Our first ten Seattle sports heroes, counting down from 11, are as follows: 11, 1995 Mariners supporting cast; 10, Ichiro Suzuki; 9, Brandon Roy; 8, Mike Holmgren; 7, Lenny Wilkens; 6, Steve Largent; 5, Lou Piniella; 4, Don James; 3, Gary Payton; 2, Edgar Martinez. Numbers 11-7 can be found here, while numbers 6-2 can be found here. And now, our number one Seattle sports hero.
1. Ken Griffey, Jr. There is no debate. Ken Griffey, Jr. is Seattle’s biggest superstar. He saved baseball in this city, and arguably put Seattle on the national map with his highlight reel catches, 1997 MVP season, and picturesque swing. Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam may have represented Seattle all across the world, but Griffey was the city’s biggest rock star since Jimi Hendrix.
Griffey emerged on Seattle’s radar as a name in 1987. He was the first overall pick in Major League Baseball’s June amateur draft that year, and was poised to become the face of a franchise if everything went according to plan. Mariners owner George Argyros had wanted to use the #1 pick on Cal-State Fullerton pitcher Mike Harkey, but was overruled by his scouting team, who labeled Griffey a can’t-miss prospect with five-tool abilities. Junior was the prototype. He had the prototype build (6’3″, 195 pounds), prototype bloodlines (dad Senior was a Cincinnati Reds outfielder at the time), and the prototype attitude (generally well-liked, but with a dash of cockiness that tended to breed greatness).
By 1989, Junior was the starting center fielder on a young Seattle team. He had been hand-picked by first-year manager Jim Lefebvre to replace up-and-coming Mickey Brantley, who would ultimately have his career derailed by Junior’s emergence (no fault of Junior’s). Griffey spent some time on the disabled list that year, but still put together a decent rookie season, hitting 16 home runs and batting .264. He lost out on the American League Rookie of the Year award to Baltimore Orioles closer Gregg Olson (which, if you’re keeping track at home, makes for three obscure players that are answers to trivia questions involving Griffey: Harkey, Brantley, and now Olson).
Griffey really took off in 1990 and would never look back. He was a bona fide talent and the nation took notice. By 1994 he had had his own candy bar, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, done voice work for The Simpsons, acted in a major motion picture (Little Big League), guest starred on a network TV show (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and produced a video game (Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo).
Even with all the accolades, Griffey outdid himself in 1995. The ’95 season began in somber fashion for Junior, who broke his wrist on a Spider Man-like leaping catch against the Kingdome’s right-center field wall. In the ensuing moments, Junior captured a spectrum of emotions from fans: amazement at the attempt, jubiliation at the catch, worry at the aftermath, sadness at his depature, fear at the prospect of being without his presence in the future. Despite a three-month absence spent on the disabled list, Griffey continued to dictate the Mariners season. While he watched from the sidelines, the team remained barely in playoff contention, hovering around .500 for the twelve weeks Griffey was out.
When Junior returned in August, the team was desperate for a spark to get them back on the winning track. Junior provided just that. Down the stretch he would quickly return to form, helping lead the ballclub to the playoffs for the first time in their history. One of the great images of the ’95 season is of Junior, arms raised, fingers pointed the heavens, immediately after hitting a game-winning home run, the first of his career. I can tell you that the game was played on a Sunday afternoon. The Mariners wore their alternative teal jerseys on Sundays that year, and here was Griffey all tealed out.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the Griffey-Seattle relationship occurred later that season, in the ’95 American League Division Series against the Yankees. Junior, barrelling around third base in the 11th inning of the deciding Game 5, would score on Edgar Martinez’s infamous double to essentially save the Mariners franchise from leaving Seattle. The image is considered holy to a true Mariners fan. Griffey, sliding feet-first, left hand outstretched to graze home plate. Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz positioned in front of the dish, awaiting a throw that won’t arrive on time. In the background, pure happiness. Numerous figures frozen in mid-air, leaping with unrestrained jubilation. Bob Wolcott, the Mariners 21-year-old starting pitcher, displaying a vertical leap that would get NBA scouts’ attention. An amazing photograph, and one that has been reproduced a thousand times over in Mariners lore.
In the aftermath of that winning run, a second photo would emerge to capture the spirit of the moment. Griffey, immediately tackled out of sheer joy seconds after crossing home plate, pops out of the bottom of a dogpile grinning like a kid on Christmas morning as teammates celebrate above him.
Ken Griffey, Jr. would remain in Seattle through the 1999 season. He won an American League MVP award in 1997, and amassed numbers as a Mariner that had him on pace to become one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Upon a fateful trade to Cincinnati, however, Griffey’s career was sidetracked by injuries and he would never again be the same player he was in the Emerald City. His return to Seattle in 2007 resulted in multiple standing ovations, a tribute video that brought grown men to tears, and a home run for the opposition that had 45,000 fans cheering for him once again.
Ken Griffey, Jr. played a game in such a way that it moved people to take action. He brought fans to a once-empty ballpark and got them to watch him and his teammates. He made a state government take action and ensure that their baseball team would never leave the only city it had called home. He helped fund a new baseball stadium, simply by hitting home runs, catching fly balls, and flashing a geniune smile every now and then. He elicited emotion in fans and created it himself. Griffey may not ever fully realize exactly what he means to this city, but there’s no denying that when it comes to heroes, he may not have a cape or be able to fly, but Ken Griffey, Jr. is our Superman.