Me and Junior

I was two years old, going on three, when the Mariners made Ken Griffey Jr. the first overall pick in the 1987 draft.

The story of Junior’s draft selection is one that legends are made of. The team was debating whether to take Griffey, a raw high school outfielder from Cincinnati’s Moeller High School, or the more polished Mike Harkey, a right-handed power pitcher from Cal-State Fullerton.

According to lore, the front office was decidedly split on whether to go with Griffey or Harkey. Delinquent owner George Argyros (who was desperately trying to sell the team, at the time) wanted Harkey. Scouting director Roger Jongewaard and acting CEO Chuck Armstrong wanted Griffey. Ultimately, the team’s braintrust got their wish, and Griffey became the selection. Harkey would go on to spend just 10 years in professional baseball, succumbing to injuries and retiring by 1997.

Of course we all know how Junior’s career would transpire, and there’s really no need to dwell on the details. The numbers speak for themselves. The highlight footage is on tape. The jerseys, the memorabilia, the video games, the shoes, the movie cameos, the advertisements…all those material possessions live on to showcase the type of effect Griffey had on American society.

He was special, and he belonged to Seattle. He was our superstar, and yet he had a global impact. He represented some of the largest companies in the world — Nike and Nintendo, to name two — all while wearing a Mariners jersey. He meant so much to this city, and to Seattle sports fans, that words will never do his presence justice.

And on top of all that, he meant a lot to me.

Junior was my first — and frankly, only — sports idol. I grew up playing every sport you could think of, and Junior was the only player I truly wanted to be.

One of the first baseball gloves I ever owned (I used it from kindergarten through fourth grade, and I still have it today) had Griffey’s signature on the palm.

The first poster I ever had on my wall was an oversized Sports Illustrated photo of Junior wearing his road greys in 1989. He had eye black on, wristbands, and a gold chain and was just exiting the batter’s box after putting the ball in play.

I have a picture, on Kodak paper, of a 22-year-old Griffey on Mariners’ Photo Day in 1992. His white jersey stands out among the bright green backdrop of the Kingdome Astroturf. He’s shaking the hand of a fan, mouth agape, in mid-sentence with his admirers. He’s thin. He looks young. His hat, with the boxy crown, sits perched atop his head in a fashion that hasn’t been seen since, well, about 1992.

Two years after that picture was taken, I remember being in that very same spot on the Kingdome floor for Photo Day, 1994. I recall watching Junior come down the line towards where my family and I were standing. I remember all the adults — 30- and 40- and 50-year-old men — blocking my view of the player I wanted to be. I remember them chatting him up about nothing in particular, just hoping to get the attention of this young man, hoping that they could tell their friends that they talked to Ken Griffey Jr. I remember being frustrated, trying to weave my way through the thicket of people to reach the thin rope that separated mortality from immortality. I remember making it through the crowd just in time. I remember seeing a hand, light brown in color, approach me. Shaking one man’s hand, then another, then another, then, all of a sudden, poking through the bodies and greeting me. I remember grabbing the hand. I remember shaking. I remember the thrill of shaking my idol’s hand. And I remember running away to tell my dad after I had done it. I shook Junior’s hand. I did it.

I remember about a year ago, seeing Junior at Bellevue Square mall. I was shocked. I’d never seen him in public before. He was with his family, shopping. Someone asked me if I was going to go talk to him. I couldn’t, I said, because he was my hero. And there’s this rule about heroes that says you’re never supposed to meet them. Because they can only let you down. Because you’ve built them up so high. And I was afraid. I was 24 years old and afraid. Maybe Junior would have been kind to me when I was a kid, I thought, but here I was an adult now, and sensible as I may have been, I probably would have come across as just another fan had I approached him. And I didn’t want him to let me down. So I never talked to him. I refused. I couldn’t do it. In 300-some-odd days’ time, I’ve never been able to come to grips with whether I made the right decision or not. To him, it would have been another conversation. To me, it would have been more.

I was there in 1995 when Junior slid across home plate. You know what slide I’m talking about. The Slide. I was there.

I was there last year when Junior’s teammates put him on their shoulders and paraded him around Safeco Field like a trophy. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not it would be the last time we saw Junior. But I soaked it in, just in case it was. I was there.

