A tribute to “The Kid,” Ken Griffey Jr.
To this day, I can’t say the name without having a smile come across my face.
By now you’ve probably heard the news The Kid is on his way to Cooperstown, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Not only is he the first player ever to go in as a Mariner, but he was only three votes away from becoming the first ever play to be unanimously voted in.
To get into the Hall of Fame a player must receive 75 percent of the vote from the 440 writers who choose who gets in each year. Griffey reception of 99.3 percent of the vote is truly a testament to how beloved he is in the baseball community.
But to the fans, especially those of us who grew up here in the Pacific Northwest, he meant so much more.
Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the Mariners and Griffey. Like many kids, baseball was my first love. And at that young age, to me, Griffey was baseball. By the time I was old enough to understand what was going on when the players took the field, Griffey was already a national icon.
One of my earliest memories is from the day the Mariners beat the Yankees to win the 1995 American League Division Series. My mother and stepfather were in the hospital giving birth to my little brother when the game started. I was at my grandparents waiting to hear the news and watching the Mariners on TV. I don’t remember much of the game, but I do remember when Griffey scored the winning run I started running around the house in excitement only to run face first into a bookshelf. The bridge of my nose is still crooked from that incident. Sometime after, the phone call came that my brother had been born.
Another childhood memory I hold dear was the first baseball game I attended. It was during Griffey’s MVP season in 1997. My dad had me for the weekend and we headed off to the Kingdome to watch a night game. Though we were up in the nosebleeds, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was going to get to see Griffey in person. My dad bought something that had the player bios and I was ecstatic when I discovered Griffey and I share a birthday, Nov. 21.
I don’t remember if the Mariners won or lost, but I do remember the excitement I felt every time Griffey would step to the plate. Still learning the game I would ask my dad, “Why don’t they just put Griffey up to bat? They should have him bat every time!” He will still tease me about that from time to time. I stand by it.
And that was the magic of Griffey for so many kids and fans. Much like how the kids in the movie “The Sandlot” all wanted to be Babe Ruth, everyone who watched the Mariners wanted to be Griffey. In backyards and diamonds all across the state they argued over who got to be Griffey in their imaginary games. I wear my hats backwards, even now, because that was the way Griffey did it. There was just something so fun and infectious about the way he played the game. Seattle had its sports stars from time to time, but nothing ever like Griffey.
You have to understand for most of Seattle’s history in the world of professional sports, to be a Seattle fan is to suffer. As a city, Seattle has witnessed many losing seasons. The Mariners never had a season over .500 in their existence until Griffey came. The Seahawks hadn’t fared much better and were almost moved in 1996. And I won’t even mention what happened to the Sonics. We all know.
And I think that’s why Griffey mattered so much to us. Griffey gave us hope. He gave us something to smile about. He gave us something legitimate. Something to call our own. We finally had a piece of something the rest of the sporting world couldn’t laugh at. Something they were actually envious of. Even His Airness, Jumpman himself, Michael Jordan asked Griffey for his autograph.
So when he left for Cincinnati, we were crushed. We weren’t angry with Griffey the way we were when Alex Rodriguez left, we were genuinely heartbroken. Even as the team brought in Ichiro Suzuki and ushered in the age of SoDo Mojo, a Mariner’s fan site, it felt like a piece of us was missing. That’s why Griffey received a standing ovation when he came back to Seattle with the Reds in 2007. And that’s why so many of us cheered when he resigned with the team in 2009, even though we knew we weren’t getting the same Griffey that left us. He may not have been the same player who once hit a home run in eight straight games or the player who won ten straight Gold Gloves from 1990 through 1999. The Kid was far from being a kid anymore.
But he still had that smile. He still had that backwards cap. He still played the game with that same love and passion that reminded us what it was like to be young and in love with the game.
And more than any highlight or victory he ever gave us, perhaps Griffey’s greatest gift to us was just that: he made us feel good about ourselves.
My oh my.