Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame Saturday and now awaits his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 46,027 fans filled Safeco Field in a season where fans have rarely filled Safeco Field. The city’s longstanding love affair with Junior serves as a reminder of the gulf between the glory of the past versus the struggles of the present.
Growing up in Canada I watched many of the Seattle Mariners prospects play for their AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. Edgar Martínez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, Danny Tartabull and even a young Alex Rodriguez all made stops on their way to the big club. However, the one player who never made the trip north was Griffey Jr. Too talented for AAA, “the Kid” jumped directly from AA to the majors as a teenager. So, like everyone else, I watched and admired the growing talent that was Ken Griffey Jr. through his Sportcenter highlights. Before long, he joined the short list of the world’s best athletes, Bo, Gretzky, Jordan, Montana and Griffey.
But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 2005 that I realized just how much Griffey meant to Seattle. Year after year, the Mariners were awful and at home games, they replayed clips of “The Double” repeatedly. The glow from Junior, an aging Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson clearly hung over the new Mariners teams. As an outsider, the video tributes seemed strange and a little sad. Here was a team with so little history, that it was celebrating a divisional series as its golden era. Can you imagine the Yankees waxing poetic about the accomplishments of the 2004 team? Seattle was still in love with Griffey and no Alex Rodriguez, John Olerud or Adrian Beltre was going to make them forget their adopted son.
That love was on full display in the summer of 2007 when Junior returned to Safeco Field, known affectionately as “the house that Griffey built”. 46,340 fans came out, the sixth largest crowd at the time, to catch a glimpse of the 37 year old “Kid”. Standing ovations, ceremonies and an outpouring of appreciation marked the occasion. Again, the whole weekend was a little uncomfortable to an outsider as the Mariners lost 16-1 amid cheers for an opponent. The whole scene was in stark contrast to the venom surrounding A-Rod’s return after signing for more money on a lesser team within the division.
No, Griffey was different. He left to play on the team he grew up with. He left to be closer to his family in Florida. He left for less money. The move was logical and understood, but for Seattle fans it didn’t hurt any less. He was their first superstar and indeed the city’s biggest sports star. Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and Walter Jones were (or will be) Hall of Famers, but never ignited imaginations the way Junior did. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Sean Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck made it deeper into the playoffs, but weren’t the face of their sports.
Junior grew up as a player in Seattle just as baseball grew up as a major league attraction in Seattle. Indeed, Griffey was so revered because he led the first wave of Mariners success in the 90’s. In sports, like life, the first time is always special. A 25 year old Griffey led a talented 1995 Mariners team that included Buhner, Martinez, Johnson, and catcher Dan Wilson. The “Refuse to Lose” crew caught the imagination of a city that had waited two decades for a contender. The Mariners staged a thrilling come from behind pennant before beating the Yankees in the playoffs to cement the teams place in Seattle lore. Later an aging 2000 Mariners team (including a 41 year old Rickey Henderson?) also made it to the ALCS, led by Rodriguez’s amazing 40/40 season, but that team is largely forgotten. No, the first time is always the most exhilarating, and the shame of it all is that the 1995 core was never able to advance to the World Series. Losing Johnson and then Griffey slammed the window shut, reminding Seattle how rare such talents were.
During his 2007 speech to the Seattle faithful, Griffey made a not-so subtle reference to his return. It was strange considering that he was playing for the Reds at the time, but the circle was completed when Griffey made his return home in 2009. He was the one star that loved Settle as much as they loved him. Randy was theirs, but he was discontent and traded too early. A-Rod was theirs, but he left them for money and fame. The Sonics were theirs, but left for a city that would build an arena. Griffey left for the right reasons and returned to the city when it was all over. Old girlfriends don’t return years later saying “I always remembered you”. Griffey did just that. He was the original Mariners star showing the current star, Ichiro how to let the team and city love him. Ichiro, for his part, was ecstatic to play with his childhood hero and it made for a happy ending.
So, the Griffey memories begin to fade together – the backwards hat, the Spiderman catch at the wall, home runs in eight straight games, the all-star homerun off the warehouse in Baltimore and the slide into home. Until the team can provide new memories of success, the images of Griffey will remain frozen in time, a reminder of an electrifying past when the present is so non-descript. The torch has passed to ARod, Ichiro Suzuki and now Felix Hernandez, but the stature of each lacks the added value of team success that can be shared with the city. For now, Griffey is a symbol the very best of the Mariners and the Seattle sports and that is why he is so loved here.