It can be summed up with a sigh. We’ve been down this road before. Perhaps Ken Griffey, Jr. just isn’t meant to be a Mariner again. It’s destiny, right? Why mess with a good thing? He isn’t the player he was when he left Seattle in 1999. He’s been ravaged by injuries, and made to look human in the last decade. If anything, he’s best utilized as a backup, a fourth outfielder, a platoon player, which is exactly what he’ll be in Atlanta. Here in Seattle, he would have been propped up on a pedestal, forced to play at a higher level than he’s capable of playing at these days, and glorified like a hero, when his days of heroism are long since past.
But really, who cares? We would have appreciated him no matter what. Had he come in and hit .200 with single-digit home runs, we could have made an example of the 39-year-old as the anti-user, baseball’s purest slugger in an era of tainted power hitters. If he does that in Atlanta, the Tomahawk Choppers will shun him. We would have taken note of the swing, the smile, the endless array of video montages, and the number 24, and filed all those memories away with those that have aged a decade. We can pretend we didn’t want him, didn’t need him, but let’s face it…it would have been nice. The media will spin this in that direction, and as the year progresses, we’ll forget we were ever led to believe that Junior would wear a Mariners uniform again.
Anyways, I congratulate the Atlanta Braves on landing our hero, and I hope they understand and fully appreciate the player they’ve obtained. I’ve compiled this brief list of my five greatest Griffey moments, a list I was hoping to share amidst happier news. But either way, it’s worth getting out there, so here it is: the five greatest Ken Griffey, Jr. Mariner Memories.
1. The Slide. It requires no further explanation. Speak two words–“the slide”–to any Mariner fan, and they know exactly what you’re talking about. They can tell you where they were when it happened, what they were doing, the reaction, the euphoria. We’ve heard the call a thousand times. Dave Niehaus screaming in a gravelly baritone, voice rising with each subsequent word uttered. The pitcher: Jack McDowell. The catcher: Jim Leyritz. The hitter: Edgar Martinez. The tying run: Joey Cora. The winning run: Ken Griffey, Jr.
I’ve seen grown men cry when reliving this moment. It was only a playoff game, outsiders will say. It wasn’t even the World Series. It was just one game. But it wasn’t. It was so much more. It was years of futility exploding in triumph. It was the signature moment of a franchise that has so few signature moments. It was our greatest player, in his greatest moment, barreling towards third base, then steamrolling towards home. Captured in a flashbulb, in mid-flight, sliding across home plate ahead of the throw. Teammates leaping in the background, the umpire diligently assessing the play, Leyritz fielding the tardy relay. As if time froze the moment for us to remember. It was supposed to be this way. Even now, it’s hard to look at the image of the moment without being overwhelmed.
300-level, about fifty rows up (maybe it just seemed like it), first-base side, orange-and-silver bleachers, with my family and a homemade banner that read “M’S REFUSE TO LOSE!” I was 10. I didn’t stop jumping and yelling for a half-hour. It was great.
2. Spider Man. An impossible catch. Running full speed in the right-center field gap, leaping at the last possible second, snatching the ball from midair, and crashing headlong into the outfield wall. It was like he flew. For a split second, Griffey defied the laws of human nature. And then in an instant, he reminded us that he was, in fact, human.
Sprawled on the warning track of the Kingdome astroturf, Junior was injured. He wasn’t getting up. He had managed to hang on to the ball for one of the greatest catches of all-time, but he wouldn’t bounce back for months. He was helped up and off the field. His wrist was broken, and would require surgery and extensive healing. But late in the 1995 season, August to be exact, he would return. And would help lead the team to their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
3. Back-to-back with dad. It was 1990, and the Mariners had just added Ken Griffey, Sr. to the roster in a move largely hailed as publicity stunt. Senior would be teaming with Junior in the M’s outfield, the first father-son combination to play in the big leagues simultaneously, let alone on the same team.
On September 14th, the team was in Anaheim to take on the California Angels. Early in the game, with Kirk McCaskill on the hill for the Halos, Senior came to bat and drilled a shot to left-center field that nudged its way over the outfield fence for a home run. He circled the bases, exchanged some words and celebrated briefly with his son, then headed back to the dugout to watch Junior take his hacks.
Junior then equaled his old man with a dinger of his own, in nearly the same spot, with Angels left fielder Dante Bichette giving chase to both batted balls. It was an amazing feat in an otherwise lost season, and one that will surely not be forgotten by Mariners fans or the Griffey family anytime soon.
4. Walkoff: ’95. It was the stretch run in 1995, and the Mariners were quickly closing in on the first-place California Angels. Facing the New York Yankees at home in a precursor to their first-round playoff matchup, Seattle was in desperate need of a win in each of their remaining ballgames.
Down late in their game on August 24th, the M’s rallied to tie the Yankees in the ninth inning. With the winning run on the basepaths, Junior stepped up to the plate to face New York closer John Wetteland. On the first pitch Wetteland delivered, Junior took a mighty cut and connected. The ball soared upwards towards the Kingdome ceiling, and majestically began its descent, finally landing in the right-field seats. Griffey, wearing the teal blue of the Mariners Sunday jerseys, stood just outside the batter’s box, both hands raised towards the sky in triumph. For the first time in his career, The Kid had belted a game-winning homer.
5. Robbing Jesse Barfield. It was 1990, and the Mariners were in the Bronx taking on the New York Yankees. Yankee slugger Jesse Barfield was at the plate with 199 career home runs to his name. He was looking for #200 and thought he found it with a pitch over the heart of the plate. Taking a powerful stroke, Barfield connected and sent the ball hurtling towards dead-center field.
Center fielder Ken Griffey, Jr. started his sprint backwards and tracked the ball to the fence. With a final effort to preserve a run and keep the ball in play, Junior leapt up and with his glove hand snagged the ball out of midair as it was decending over the outfield wall.
Confused at first as to the baseball’s whereabouts, Mariner broadcaster Rick Rizzs thought he may have just paid witness to Barfield’s 200th dinger. But then, as if to answer his question, the 20-year-old Junior landed gracefully and began sprinting towards the dugout with a grin on his face, displaying the ball for all to see. He had made the first of many Gold Glove-worthy catches in his long, prolific career.
I remember this moment vividly, for some odd reason or another. I was five years old, and listening to the game on the radio in my bedroom. I was being forced to clean my room that day, and did so with the help of the Mariners game in my ear. It was the first time I really began my transition from Alvin Davis to Ken Griffey, Jr., my old favorite player to my new. Great day.
One last thing. For all you M’s fans that read this whole thing, I have a treat for you. CLICK HERE and you’ll be taken to the official MLB video of Edgar Martinez’s double and Junior’s game-winning run. It’s a great video to relive, and should make your day a little brighter. Enjoy.
Oh, and of course, you may have some memories of Junior that are different than the five I’ve listed. These are special to me for various reasons, and I’m sure you have some moments of your own that are special for your own reasons. Feel free to share those memories here, I think we’d all appreciate that. Thanks.