdering this guy." I don't think he [Ballard] could care less that people weren't going to buy apples. But what he did see is that he was going to lose his seat. There were enough people who were gonna, you know, who were pissed off about this. In Eastern Washington – this was a thing that was for Seattle only in their mind, and they weren't gonna benefit anything out of it. And that's one of the things that the Seahawks learned is that they saw this and they said, 'Well, you know, we're not gonna make that same mistake.'

On Friday, October 13, the State House was set to vote on a stadium bill – but delayed the vote to watch the extra innings of a Mariners American League Championship Series playoff game, won by Jay Buhner’s second solo home run that night. Shortly after 10 p.m. and the Mariners' 5-2 win over Cleveland, the House voted 62-29 to approve a bill to fund the $320 million stadium. But the Senate had rejected a stadium plan and gone home. It wasn’t until the following day – the third and final day of the special session – that the bill was approved by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. The Metropolitan King Council agreed to raise the $208.6 million in local taxes the package required. The taxes would be on food and drink sold at restaurants, bars, and taverns in King County; on car and truck rentals, and on tickets sold at the new stadium – and a public vote wasn’t required. There was still tension between the Mariners and a Public Facilities District created to own and operate the stadium and oversee its construction – prompting Ellis's December 14, 1996, announcement that the Mariners were withdrawing from the project. But with the help of U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (1928-2020) and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), the effort continued and Safeco Field opened July 15, 1999.

KJR in the 1990s

CM: Will you talk a little bit about what KJR was like back in the day. You were on the morning show with Michael Knight, and the ratings must have been huge for you guys as the only sports radio station. What was that sense like when you were at the controls back then?

NYV: The ratings weren't huge, per se. But it was one of those things where we knew we had a lot of listeners. You know, ratings and how many people listen don't always match up because of the methodology that they used to measure ratings in radio. You know, they take like 3,000 people or 2,000 people for a metro area with, you know, 4 million. They take like 2,000 people, 3,000 people for a metro area with 4 million and they expect you to get ratings out of this. It’s much different now. But in those days they did it by [a radio listener ratings] diary. And that diary really was skewed against men 25-54 or 18-34. We held our own in those demographics, but listen: anytime we went out to remote, anytime – I mean, I couldn’t go anywhere in town where somebody didn't recognize my voice. Yeah, I got a recognizable voice, but it was, you know – we felt like – I mean, us, the Gas Man [Mike Gastineau], Groz [Dave Grosby] was over at KIRO at the time. We had me and Michael in the mornings. You had the Babe [Fabulous Sports Babe Nanci Donnellan], you had Gas Man, and then Brian Wheeler, and then they brought Mitch [Levy] in at some point. And I think all of us felt like we were obviously the only sports game in town, the only sports station. KIRO had a sports show, but it sounded like it was walking death. And we just brought something different to the table, something that Seattle had never really heard before.

And then we were given an issue. We were given this ballpark issue to run with. For me, it just would have been a tragedy if we would have lost that baseball team. If that team had left, we wouldn’t have ever gotten another one. I still knew that there were loads of people here that cared about the Mariners. Not that I did everything, but I just wanted to do everything I could to make sure that we did everything we could to keep that team here.

CM: Yeah.

NYV: And our guys responded to that. I think everybody responded to it. Now did they all go and do some of the crazy crap I did? No. But I think enough of our guys saw that the handwriting was on the wall – that if the Mariners left, it was gonna be a big chunk of our livelihood. This really was in many ways more of a baseball town than people gave it credit for ... Now you see it. Now you see it a lot more because the team is older and there are a couple of generations that have gone to the Kingdome and to Safeco Field [T-Mobile Park in 2024]. So now there's that feeling of, "I'm a kid, I'm sitting in the seats that dad sat in or grandpa sat in." There’s something to that.

CM: Yeah, for sure. What were some of those crazy things that you did to try to keep the Mariners?

