A Tribute to Junior
Even though the world had been expecting the news to come – with the specific timing unknown – the revelation was still jarring. Like getting punched in the ribs after telling your soon-to-be assailant to do so. You’re bracing for the blow, but right as it’s delivered, you hold your breath, close your eyes and flinch. Complete preparation just doesn’t exist when reflecting upon the depth of meaning with an announcement like the one from this past Wednesday.
Ken Griffey Jr. has retired from baseball.
Now sure, Griffey hasn’t been a statistically relevant stalwart in a few years, but don’t lean on that fact as your measuring stick for the announcement’s significance.
Really, this is all about the memories. The emotions evoked. The HISTORY.
The Kid was the sockeye salmon of MLB; swimming against the stream of the league’s cultural norm. It wasn’t smart to play clean. But it was noble. And right. It wasn’t good business to steer clear of free agency until 2009, accepting discounts by extending all of his current deals until then. But it was loyal. It wasn’t typical to hunt down deep flies in center with the reckless abandon of a cheetah chasing down a gazelle, specifically at the expense of his wrist. But it was exciting.
And it was all Junior.
Now surely, I could wax poetic about Griffey’s great career for 2,000 words, proclaiming all that his career meant to me. A kid growing up in central California rooting for the Oakland A’s, might I add. (After all, the posters covering my walls were all of heroes from MY teams: Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, – go ahead, laugh it up… I deserve it – Rickey Henderson, Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan. But Griffey Jr. was up there too. The only player from an opposing team, and one within the division of my favorite team) And I’d like to believe my words would amount to a stand-up tribute, one well worth reading. But when I first heard the announcement, I immediately thought of a better way…
I would turn my space over to you, Mariner and Griffey fans from around the country, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. So I opened up my inbox and letters started pouring in.
These were a few of my favorites:
I have been, and always will be, a Seattle Mariners baseball fan. From the confines of the ugly Kingdom, to the majesty of Safeco Field, I’ve been there for their horrific losses in the 80s, their coming of age in the early and mid 90s, the suckiness of the late 90s and still there with the winning years in the early 2000s. Mariners baseball will always be synonymous with my childhood.
But Seattle wouldn’t have a baseball team if not for one man. One player, who was destined for greatness before he ever set foot on the field. The son of a major leaguer – who actually got to play with his dad (Ken Griffey Sr.) – is a Seattle icon above all. Sure, we had A-Rod and yes, we had Randy Johnson too. But even the international appeal of Ichiro cannot surpass the amount of love Seattle fans like me have for Griffey Jr.
We watched him grow up (I was ten when he first broke into the big leagues in 1989), watched him succeed beyond even his expectations (he always fashioned himself a line-drive hitter, but we knew better) and we watched him cover center field like few before him. He was expected to make highlight reels weekly and seldom didn’t deliver.
He is the reason Safeco Field exists, for without his star power and the Mariners’ glorious 1995 season, the M’s would have been long gone. He played the game the way we all wished we could, with our hat backward, a smile on our face and a swing so sweet I can’t remember one more imitated.
Like every family we had our issues. Griffey leaving for Cincinnati, his home, hurt many fans, but we always forgave him. Unlike Johnson or Rodriguez, Griffey was always welcome back. Him joining the team last year as a farewell tour gave life to a season that to most was already lost.
So thank you, Ken Griffey Jr. Thank you for letting me copy your swing in my backyard with my brother. Thank you for making baseball the best game I’ve ever watched. Thank you for sharing your Hall of Fame talent with us for as long as you could. Thank you for not tainting your legacy.
Thank you for being The Kid.
I could not agree more about the of joy imitating the Griffey swing. When in little league, for a few years I toyed with switch hitting (I’m right handed) for two reasons:
1.) Because Chipper Jones was a switch-hitter.
2.) So I could copy Junior’s sweet lefty swing.
And if there was a possible third reason in there, I guess it would be that I somehow thought that by learning to switch-hit, I’d automatically be pushed towards the top of scouting lists, as a potential big league prospect. Kids are so naive.
Heck, to this day, sometimes while playing softball I’ll find myself slipping into it again. Hands to the back of my neck, bat gently nestled against my shoulder, back elbow high-to-the-sky and the bat waggling all the while. And again, I’m RIGHT HANDED.
What a swing.
The greatest home run hitter since Aaron not on roids… and his back-to-back 56 home run seasons best since Ruth… again best natural bodied player of the last 20 years… for those not cheating with steroids… like Rodriguez, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa… not too mention Bonds… the biggest fraud of them all.
-Andy Snodgrass, Gig Harbor, WA
At one point in time – not so long ago – it appeared that Junior might unfortunately be remembered more for what he DIDN’T do, than for what he did.
He DIDN’T do steroids.
He DIDN’T break the all-time home run record.
He DIDN’T stay healthy.
He DIDN’T win a World Series. Or even play in a single WS game for that matter.
