The summer of 1989 in Seattle brought with it the sort of baseball hype the city had never seen in its history as a big league destination.
No, the Mariners weren’t really expected to win anything, not after a 68-93, last-place finish in 1988.
But they were expected to unleash some genuine star power on the American League … thanks to a 19-year-old.
Ken Griffey, Jr., had not just the baseball pedigree to make good on that promise, he had also rocketed through three minor league stops in two years since the M’s made him the overall number-one pick in the 1987 MLB Draft.
Junior was ready, and he was going to turn the Mariners into a contender.
The collecting world believed the hype, too, and made Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie card, #1 in the inaugural UD set, into hobby royalty right off the bat.
Eventually, Junior would indeed turn the M’s into contenders, but he’d need some help.
Even diehard Seattle fans knew that, but what no one could have guessed as the 1989 season rolled out of the gates was that one of Griffey’s chief turnaround partners was also a rookie that spring … in the National League East.
For the Montreal Expos, to be exact, and Montreal was about as far from Seattle as you could get on the major league map back in those days (Baltimore was farther).
After four wild but promising minor league seasons, and after a late-1988 debut that featured four pretty amazing starts for the Expos, towering lefthander Randy Johnson broke camp with the big club in 1989.
Six rough starts in seven appearances, though, left Johnson with an 0-4 record, a 6.67 ERA, and a return trip to Triple-A Indianapolis.
That turned out to be a short jaunt by comparison to what came next, though.
On May 25, after two months of bobbing around .500, the Expos shipped their 25-year-old flamethrower to Seattle for Mark Langston, the ace of the Mariners’ staff and a Cy Young talent.
There were other players involved in the deal, too, but it really came down to trading potential future value for immediate help.
Langston did his part for the ‘Spos, turning in a 12-9, 2.39 ERA performance that helped him land a big free agent deal with the California Angels that fall. What it didn’t do was change Montreal’s fortunes, as they finished in the same rut they were in when Langston arrived — .500 (81-81).
And in Seattle, well, you have to figure it hurt to lose such a big chunk of what little star power the team had built up over the years. You have to figure, too, that the move sent Mariners collectors digging through their baseball cards trying to catch a glimpse of their slender new lefty.
They were in luck, too, because Johnson ran the retail gamut that season, landing rookie cards in base sets from Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score, and Upper Deck (and O-Pee-Chee, for that matter).
And, while Johnson was working his was way into the Seattle rotation to the tune of 7-9, 4.40 over 22 starts, another rookie card emerged …
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For the third straight year, Classic issued a set of cards to accompany their baseball trivia game, and there at the end of the 100-card base set, at #95, was Randy Johnson.
Wearing an Expos uniform, of course, but it was a card you *needed* to have if you were a Mariners fan … especially within a few years, when Johnson had transformed himself into the Big Unit.
Today, with Johnson’s legendary career well behind him, and after his 2015 election to the Hall of Fame, this remains a fairly low-profile RC of a player who built just about the highest mound profile you could imagine.
It’s also not a card that comes up for sale too often, but when it does, it’s about a $20 buy in PSA 9, edging north of $80 in perfect “10” condition.
Interestingly enough, Griffey also appears in the 1989 Classic set — twice, in fact! — but as part of the two 50-card “travel packs” that served as sort of updates to the base.
Maybe that ordering was fitting, too, as Johnson won his first Cy Young Award (1995) two years before Griffey won his first (and only) MVP trophy (1997).
Either way, the Mariners struck gold with their newly-forged teammates who became a classic duo.
And, as it happened, a Classic duo.
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