NYV: Besides just pounding on it every day on the air until it was – I went down and I testified in front of the City Council, the County Council, the State Senate. As a matter of fact, it was funny, I didn't notice till a couple of years later when I was actually quoted in the Supreme Court from Washington State, (the) Supreme Court decision that allowed the Mariners that – there was a group that brought a lawsuit against the state and the city and the county governments called CLEAN. It was [Chris] Van Dyke and his people, and they were against government funding any of these things. And when the case was written by the Supreme Court knocking down their lawsuit, in the decision they quoted me ... I remember it made my father so proud. There were two things. There was that and there was – at one point I was really telling people, "You gotta call Mike Lowry. You gotta call Mike Lowry. And call his office every day. And don't let up until – because these guys, these politicians will forget about you." And I remember some columnist in the Tacoma News Tribune wrote something about Mike Lowry and said Mike Lowry’s worst nightmare is hearing New York Vinnie – hearing his voice in his dreams telling people to call his office. And my father saw that and he was so proud.

Revelry at F. X. McRory's

CM: When do you think in ’95 ... people started to believe?

NYV: I remember I was up at Ken’s Market on Greenwood because I used to live on 66th. And I was at Ken’s Market up on Greenwood and I was in the produce department and some woman – didn't know who I was, didn't know that I worked in sports or anything like that – just thought I was a guy. And she was an old woman, too ... She looked at me and she started talking to me about the Mariners. And she knew that Jay Buhner had hit a home run the night before. And when she sat there and she was talking to me in Ken’s Market about the Mariners – that’s when you kind of knew. It wasn’t that more fans were going to the Kingdome, although they were. It wasn’t that this person was doing that ... It was that that lady, who probably in July didn't pay attention to a game, now knew that Jay Buhner hit a home run the night before. And that’s when you know. That’s when you know.

When you come home and your mother asks you, "How did they do tonight?" That's when you knew that the city and the region was getting hooked on these guys. And don't forget: we were starved for a winner. With the Seahawks and everything, people get pissed off if they don’t win one game, if they blow a game. Back then, everybody was so starved for a winner.  

CM: It crossed over ages and genders and races and what neighborhood you grew up in, and people really together rooted for this team. And also having [Mariners broadcaster Dave] Niehaus call the games made it so much more enjoyable, too.

NYV: Niehaus was at his best in 2001, a lot of people say. But ’95 when things started to go the Mariners way, he also very early on realized the importance and the gravity of what was happening. Not just for the Mariners, but for the city. This was a team that was in a fight for a pennant. And this was a team that was in a fight for their lives. Because if they didn’t win that, they’re gone. A lot of people still think – and I think it's probably true – if they didn't start winning that people would have never paid the attention to them when they lost the election that they got, and they never would have gotten the ballpark approved. But I think Niehaus realized what that was all about and he turned it on.

CM: Yeah. I think you’re right. Having his voice and being notably excited. He was always a good broadcaster, but that season – I think he was at his best in ’95. He encapsulated what the whole city was feeling.

NYV: Right. He was he was able to describe the game, but he was also able to be – he went from a voice that was background with a losing team, into a voice that was foreground with a winning team. All of a sudden, you paid attention to every word. And everything became 10 times more magnified when he said it. And he realized that, and he polished up for it. He came to play.

CM: But for people who don’t remember what McRory's was like, especially around the events and the that year, what was the atmosphere of [Pioneer Square bar and restaurant] F. X. McRory's like?

NYV: It was the place to go to pre-funk. Seattle showed up there. If you were going to the game and you were anybody in Seattle, you stopped by. You checked in at McRory's. You came by, you had a cocktail, or you came by, you said hello to us. Or you came by and snuck in the backdoor. One way or the other you came by. If Gas Man was on the air in the afternoon you came by and said hello to Gas Man. If we were there and doing the post-game show, you came by and said hello. But it was a place where you basically had to stop. If you were walking to the game, if you were going to the game, it was the place to spend a couple of minutes, have a pre-game drink, meet your friends. You know, "Meet me at McRory's" was as natural to Seattle as, "What the hell are you carrying an umbrella for?"

CM: Exactly. That's so true. That's exactly it. And [owner] Mick [McHugh] loved it.

