When Jay Buhner signed his first professional baseball contract, he didn’t catch a case of the nerves. In his mind, there was nothing about which to worry.
After surviving McLennan Community College, how hard could pro ball possibly be?
“It was difficult at MCC, really difficult,” Buhner said. “But it was also rewarding. I knew given how hard it was there and how much we’d been put through, that when I did eventually sign to play in the minor leagues it was like the gravy train.”
Years later, Buhner would carve out a long career as one of the most fearsome sluggers in the history of the Seattle Mariners. He was renowned for his booming bat — Buhner clubbed 310 career home runs in 15 seasons — and for his cruise missile of an arm in right field. He also became known for his trademark shaved head and goatee, a look that spawned the tough-guy nickname “Bone.”
But back in the early 1980s at MCC, Buhner looked as clean-cut as everyone else.
“I still had hair then,” Buhner said, chuckling. “But Coach Rick (Butler) and Coach Dub (Kilgo), they wouldn’t allow facial hair. They were pretty strict disciplinarians.”
The Highlander players were stretched and tested long before they ever took the diamond. Weight training was a major part of MCC’s workouts. And the ballplayers logged as many running hours as some track teams as they prepared for the dreaded Bosqueville circuit, a six-mile required run that arrived every fall.
“We busted our butts on and off the field,” Buhner said.
Talent was not in short supply either. In addition to Buhner, the Highlanders featured another future big leaguer in pitcher Ken Patterson. Other stalwarts included outfielder David Wrzesinski, pitcher Lanny Hengst and first baseman Dodd Johnson.
In Buhner’s freshman season of 1983, the grind of all those preseason workouts found its just reward. Making its fourth straight trip to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., MCC broke through to win its first — and only — national title, beating Middle Georgia, 15-5, in the championship game.
“It was a dream come true,” Buhner said. “As athletes, we work and train as hard was we possibly can, and you always have visions of grandeur, no matter what level you’re on. Winning a national championship, that’s extremely rare and tough to do.
“Without a doubt, it was one of the most fun experiences I had in baseball. We won the American League West title with the Mariners, and won a championship at Triple-A, but that (MCC title) was the cream of the crop.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Buhner in the second round of the 1984 draft, after two stellar years at MCC. In his first professional camp, Buhner got to soak in hitting tips from the likes of Pirates legends like Willie “Pops” Stargell. He couldn’t help but imagine himself pounding home runs near the banks of the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers someday.
Instead, the Pirates sent Buhner to the New York Yankees. He made his big-league debut for the Yankees in 1987, but was traded again the next summer to the Mariners.
“I wasn’t really tickled at the time, because let’s face it, they weren’t going to win,” Buhner said.
Seattle was a baseball wasteland at the time, a city where careers and winning aspirations went to die. That culture began to change with the arrival of Lou Piniella as manager in 1993, and players like Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez developed into stars.
“Lou brought accountability. Everything changed when he came on board,” Buhner said. “Truth be told, that saved baseball in the Pacific Northwest.”
Buhner blossomed with the M’s, blasting 40-plus home runs in three straight seasons from 1995-97. For the Yankees, he became the one that got away, an identity that burst into pop culture in 1996 when his name was used on an episode of “Seinfeld.” When George Costanza is mistakenly believed to be dead, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner visits his parents’ home to break the news.
“What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?” bellows bombastic Frank Costanza in response. “He had 30 home runs, over 100 RBIs last year, he’s got a rocket for an arm … you don’t know what the hell you’re doing!”
Almost two decades later, Buhner still hears the “Seinfeld” line on a regular basis.
“It’s funny, here in Washington it was on a couple of nights ago,” he said. “Pretty soon some of my buddies started texting me, ‘Why’d you trade Jay Buhner?’ … It was flattering to be part of such an iconic show. My only regret is that I didn’t make a cameo.”
Since retiring from baseball in 2001, the native Texan has remained an active community leader in his adopted home of Seattle. He was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in 2004, and he still ventures out to the ballpark 15-20 times a year to do color commentary on selected Mariners broadcasts.
He stays busy on the speaking circuit, speaking to a variety of corporations and organizations through his booking agents at AthletePromotions.com.
Buhner, 50, also serves as a minority owner and TV spokesman for NorthWest Motorsports, a growing truck dealership in the region.
“Sometimes I think more people know me as the ‘Trucks, trucks and more trucks!’ guy than for playing baseball,” Buhner said.
Buhner said the people of Seattle have a serious bent toward charitable fundraising, which is close to his own heart. He has pitched in for projects to combat systemic fibrosis and juvenile diabetes, and volunteers with the United Way.
Jay and his wife Leah have three children — daughter Brielle, a student at UT-San Antonio, and sons Chase and Gunner. Brielle is set to graduate and get married next year, so Jay and Leah expect to make plenty of trips back to Texas over the next year.
Buhner also passionately followed the exploits of MCC’s baseball team this past spring, as it made its first run to the Juco World Series since his departure.
“Hell yeah, I followed them,” Buhner said. “It just shows you can’t ever take things for granted. There was a time MCC was a baseball powerhouse, and then there were a number of lean years. … They had such a good run this year, and it should really help in recruiting.”
In Seattle, Buhner remains beloved, even 14 years after playing his last game. He was a fan favorite throughout his time with the Mariners. People routinely wore his No. 19 jersey, and turned out in droves for “Bad to the Bone” night, where they could get their heads shaved.
Why was he so popular? Buhner has a theory.
“Really, I was just a Texas boy, blue-collar, shoot from the hip,” he said. “I would say what was on my mind, and I think people appreciated that. On the field, I had one throttle. I always played the game aggressively, didn’t worry about getting beat up, though the turf would certainly do that. … I think the fans appreciated that, too.”