I went to an interleague game at Safeco last May. Giants at Mariners: Randy Johnson was looking for career win #299 in his final start in Seattle (he gave up one run in 5.1 innings and left to a standing ovation), and the game ended in 12 innings on Jose Lopez’s RBI single off the left field wall, but the most memorable part of the night belonged to Ken Griffey, Jr.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning of a tied game, the 39-year-old Griffey approached the plate to the loudest I’ve ever heard a sports stadium — and I’d seen Griffey hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie a game in the Kingdome some sixteen or seventeen years prior. For four pitches, we were all on our feet, refusing to stop screaming or clapping, generating electricity, doing everything we could do to will this aging hero to one more feat of greatness.
On the fourth pitch, Griffey unleashed that classic swing, hit a towering fly ball to deep center, and for a few breathless seconds, as I tracked the ball’s flight, I was a kid again, full of wonder at my childhood idol… until Aaron Rowand made the catch at the wall.
That at-bat was a microcosm of Griffey’s second tour in a Mariners uniform. No matter how much the fans loved him, his bat was still powered by his aging body, and not our fond memories of The Kid, the best player of the ’90s and the last remnant of the notion of baseball as a “pure” sport, untainted by HGH or androgen. The spacious Safeco, while never kind to power hitters, is especially cruel to players who’ve lost a step — even if you’re a 13-time All-Star with one of the prettiest swings in history.
I could go on for thousands of words about the space Ken Griffey, Jr. occupies in my childhood — at one point, as a middle-schooler in southern Illinois, I had nine posters of him in my bedroom — but it’s all the things that everyone else remembers or experienced: the Upper Deck ’89 #1 card, the back-to-back home runs with his father, the All-Star Game MVP, the home run he robbed of Jesse Barfield, the eight consecutive games with home runs, the slide into home that capped Seattle’s win in the epic 1995 ALDS win over the Yankees. With apologies to Steve Largent and Dennis Johnson, Junior was the first legitimate sports superstar the city of Seattle ever had.
Despite what the legends might say, Ken Griffey, Jr. didn’t save baseball in Seattle — that would demean the contributions of Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, and a deceptively passionate fan base, among others. But Griffey was, quite simply, an all-time great; a brilliant star whose best season was cut short by an untimely strike, whose skill and enthusiasm helped young fans like myself get over the strike, whose integrity kept him from indulging in the poison that could have given him the numbers of Barry Bonds, and whose potential — even with 630 career home runs — was never reached.
Farewell, Junior. And thank you.
p.s. Thanks a lot, Sports Illustrated: