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Back on the Mound

Aisle 109, Row 23 is where they cheered until their voices were nearly gone.

About 40 family members and friends traveled near and far to root on Bob Wolcott — a 21-year-old who had been a star baseball player at North Medford High — as he made his major league pitching debut in the Kingdome in Seattle on Aug. 18, 1995.

The Wolcott fan section made up a small but vocal portion of the 27,256 in attendance.

Seventeen years later, the family has returned to Seattle to again support Wolcott. Only this time, they'll be seated in the owner's box of the Mariners' new stadium, Safeco Field, and their favorite player will only briefly be in the spotlight.

In celebration of his first big-league game, Wolcott will throw out the opening pitch when Seattle hosts the Minnesota Twins at 6:10 p.m. on Saturday. The contest can be seen on ROOT Sports, with a pre-game show slated to begin around 5:40 p.m.

"I am excited," Wolcott says. "It is going to be fun. It's been a long time."

Wolcott may best be known by Mariners' fans for his winning performance against the Cleveland Indians in Game 1 of the 1995 American League Championship Series. He was also forever immortalized in a well-known photograph showing him leap with elation when Seattle captured the ALDS against the New York Yankees in Game 5 that season.

Wolcott played all or part of five seasons in the major leagues for the Mariners (1995-97), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998) and Boston Red Sox (1999). He suited up for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan in 2000 and pitched three games in the Oakland Athletics organization in 2001.

His career record is 16-21 with a 5.86 ERA and 178 strikeouts. In Seattle, Wolcott was 15-18 in 52 starts.

He retired from baseball after having shoulder surgery.

Wolcott is now 38 and lives in Newberg with his wife Kris (a former South Medford High cheerleader) and their two boys, 14-year-old Matthew and 11-year-old Alex. He's about two terms short of earning his mechanical engineering degree at Oregon State University and owns his own computer numerical control (CNC) machine shop, working with companies like Intel (where he once interned).

"The greatest thing for me (about throwing out the first pitch) is to take my kids up there and get them out on the field," Wolcott says. "They are old enough now to appreciate what I was all about. It'll be fun to show them around and expose them to that."

The Mariners emailed Wolcott sometime during the spring with the offer.

"I was flattered," Wolcott says. "It is great to be remembered and be invited back."

Wolcott has never pitched at Safeco Field, but did visit the stadium in 2005 for the 10-year anniversary of the 1995 squad.

That team — which featured stars like Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martínez — made the postseason for the first time in the history of the franchise.

Wolcott's first contribution to that squad was a grand one: He started and earned a 9-3 victory over Tim Wakefield and Boston on Aug. 18, 1995.

Jill Wolcott, Bob's mom, sat 23 rows behind home plate, gnawing nervously on a piece of gum as she filled out a scorecard. At times, she couldn't bear to look, covering her face with her hands.

Wolcott opened the game with a strike on his first pitch to Lee Tinsley, but the former Southern Oregon Athletics slugger singled to right field two pitches later.

"It was nice to get that out of the way early," Wolcott said with a grin 17 years ago.

Wolcott bounced back by striking out Troy O'Leary and getting Mo Vaughn to fly out and Jose Canseco to ground out.

Bob Wolcott Sr. jumped out of his seat when his youngest son struck out Vaughn swinging in the fourth with a changeup.

Wolcott ended up allowing seven hits and two runs in five innings.

After the game, father joined son in the locker room as Jill and there daughter Lisa, then 15, waited outside. Nearby, a drove of spectators looked on eagerly.

"Fans were yelling Bob's name," Jill recalls.

The Mariners selected the 6-foot-1, 190-pound right-hander in the second round of the 1992 June draft. As a senior in high school, Wolcott — who was offered a scholarship to Stanford — recorded an 8-2 record and a 0.79 ERA.

He rose quickly as a pro, moving from Class A Riverside to AA Port City to AAA Tacoma within two seasons.

Former Rainiers manager Steve Smith, who is currently working as the third-base coach for the Indians, called Wolcott into his office to deliver the news that he had been called up.

"I had a sense (what Smith would say)," Wolcott recalls. "I was kind of waiting for it to happen. I knew the pitchers in Seattle were struggling and there was a need and I was performing well in Tacoma. It was exciting."

Wolcott's parents cut their vacation in Lake Almanor, Calif., short to make it to the Kingdome on Aug. 18. They hurried back home, unpacked, washed their clothes, packed again and then bolted north.

"We were supposed to stay a couple days, but there was no way we'd miss that," Jill says.

The process of switching teams wasn't nearly as chaotic as when Wolcott was called up to Tacoma from Port City in Wilmington, N.C. — in that instance, he and Kris had to hastily sell their old Honda and pack to move across the country in less than 24 hours.

Wolcott, who says he was feeling good and confident the night he faced the Red Sox, left 40 tickets at the will-call booth and calmly went about preparing.

"I had been working for several years in the minor leagues and felt like I was ready to be there," the 1992 North Medford High graduate says.

Wolcott proved again that he was prepared on Oct. 10, 1995, when he stunned the Indians in Game 1 of the ALCS.

That postseason, Seattle had used nine pitchers against New York in its best-of-five division series, but only three starters — Johnson, Chris Bosio and Andy Benes.

With the start of the best-of-seven ALCS just two days away, manager Lou Piniella needed an arm. Pitcher Greg Hibbard was on the disabled list, meaning the Mariners could replace him with a substitute player.

Wolcott, who wasn't on the team's postseason roster, got the nod.

Game 1 began dangerously as Wolcott loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the first inning. But he worked out of the jam, striking out Albert Belle, getting Eddie Murray to pop up and forcing Jim Thome to ground out.

He would go on to secure the victory after pitching seven innings, allowing eight hits, two runs (both earned) and five walks. Wolcott left a 3-2 lead with the bullpen, and Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on.

The Indians, however, rallied to win the series in six games.

"The schedule was stacked against us from going to a one-game playoff against the Angels and losing that day of rest to having a five-game series against the Yankees and having multiple extra-inning games," Wolcott says. "That was our undoing — guys got exhausted."

Looking back, Wolcott marvels at the challenges he and other professional baseball players faced as they work to fight fatigue, avoid injuries, stay relevant and perpetuate their careers.

"It's easier early on because no one has seen you," Wolcott says of his career. "You are a complete unknown. The challenge is long-term success because, after a year or two, there are no secrets."

On Saturday, he will hear the cheers for his success.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com

Bob Wolcott making his first start for the M's against the Indians in Game 1, Oct. 10, 1995. Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times