Buhner’s blond good looks, power, and daring outfield play evoked comparisons to Mickey Mantle during his years in the New York Yankees organization, but he had a big hole in his swing and was sent to Seattle in exchange for designated hitter Ken Phelps in July 1988. It turned out to be one of the most forgettable trades in Yankee history. The lumbering Phelps was a bust in New York, but Buhner’s booming bat — and prematurely bald head — would make him one of the most popular players on a star-studded Mariners team that included superstars Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr.
Swinging for the fences kept the streaky Buhner among the league’s annual strikeout leaders, but it also helped him produce some prodigious home run totals. Neither Phelps nor Steve Kemp — whom the Yankees had sent to Pittsburgh for Buhner and Dale Berra in 1984 — ever hit more than 27 homers. Buhner hit that many in his first full season with the Mariners and swatted at least 40 in three consecutive seasons from 1995 to 1997, a feat last accomplished by Frank Howard from 1968 through 1970.
Buhner stole a grand total of six bases during his first decade in the majors. But unlike the prototypical plodding slugger, Buhner was surprisingly mobile in the field. His Gold Glove in 1996 was awarded as much for his aggressive outfield play as for his cannon arm, although Buhner’s fearlessness in the field led to elbow and knee injuries that severely limited his playing time in 1998.
Once regarded as one of four untouchables in the Yankees minor-league system — Roberto Kelly, Hensley Meulens, and Al Leiter were the others — Buhner started slowly after arriving in Seattle in 1988. As the Mariners’ regular right-fielder down the stretch, Buhner hit 10 home runs in 192 at-bats but struck out 68 times and finished the season with a disappointing .224 batting average. The arrival of Jeffrey Leonard, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Darnell Coles reduced his playing time in 1989, but he had some success in improving his average without losing any of his power.
Various injuries limited his playing time in 1990, but despite good health in 1991 Buhner didn’t crack the Mariners’ everyday lineup until the second half of the season. The young slugger spent the year fuming at manager Jim Lefebvre, who didn’t give him an regular job until after the All-Star break — even though Buhner led the club with 12 homers at midseason and finished the season with 27. Despite those impressive totals, Lefebvre platooned Buhner with Greg Briley, Henry Cotto, and Alonzo Powell while repeatedly talking of the need to acquire another right-handed bat. (Still bitter, Buhner told reporters in 1998 that he was considering sending Lefebvre the ball when he hit his 300th home run.) The acrimony between the two reached a boiling point in the ninth inning of a September home game, when Lefebvre pulled Buhner for a pinch-hitter against Texas’ right-handed closer Jeff Russell. Flushed with anger, Buhner stormed towards the clubhouse. His teammates had to restrain him when Lefebvre followed.
The Mariners lost the game, 11-4, and after the season, Lefebvre lost his job. His replacement, Bill Plummer, gave Buhner an everyday spot in right and Buhner responded with a productive season, becoming the first Mariner since Jim Presley to hit at least 25 homers in two consecutive seasons. Thanks to his consistent power, ever-increasing RBI totals and ever-receding hairline, Buhner soon won the hearts of Mariner fans.
In honor of their balding right-fielder (“the style is hereditary,” Buhner explained) the club sponsored the first “Jay Buhner Haircut Night” in 1994. No fewer than 426 “Twisted Buhner Fans” — including two women — agreed to have their heads shorn and were admitted to the right field stands free of charge. (86 already-bald fans were also let in.) The promotion became an annual event; renamed “Buhner Buzz Cut Night,” 4,019 men and 52 women went under the razor in 1998, some wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “America the Buhnerful.”
Buhner declared free agency in 1994, and was disappointed when Seattle took their time offering him a new contract. As the Mariners stalled, the Orioles entered the bidding with a $14 million contract and gave Buhner an hour to decide. Informed of Baltimore’s offer, teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. (whom Buhner later referred to as “my second agent”) wasted no time in making it clear to team management that he’d be disappointed if Buhner left Seattle. Not willing to anger their most prominent star, the Mariners returned to the table with a three-year, $14.5 million offer. Buhner signed.
In 1995, Buhner — who named one of his hunting dogs “Ribbie” after his favorite stat — drove in 121 runs with only 123 hits, the highest hits-to-RBI ratio in major league history for a player with more than 100 RBIs. (Jim Gentile of the Orioles had set the previous mark in 1961.) Buhner followed up his regular-season heroics with a combined four home runs and eight RBIs while batting .383 in the Division Series and ALCS.
Topping his ’95 total with 138 RBIs in 1996, Buhner was named to his first All-Star team. the following season, despite a league-leading 159 strikeouts. Buhner finished the year with a .271 average and set career highs with 107 runs and 44 homers. Perhaps aiming too much for the Kingdome’s new “Buhner Boneyard” seating section in the right-field stands, Buhner hit 40 homers in 1997 but struck out 175 times as his batting average dropped to .243. Buhner did set a personal best by drawing 119 walks.
Injuries caught up with the 33-year-old in 1998, ending his string of seven consecutive 20-plus homer seasons. Buhner opened the spring excited by a new stance, but a diving catch on a Chuck Knoblauch fly ball into the right field bullpen in April forced him to undergo surgery on a knee that had been troubling him since a bad slide in 1990. “This is a 50,000 mile checkup after playing 11 years on turf,” Buhner insisted. He returned to the lineup in mid-June, but tore a ligament in his elbow in August and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. After tendon replacement surgery in September, Buhner dedicated himself to a return to the Mariners lineup by Opening Day 1999.
Buhner blamed the Kingdome Astroturf for his many maladies. “You ask anybody, they’ll tell you the same thing. Turf hurts,” Buhner told reporters in 1998. “I’ve played 11 years here on it, another 11/2 in the minors… You wake up in the morning, your back hurts, your knees hurt, your hips hurt. I can’t wait for Safeco [Field].”
There was some talk of Buhner shifting to first base at the start of the 1999 season, but his hard work paid off with an Opening Day start in right field. Even though a strained hamstring sidelined him in mid-May, he returned to the Mariners lineup on the day of their first game at Safeco on July 15.