PEORIA, Ariz. — It has been 170 days since Cal Raleigh’s life changed forever.
Last summer, he was a 25-year-old catcher trying to stick in the big leagues in his first full season. Now, as he walks around the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex, kids clamor for his autograph and say to one another, “There goes the Drought-Buster.”
“It's a lot different,” Raleigh said of spring training now compared to a year ago. “Before, it was just you're fighting for a job, and nothing's guaranteed, and you're trying to work every day to get to that spot. And obviously, nothing's still guaranteed, but it is nice coming into camp knowing that I'm part of this team.”
Talk about an understatement.
In 2022, Raleigh was more than 20% better than the average major-league hitter, and he consistently caught a pitching staff that was the team’s strength while quietly nursing a broken thumb. He hit 25 home runs despite a slow start and a stint in Triple-A.
But he needed only one to secure his place in Seattle sports history.
On the last day of September, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, Raleigh came in to pinch hit, worked the count full and then, with a swing that nearly brought him to his knees, the Big Dumper became the Drought-Buster.
CAL RALEIGH WALKS IT OFF TO END THE DROUGHT pic.twitter.com/OrxRaPIBrP
— Seattle Times Sports (@SeaTimesSports) October 1, 2022
That walk-off victory over the Oakland A’s clinched Seattle’s wild-card spot, sending the Mariners to the postseason for the first time since 2001. The moment feels like a movie if the movie were a total cliché. You don’t have to be a resident of the Pacific Northwest or a long-suffering fan who spent 21 years forgetting what fulfillment feels like to get chills.
“It was probably the coolest moment in my life,” Raleigh said. “Honestly.”
Dating all the way back to Little League, he’d never hit a walk-off home run until that moment. It was the first game all year that his parents attended in person. They told him later that they saw grown men cry and fielded gratitude from surrounding fans. Since then, they and the rest of Raleigh’s family have had ample opportunity to relive that iconic moment because Cal has watched video of it a lot.
More than 10 times?
“Way more than 10,” he said.
More than 50 times?!?
“Probably more than 50,” he admitted with a laugh.
“I don't think they're tired of it,” Raleigh said of his family, “but they started making jokes.”
His sister, in particular, has taken to ragging on him. She’ll mimic Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims’ call from seconds before the fateful swing: “The pitch from Acevedo …”
A winking nod at how often they’ve all heard it.
Raleigh says he sees something new on each rewatch, though. He notices a different teammate or section of the stands, and sometimes the clip itself is slightly different. Fans regularly send him personalized versions, home videos of themselves watching him make history on TV. Recently, he received an edit of the home run in which someone had added exploding stadium lights a la “The Natural” — what’d I say about it being cinematic?
“It's the reason why you play baseball,” Raleigh said.
He means the chance to deliver something for which a whole city has waited most of his lifetime and to carry his team to the promised land of the postseason. But he can’t deny that there are also some free beverages involved.
“I got a few drinks,” he said of the couple of months he spent in Seattle this past offseason. He also got a whole lot of double-takes from fans on the street and, when he went to a Seahawks game, people shouting his name. Sort of.
“It's more ‘Dumper’ or ‘Big Dumper’ than it is ‘Cal,’” he said. “I've gotten used to it.”
People have named their dogs after him and their kids, even. (Cal, that is, not Dumper. “That would be a problem," he said. "I’d question that a little bit.”)
At least one person got a tattoo to commemorate the home run itself — featuring the date, the flight path of the ball and Raleigh’s number. Underneath, it says “Drought Ended”; above it is a giant Mainers “S”.
“I’ve peaked,” Raleigh said, and it’s not really worth even politely protesting. “I think the only thing cooler than that would be winning the World Series. And we’re gonna try to do that.”