NYV: He loved every second of it. He’s a ham and he loved being the guy who was at the center of it. He loved having the sports guys come in. He loves having the broadcast. You know every broadcast crew that would come to town would go to McRory's. And guests that were coming on our shows, we’d go to McRory's ... It was the place where everybody would get together. Mick loved that. He loved the publicity, he loved just feeling like he was a part of it.

The Double

CM: Where were you when you watched The Double [Edgar Martinez’s game-winning hit in Game Five of the American League Division Series, October 8, 1995]?

NYV: For those kinds of moments, I like being in the stands. Because you can’t cheer in the press box. But that time, as that stuff was going on, we really became – all of us at KJR became fans. Not just observers of the game, but you really became fans. I know I did. Because you knew people, you knew their stories, and you're rooted for them.

CM: Do you remember walking outside the Kingdome and how everybody – that’s the happiest I've ever seen everybody collectively in the city.

NYV: It was pretty wild, man. It was euphoria. Now, I will always say that the happiest I've ever seen people were the night the Mets won the World Series. When the New York Mets won the World Series in Flushing in 1969. There was a euphoria. There was a feeling of over – just unbridled joy. Nobody was an enemy. Everybody was a friend. Didn’t care what color you were, whether you were homeless, whether you weren't homeless, what you smelled like, what you look like – you were just people hugging each other. People were embracing each other. People were talking to each other; they’re puttin’ their arms around each other. It really was something so special. And you really had that feeling that you could accomplish anything. That it was real, that you weren’t a laughingstock anymore.

And that was the Mariners that night when they beat the Yankees. And it was especially sweet – my family, I grew up hating the Yankees. I grew up a Mets fan. And Mets fans generally hate the Yankees. National League fans hate the American League. And so for me – and I remember a lot of people, talking about this to a lot of people. As a matter of fact, I think I even got written up in The New York Times about it, that there was a Seattle fan, there was a guy in Seattle who hates the Yankees. He’s on the radio, da, da, da, da, da. And some writer in New York had written something in The Times about it. It’s funny because I remember, I think it was my brother called me up said, "You know, you’re in the paper today." I don’t know. "Yeah, you don't like the Yankees. Yeah, you hate ‘em?" I said, "Yeah, you know. I don’t like the Yankees and I don’t want to see them win." There’s no secret about that ...

What it really did is it made me very empathetic to what Mariner fans were feeling. Because Mariner fans hate the Yankees because of [owner George] Steinbrenner and how he used to talk about Seattle wasn’t – remember he had that remark about how Seattle wasn’t a major league city? ... We might not have been a major league city, but boy we showed his major league ass out of town.

CM: Yeah, we sure did. Do you remember when in – I think it was the 11th inning when things were getting more and more tense, they kept on showing Steinbrenner in his box.

NYV: Yeah, wasn’t he squirming or something?

CM: Yes, he was ... And nobody remembers this except for people who were in the Kingdome. But I distinctly remember that once Edgar hit The Double, whoever was running the Kingdome Diamond Vision [scoreboard screen] ... as soon as Junior scored, they put it on Steinbrenner in his box and then Steinbrenner realized that he was on the Diamond Vision, then he walked out and then the crowd went bananas.

NYV: Right.

CM: It was perfect. Whoever was running the Diamond Vision was on it. And watching him walk out in disgust just made everything even better.

NYV: Right, right, right, right. I remember that now.

On Dave Niehaus, Voice of the Mariners

CM: How did you and Dave [Niehaus] get to be buddies and how did he support you over the years?

NYV: He came up to me one day and he said, "Hey, listen: you did what a lot of people wouldn't do or wouldn't have done and I appreciate it. And, you know, anytime you need something let me know." And I said, 'Wow, that’s pretty freaking cool.' And so every once in a while, I’d go in and just say hi, you know. I’d stop and talk to him. And he’d always say, "Anytime you need something, let me know." Him and Kevin. Kevin [broadcast producer-engineer Kevin Cremin] was the same way. And [broadcaster] Ricky [Rick Rizzs] too. And then I left KJR and went over to KIRO, ostensibly to go over there and do baseball for those guys. They loved it. They, you know, they used to call me the baseball guy. You know, they say, "You’re a baseball guy," which is like the highest praise you can give somebody. You know, they respected me for – they knew how hard I worked to keep the team here. They all knew it. Kevin Cremin used to keep them updated all the time. They knew it and they respected it, Dave especially. He knew how much I put into it.

