Seattle Mariners – #24 – Ken Griffey Jr.
Seeing that again started making me feel nostalgic. You see, my formative years in sports really began in 1985. Sure I can remember something here or there before that, but from that point on I really remember most everything in sports. The late 80’s Georgia Tech teams with Mark Price, John Salley, & company playing in the Thrillerdome for Bobby Cremins. The late 80’s Braves games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium where we could buy cheap seats and move down because there were only 2,300 people there. (Unlike at Kauffman where the ushers make you stay in your section…which is ridiculous when there are 7,000 people there… but I digress). The red-helmets of the terrible Atlanta Falcons. The Human Highlight Film, Doc Rivers, Spud Webb, Tree Rollins, and Jon “you can lock me in a gym for 40 minutes and I’ll still only get 2 points and 3 rebounds” Koncak keeping the Omni on edge. Good times.
What does that have to do with Ken Griffey Jr.?! More than you know. See, in 1986 Ken Griffey Sr. spent a little time in Atlanta with the Braves. Right at the beginning of when I paid close attention. He seemed to be a great guy and he had multiple World Series Rings… things Braves fans weren’t accustomed to seeing. I found him interesting. During that season, I heard that he had a son that was a can’t miss prospect, so I thought that I would follow him once he finally made it to the show. That didn’t take long. When Jr. made the team in 1989 I decided that I would adopt Seattle as the American League team I would cheer for, since back then, they would never face the Braves unless it was in the World Series (a feat that neither team was close to achieving at that point, so there was no need to worry). I followed him closely. And my bedroom would soon resemble something out of the Pacific Northwest much more than a kid on the south side of Atlanta. Posters. A life-sized stand up. Seattle fitted hats. You name it, I had it. (I even had some of it when I got married…it just got relegated to the storage shed…). In fact, this even led to additional Seattle fandom as I adopted the artist formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics as my other basketball team to follow and had Gary Payton and “Thin” Shawn Kemp plastered to my walls as well. Griffey led me to fall for all things Seattle.
Now what made fandom grow to near obsession? All of the intangibles. The smile. The backwards hat…not for the style of it, but because he started doing it because it’s the only way he could wear his Dad’s hat. See, when you grow up as a boy and your Dad teaches you how to play sports, you connect with father/son stories. That’s what did it for me. And then, to see them play in the same outfield as father and son…and then to see them hit back-to-back home runs, as father and son…it was breathtaking. Every boy’s dream. Shortly after those moments, Junior married his girlfriend (who had to ask HIM to dance because he wasn’t getting around to it) who knew and loved him long before he became a global icon. More things to endear him to a sappy kid like myself. He could do no wrong. My best friend and I spent hours in middle and high school debating Ken Griffey Jr. vs. Albert Belle as the best player in baseball. Not only did I win then, but now it’s become a laugher of a debate. (Yes Chris…I finally beat you at something.) I even got my highest grade in my college speech class on a speech about why Griffey was the greatest player in baseball, and I did so wearing my Nike “Griffey in ’96” campaign shirt. These were my formative years and they were great.
At the beginning of the Millenium, reality hit. I was older (though not old) and much more understanding of the business side of things. Junior was going to his childhood home of Cincinnati. I could understand it, though I didn’t love it. The worst was seeing him hold up a number other than 24. See the number 24 had become associated with anything I did sports-wise. I even picked the first NASCAR driver that I would follow based on number alone. (Who knew some kid named Jeff Gordon would end up being decent). So seeing Junior holding up the number 30, even if it was his Dad’s number, just didn’t do it for me. Sure I bought a Reds hat. I would follow him wherever he went. But it just didn’t feel right. And since Junior moved on from 24 I even jumped from 24 to Jimmie Johnson in the 48 during his rookie year, because if Junior could do it, then I could as well (naturally I was still paying some tribute because 48 was 24 times 2, but that’s beside the point… Yes, I am a geek and a math nerd, so sue me). And if that last sentence actually made any sense to you, then you understand what being a fan means. The ups and downs of the 2000’s never made me waiver in my support of Junior. Hank Aaron’s record would no longer be threatened by the one person that, in my eyes, was the only one worthy to take it from The Hammer. I knew that a couple of healthy years would still put him close, but just not get him there. I was still thrilled that my hero was never linked to steriods. As the story goes, he was even there when Bonds declared that he would start using them and Junior said he just couldn’t because he couldn’t look his kids in the eyes if he cheated. That should garner him great praise, but he fell to the shadows as he was passed by. He quietly reached 600 home runs without the fanfare that should have accompanied that feat. Ultimately, he was heading to an anonymous ending of a brilliant Hall of Fame career.
And then this offseason came. He was a free agent. And no one was biting. The ending might be coming early. And then the two teams that I could have hoped for him to land on both began bidding for his services! And as much as seeing him in Atlanta would have been great and having he and his dad play for the Braves would have been sweet… it still wouldn’t have been right. Having Junior return to Seattle and raise that #24 jersey 20 years after I saw him don it for the first time when I was a 10 year old, is too perfect to hope for anything else. Is he the same player he was then? No, not even close. But to see Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro run out to the same outfield, and to hear the thunder coming from the crowd, is going to be something that no one who is present at Safeco Field on April 14, 2009 will be able to forget. (and yes, if someone wants to fly me up there and give me tickets to the game, I’m confident I will accept your offer!). We finally get a happy ending.
Thank you to everyone who made this happen. Especially to Taryn Griffey who was apparently the final voice in giving her Daddy the ending he wanted, and that all of his fans craved.