And I was there on Monday night, almost by accident, when Ken Griffey Jr. stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning and had his final major league at-bat, a game in which he appeared ever so briefly.

I sat there in that ninth inning with my eyes trained on the dugout, thinking to myself that someone, anyone, would be pinch-hitting for Rob Johnson with the game on the line. And then, on cue, out popped Junior.

He walked up the dugout steps and took his place in the on-deck circle as the crowd buzzed for this 40-year-old man who hadn’t played in a week. When his name was announced and he made his way to the batter’s box, the crowd went nuts. Even 15,000 or so fans on a cool Monday evening knew how special Junior was. We cheered for a guy hitting .180, in a pressure situation, hoping that he could rekindle the flame one more time.

He swung at the first pitch he saw and drilled a ground ball foul down the right-field line. He was right on it, I said. And he was. But then he hit another ground ball, this one fair, and it turned into a fielder’s choice that probably would have been a double play if the first baseman had fielded it cleanly.

Before anyone had a chance to react to Junior’s final moments on a baseball field, not knowing that less than 48 hours later he wouldn’t even be a ballplayer anymore, Junior was lifted for pinch runner Michael Saunders. And that was it. No blaze of glory. No triumph. Not even one last standing ovation. He disappeared down the dugout steps and that was the last we saw of The Kid.

Today, at 4:41 p.m., I got a text from my dad that said that Griffey was retiring. I was at work. I didn’t really know what to make of it, so I checked online at every sports-related website I could think of. The Seattle Times, my former employer, was the first place that confirmed what I had dreaded for so long. Junior was really leaving this game that he had mastered so well.

A few minutes later, one of my co-workers came up to me and mentioned that Griffey was retiring.

“That was my childhood,” I told her, “and it’s gone.”

Then the text messages started coming in. People were checking to make sure I was okay. Like I’d lost a loved one or something. It’s been no secret to anyone that Junior was my favorite athlete of all-time. I was sad. I told people I was sad. I didn’t care. You can’t hide behind the reality of the situation sometimes. And I already missed this guy, who minutes earlier had still been a baseball player. Had still been the same baseball player who first took the field for my team when I was four years old, 21 years ago.

It’s kind of symbolic, really. Two weeks ago, I broke up with my girlfriend of five years and moved out of our condo. Last week, I moved back into the home I grew up in as a kid, the only place I could go on such short notice. This week, I started a new job — a career — at a company I can see myself at for years to come. In the past 14 days, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster ride that’s impossible to explain. And amidst my life changing so drastically, my hero called it quits.

It would be selfish of me to say that I hoped Junior would keep playing, even when he wasn’t performing up to his standards, even when he may have been a distraction to the team he personified. But it’s hard to watch your entire world change, then witness a figure so steadfast in your life disappear so suddenly.

Junior was my hero. He was my idol. He gave me hope at times when there seemed to be none.

He gave me something to cheer for when there was nothing else to celebrate.

He made me want to play baseball, and I did.

He made me want to be like him, to be great, to be a stand-up individual, to be a superstar, and I’ve done my best to achieve that.

Ken Griffey Jr. was, and still is, a legend. On the field, and off. He was everything we, ourselves, would want to become, and now he’s retired.

We’ll see him again, but it won’t ever be the same. When he played the game, it was magical. When he was between the lines, anything could happen.

Outside the confines of a stadium, Junior might just be another guy, human like the rest of us. But to me, he will always be immortal. A superhero. A star.

I’m sad to see you go, Ken. I never wanted to acknowledge that this day would come, but it finally has. And it sucks. Baseball will be different without you, there’s no doubt in my mind.

But above all else, I want you to know that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed this ride that we’ve been on together. Me growing up, and you growing into your own near-mythical existence. You’re at the end of your career, and I’m just beginning mine. You’ve carved this idyllic life for yourself, and I’m just starting to chip away. We’re two different people. We’ve never met. We might never meet. And yet we will always be inextricably linked. Because of this city that became your home. Because of the team you were a part of. And because I chose you. I chose you to be that individual who would become my favorite player, and that never changed over the course of the past two decades.

You’re my hero, Ken. And I’m gonna miss you.

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