CM: What made you want to do it? What was the motivation to keep the team here so devoutly?

NYV: In ’95, I was doing a [live radio broadcast] remote on a Sunday afternoon over in – was it Kitsap? Was it the 7 Cedars Casino over there?

CM: Oh yeah, that’s right. [The 7 Cedars Casino is in Clallam County near Kitsap County west of Seattle.]

NYV: I was doing a remote there. Robbie Knievel was jumping a bunch of cars out in the parking lot and I was the master of ceremonies. We had a crowd, we had a pretty big crowd for it. And I was out there, and we promoted it on the radio on KJR, and I told a lot of stories about how when I was a kid New York lost Brooklyn, and I remember we lost the Dodgers, we lost the Giants. And I remember the look on my father’s face, and I remember how much it hurt my father and how much it hurt people and how upset people were about it. And that this was my new hometown, and I didn’t want to see that happen here because I loved it here. But I was out at that remote and a father and probably his 7- or 8-year-old son came up to me and they started talking to me. You know, fan chat: "Hey, I love the show. I listen when I’m going to work all the time." Yadda yadda, you know the way people usually come up and I always talk to people because I always realize how much it takes for someone to up and talk to somebody.

CM: Yeah.

NYV: And as they were leaving, the kid – a little blond kid, I’ll never forget him – he comes up and he tugs on my sleeve and he said to me, "My father said you’re going to save the Mariners." And I just stopped. I was like, "holy shit." You know what I mean? You want to talk about a strong assignment, a strong motivation, a strong, you know – something to stop you in your tracks. This just stopped me in my tracks. And ever since that kid – and I have no idea who he was, who he is – but every time I felt down or every time I thought that it wasn't gonna happen, I kept thinking about that kid. And I kept thinking about that I cannot let that kid down. That if I don't do everything I think I can possibly do and encourage people to do everything they possibly can do, that kid is gonna know it, and I’m gonna let that kid down. I wasn’t gonna let that kid down.

CM: Wow, that’s a great story.

NYV: That kid, man, every time I thought of that kid it gave me motivation. It just said to me that this is who you’re doing this for. Forget the politicians, forget the people who, you know, the guys that are drinkin’ beer and get drunk at the games, and forget the people who don't care, forget the Frank Ruanos of the world who hate you because you’re doing this. Forget the people who tell you to mind your own business because you're not from here – forget all that. The only thing that matters is that kid. And that’s what I used to motivate.

CM: That’s a beautiful story. And the best part about that is, you did. Think of the thousands of kids who had moments with their dads because you did that.

NYV: That kid represented them all. You know Casey, I’m the luckiest guy in Seattle. And I’ll tell you why. You know, sometimes I get pissed off because the Mariners have never asked me to throw out a first pitch at the game ... The Seahawks at least put a plaque up in the stadium with my name on it as a thank you to a bunch of us that helped keep the team here. But the Mariners have done no such thing. And I always thought that would be cool if they did because I’d love my daughter to be able to take her kids someday to the ballpark and say, "Hey, look at this: your (grand)father had something to do with this." But I’ve got something better. I’ve been told thank you by more people in Seattle over the past 20 years than you could ever believe. People still come up to me today and they'll stop – and they don’t recognize me from TV or whatever – and they’ll walk up to me and just say, "Hey, I just want to take a minute to thank you for saving baseball." Now I didn’t save baseball by myself, I mean it was a whole lot of people. And it was the station, and it was the time, and it was – the only thing I’ve always argued with is "that’s the house that Griffey built." No, it’s the house that the fans built because the fans reacted to what was going on, and they called the politicians and they made it happen. I've been told thank you more times in my time here in Seattle then I think anybody could expect to. And it's just been such a wonderful thing to have happen to you.

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