Ken Griffey Jr. has retired. It’s odd, you know. I knew this day was coming for a long time, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it. I don’t like that it happened suddenly. I wanted the time to prepare for it, and a grand send off that the greatest ballplayer of my era deserved. Ozzie Smith got one; he got a golden plate in every city that he traveled to in his final season. Certainly I’d have time to say goodbye to Junior. To travel to a sportsbar that had the MLB package to see his last game played. To listen to his last at-bat on the radio. Something.
Nope. There will be no riding off into the sunset on this one. Fate would write the story that Ken Griffey Jr. will retire without ever recording a plate appearance in a World Series–let alone winning one.
The huge # of home runs Griffey hit, who knew it would begin with Eric King and end with Tommy Hunter 22 years later? The dial stopping magically on 630–a number that Griffey will forever be linked with but undoubtebly short of where he should have ended up.
It really does feel like my childhood ties to this ballgame are gone, the sentiment shared with others in my similar age bracket. Griffey was the last tie to my childhood. A dinosaur that had outlasted so many others into extinction. If you’ve followed this game as long as I have, you have your own Griffey memory or story. It’s inevitable. Or you have dozens of them.
The summers of 1992, 1993, and 1994 as an 11, 12, and 13 year old kid were priceless because of Ken Griffey Jr., the larger then life superstar who was Michael Jordan in baseball cleats. There was no hype, only deliverance with this guy.
I remember laying awake late at night before the days of the internet and checking box scores on our phones listening to 700 WLW; just trying to stay awake long enough for Marty Brennaman to call out the Mariners score and on more nights then not, it seemed like he was letting us know that “Ken Griffey Jr. added a long ball in that one.”
It was amazing. Every day watching Sportscenter (then across town at my grandmother’s house) Griffey would either hit a towering home run or make an unbelievable catch. This led to me always demanding that I was Ken Griffey Jr. out in the front yard, while my other friends settled for Edgar Martinez or Jay Buhner or David Justice. I always called dibs on ‘being Junior’.
In a lot of ways, Griffey and I grew up together. We endured the ups and downs of life and career. But he was always there, existing in the box score and when I could get to the park to see him play, he was always that familiar looking Griffey that I loved as a kid. That guy who was at the height of his game when I was just discovering and falling in love with baseball. The year he came into the league was basically the first year I remember baseball; 1989.
There were so many memories in between.
How about that July 24th night in 1993 when I saw him play for the first time. I not only saw him play, I met Junior that night. He walked over and shook my hand. That was when I was absolutely in awe of the Mickey Mantle figure. I was just eleven years old, and Griffey would hit his 114th home run of his career that evening. That would become part of an 8-game run in which Griffey would homer every night. I remember trying to catch glimpses of the homers on the George Micheal Sports Machine show late night, or waiting up to see the Seattle score flash across the screen on the 11 o’clock news. That was just before Cheers came on. I didn’t even know where Seattle was on a map. But I knew that Ken Griffey Jr. was the closest thing to being a God that there was to me.
We both grew older. I got sick. Junior got hurt. Our family members passed away. But as I continued to return at our old meeting spot, an MLB park; Junior was always there to welcome me. Literally, he would look at me whenever I was in the stands and say hello to me or nod his head to let me know that he knew I was there. It was weird because it was almost as if Junior recognized me. He’d watched me grow up from a little kid to a grown man, all the while playing a child’s game and entertaining millions upon millions.
People always had a story about Griffey being moody or broodish at times. I have to be honest, I never saw it firsthand. One night, one of the last times I saw Junior play; my girlfriend and I are sitting on the Reds dugout down at Great American ball park. This is probably about the 90th or 100th game I’ve been to see Junior play live.
A pitcher is warming up before the inning, with Junior getting ready to come to bat. He came out of the dugout, was joking around with my girlfriend and I. The pitcher warming up overthrows the catcher. Griffey holds his hand up as if to say ‘I’ll get it’, walks over and picks up the baseball. He walks it directly back over and hands it up to us. A moment I’ll never forget. As I told my girlfriend, she doesn’t understand how I idolized the guy when I was just a few years younger.
All the diving catches, the long home runs off that perfect swing and black bat. All those summer days in the sun that I caught word that Griffey had gone deep again. All those games on ESPN that I stayed up to catch the Mariners late. My first glimpse of Safeco Field, a stadium that Seattle owes solely to the fact Griffey was Griffey.
I could go into the Cincinnati years, before I knew that 30 wasn’t young for a ballplayer and I thought he’d be the savior of a franchise. But I won’t do that. I’d rather talk about the era that Griffey made me fall in love with this great game; and thank him for steering me towards this sport that saved my life and kept my out of trouble. The sport that introduced me to my best friends and fondest memories in life. If it weren’t for Griffey, I’d love it a whole lot less.
Thanks for the wonderful memories, and an unbelieveable career Ken Griffey. I’ll miss you like no athlete that has ever gone before you.