And three of those four career footnotes I just listed, are likely tied to Andy’s thesis: Griffey was the best non-chemically developed player we saw during the 1990s. I can’t with total confidence agree that Griff was the best we saw in the 2000s, due to his injuries and aging, as well as the fact that Albert Pujols was around.
Now, after No. 24 has disappeared once and for all, towards an Orlando sunset, the fears we have had of fans not fully appreciating Junior for the things he DID do, the things that made him so unbelievable, seem to be subsiding.
Instead of overbearing conversations about Griffey not roiding for his homers like Bonds, or the amount of healthy dingers he could have hit, most writers and fans are talking about Griffey’s highlight reel. The fact that he saved baseball in Seattle. And above all else, how beloved he was and always will be, for those who had the opportunity to see him play in his prime.
Those other conversations are taking place, just not with volume knobs cranked up to 11, as we once expected.
On Father’s Day, June 19, 2005, two months after finding out my fiancee was pregnant with my now 4-year-old son, we decided to go to GABP and check out the Reds game vs Atlanta (being an expecting father I wanted a Father’s Day Photo Frame). It was an absolute great game, back and forth, both teams were fighting for the win. My friend Jarod had been, “ragging” on Jr. the whole game. Only because I reminded him that Jr. was known for going yard on Father’s Day.
So it’s bottom of the eighth inning, tied at eight and Jr. comes up with two runners on. Jarod starts talking smack again, so I unbuttoned my Reds jersey to show my, “Welcome home Jr.” t-shirt, kinda like Superman does, and on the very next pitch… “CRACK!”
Griffey blasted a three-run bomb that pretty much sealed the “W” for my Cincinnati Reds. I could tell Jarod was shocked as we celebrated with hi-fives. He never doubted Jr. again. I will never forget that day. EVER. And to top it off, back then, anytime the Reds scored ten runs, win or lose, Hooters would give you ten free wings with a ticket stub. So we got 50 free wings! The most awesome Reds game ever.
Not only did Griffey have a flair for the Father’s Day dramatic, but for opening day theatrics as well. Junior kicked off eight seasons with long-balls.
Of course we all have scads of memories of Junior, both in person and on T.V./Radio, but the one that still is vivid in my mind is the following:
It was the day after election day (for the proposed new stadium) during the ’95 drive to the A.L. West flag. The M’s had won in dramatic fashion the night before to creep to within one game of the Angels. I vowed to myself that I would drive the 135 miles from Yakima, WA to the Kingdome, to see the next night’s contest against the Rangers – hoping to see the M’s have a piece of first place… IN SEPTEMBER!!!
I cannot recall the inning or score, but I distinctly remember the game being close in the later innings when Rangers MVP Juan Gonzalez crushed a ball to the deepest gap in left center. Griffey floated back to the wall, stuck his cleat into the padding and elevated above the fence to rob a sure home run. The 50,000-plus fans went berserk. I was in the second deck in right field and our section was bowing to him. ALL HAIL KEN GRIFFEY JR.! I can picture it in my mind as if it were yesterday.
The M’s hung on. Tied the Angels for first and the Kingdome ushers adjusted the standings banners on the railing of the upper deck to reflect it. Mariners in first place and the quintessential Griffey catch to save the day!
I won’t soon forget it.
-Todd Lyons, Yakima, WA
As aforementioned, I did not grow up rooting for the Mariners, and the game Todd is talking about would have put me right at 12 years old. But I remember that catch.
The fun part is, though that was one of the single most important plays Junior ever made – with the Safeco Field proposition in lingo – when you think about it, that catch blends in with dozens of other great Griffey saves. In fact, it’s almost like a collage of catches coming together to form one mega catch.
Like the over-the-wall snag Griffey made to rob Lou Collins of a game-winning, playoffs clinching homer in the movie Little Big League. I know it sounds silly to bring up a cinematic catch that didn’t even count, when paying tribute to one of the game’s all timers, but it’s that type of play which defines the visions of marvel that Griffey’s defensive highlights evoke.
Speaking of virtual Junior, I didn’t print any of them, but I received several reader references to Super Nintendo’s master piece, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. The must-play baseball game for anyone who grew up gaming in that era.
It was simple, yet fascinating. Nothing against Bases Loaded or RBI Baseball, but the Griffey game was THE game to play. Really, it still is.
Somewhere in the process of updating the playing style and graphics of the more modern games, systems lost something in translation. Something that made the Griffey game epic. Something that made Junior vintage.
Something that made The Kid unique.
And really, couldn’t the same be said of MLB in 2010 and the players themselves?
There will never again be another player quite like Ken Griffey Jr. He was a one-of-a-kind thrill to watch and emulate.
You’ll be incredibly missed Junior, but we will always have the memories you so graciously gifted us with for the past 21 years.
Thank you for everything. Thank you, for being you.