Late today I received an email alert from the Seattle Times announcing that Ken Griffey Jr. was retiring from the Seattle Mariners and Major League Baseball after a storied 22 year career.
The news wasn’t a huge surprise – and was even somewhat anticipated – given Griffey’s poor statistics this season. Yet it still felt like a bit of a shock and brought a twinge of sadness– not unlike a death after a prolonged illness.
I have been a fan of baseball since I was a young boy growing up in Walnut Creek, California cheering for the San Francisco Giants. The first book I ever bought was through my 3rd grade class (remember how you could order books and have them delivered?) and it was a biography of Willie Mays. As a Giants fan, I certainly had heard of the “Say Hey” kid but I had no idea what a legend he was until I read that book. Instantly he was my hero and I learned everything I could about him – from his famous over-the-shoulder-catch in the 1954 World Series to his 660 career home runs (and how nearly everyone in baseball agreed that number could have easily been 100 more had he not played a great part of his career in wind-swept Candlestick Park). In my mind, he was the greatest baseball who ever lived, and I wished I had the opportunity to watch him play in his prime.
Even though I remained a huge baseball fan throughout the 70s and 80s, I never saw a player who combined such an array of talent – and who could single-handedly take over a baseball game. There were many great players in that era – but nobody of that caliber.
That changed in the 1990s. I moved to Seattle in 1991 and looked forward to the opportunity to watch MLB in person again after a hiatus from it while living in Oregon from 1983-1991. Ken Griffey Jr. was already a star on the woeful Mariners – at the ripe age of 21. Even though the team wasn’t very good, I adopted the M’s as my 2nd team and caught games in the hideous Kingdome.
I was blown away by Junior’s talents on the diamond. He had the most natural baseball swing I had ever witnessed and was amazing in the field. He was a 5 tools player (hit for average, hit for power, speed on the bases, great fielding and great arm) before that description became vogue. What was even more impressive to me was how he had the talent to take over – or change – a game on his own. This is virtually impossible to do in baseball given the dynamics of the game. But Junior could (and did) win many games on his own – either through his bat or glove.
There are far too many great moments in a career as great as Junior’s to try to narrow down the all-time best. But I have a couple of memories that stand out. I was at a mid-season game sitting in the center field bleachers. The way the Kingdome was configured this meant sitting on the 2nd deck and looking down – not great seats to watch a lot of the game but perfect to watch Junior in action. I don’t remember who the batter was but he hit a long screaming fly ball deep to centerfield. It had “extra bases” written all over it but Junior was on the run, trying to chase it down. I didn’t think he had any chance to get it but suddenly there was perfect convergence as the ball and Junior arrived simultaneously. Griffey sailed through the air and caught ball directly in front of the wall – and immediately crashed into it, making a Spiderman-like impression on the cushions. It was simply unbelievable – and is one of the highlights one often sees on ESPN when the topic turns to Junior’s outstanding defense (he won 10 straight Gold Gloves).
The other memory is one that every other Mariners fan shares with me – Game 5 of the Mariners-Yankees divisional playoff series. After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the M’s stormed back to win the next two and force the deciding 5th game. I was fortunate enough to attend the game – and it ranks up there as one of my all time favorite sports moments (along with “The Catch”). The game went extra innings and Griffey was on first base when Edgar Martinez ripped the most famous double in franchise history. I was sitting in the 2nd deck on the 3rd base side of the stadium so I had the perfect vantage to watch Junior fly around bases as the ball rattled in the corner. 57,000 fans were screaming their lungs out as the 3rd base coach waved Junior home. Rookie Alex Rodriguez gestured wildly for Junior to slide and he did – scoring easily and immediately becoming mobbed by teammates. I think it’s one of the most famous photos in Seattle sports history – Griffey’s memorable smile beaming from under the pile. It was pure sports Nirvana (during the peak of Grunge).
Like many other Seattle fans, I appreciated the way Junior played the game – he played it hard and with class. He developed into a slugger and was on his way to breaking Roger Maris’ 1961 homerun record in 1994 before the season was lost to a strike. The way Junior was blasting homeruns that season, I’m convinced he would have broken the record – and in hindsight that would have been so much better for baseball than what eventually happened (with McGuire, Sosa and Bonds eclipsing the record and then becoming tainted by the steroids scandal).
Even though Junior eventually demanded -and received – a trade to the Cincinnati Reds, I believe he was always a Mariner at heart. And I was thrilled when he signed with the M’s before the beginning of the 2009 season to finish his career in Seattle. While it was clear that his best days were well behind him, Junior still caught lightning in a bottle a few times during the season and it seemed to be a great farewell tour for him. Following the last game of the season he was saluted by fans and carried off the field by teammates. It seemed like the perfect time to call it a career.
So I was surprised when it was announced during the off-season that Junior was coming back for another season. I don’t blame the M’s for bringing him back – you can hardly say no to the man who basically saved your franchise. But it has been clear that the tank was empty and it was hard watching him struggle at the plate after having such an amazing career.
He made the right decision by walking away as he did today. But it’s never easy saying good-bye to a legend.
I may have never gotten to see Willie Mays in his prime but I was lucky enough to watch Junior in his – and someday I’ll be able to tell my twin sons what it was like watching Ken Griffey Jr. play the game of baseball.
Thanks Junior for the honor.