Thank You, Ken

CoJwCboXgAAWVteI will start with my family.

Ken Griffey, Jr. has no idea what he has done for my family, so let’s begin there.

We love baseball, my family. When I was little, my dad would take us to games at the Kingdome a few times each year. We would get there two hours beforehand, as soon as the gates opened, and race up the concrete ramps until we reached the first base side of the 300 level.

It made little sense, arriving so early to take in batting practice from a location where not a single batted ball would travel, but we did it anyway. We liked being up there and soaking it all in.

We ate Milk Duds and Hoody’s peanuts and chomped on Bubblicious bubble gum until we were all sugared out. My brother and I wore our gloves the entire time, from arrival until the very last out. We never caught a foul ball in more than a decade of attending games, never even came close. But we wanted to sport our gloves every chance we got, so we did. My dad never tried to talk us out of it. He’d even wear our mitts when we asked him to, lest the very first foul ball of all-time scale its way into the rafters of the dome while we were refilling our stomachs with candy.

We slogged through a number of down years, completely unaware of the fact that our team was terrible. When you are five, six, seven years old, there is no such thing as a losing season. Only baseball, only fun.

We watched our heroes play the game we loved. Some players were better than others, of course, but if they donned a Mariners jersey they were all right in our book. Alvin Davis hit home runs, so we liked him. Jay Buhner threw laser beams from right field, so we liked him. Omar Vizquel made barehanded grabs, so we liked him. And Ken Griffey, Jr. seemingly did it all, so we liked him, too.

Some of the happiest moments of my life came right there in the confines of a building deemed too ugly and too antiquated to exist any longer.

When Junior slid across home plate for the decisive run in Game 5 of the 1995 American League Divisional Series, I stood atop the orange-backed metal bleachers of that venue and peered over a throng of euphoric Seattleites from all walks of life who knew, in that moment, that the only thing that mattered was the pig pile developing on the AstroTurf beneath us. I was 10. I will never forget that moment.

The spark Griffey provided in ’95 after he returned from a wrist broken on one of the most amazing displays of athleticism we’ve ever seen was more than enough to save baseball in Seattle. The skeptic in all of us may scoff at the importance any one individual could play in sealing the fate of an entire franchise, but make no mistake about it: without Ken Griffey, Jr., the Seattle Mariners would not exist.

In lieu of the Mariners, I don’t know what my grandma and I would have talked about every Friday when we had lunch together. I don’t know if my brother and I would have kept playing the game as long as we did, or even ventured into the street to throw the ball around and mimic the windups of our favorite pitchers. I don’t know where my family would have gone on summer nights when we otherwise would have been at the ballgame. I’m not sure, exactly, how we all would have related.

To a significant degree, the Seattle Mariners, those lovable losers, brought us all together. And Ken Griffey, Jr., whether he knows it or not, saved baseball in the city of Seattle.

A man we barely even knew, who we only watched from afar, gave us something to care about from now until forever. For many of us, Junior provided one of those all-important things that our families need to bond. And that’s why, for many of us, Junior might as well be family.

***

My childhood.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is synonymous with my childhood.

I was four years old when he made his major league debut. Anyone a few years older may have had just enough cynicism in them to spot cracks in Griffey’s armor. A few years younger and one may not have been old enough to truly appreciate the athlete he was. But for those of us born in the mid-1980s, Junior’s impact was transcendent.

It began with the smile, the attitude. Junior enjoyed playing baseball, and we enjoyed being kids. He exuded his enjoyment, just as we did. We gravitated towards that shared sense of fun. More than any other player in the game, Griffey made it easy for a kid to like baseball. He was gregarious and outgoing, playful and goofy. He made it okay to be yourself, to be who you were. His personality was inclusive, tolerant. He was similar to us and we responded to that.

There was the hat. He wasn’t the first person to turn his hat around, but he might have been the most visible. We wanted to be like big leaguers, so we emulated his fashion. We flipped our hats backwards and kept them that way. The trend has never gone out of style.

The swing. We tried to perfect it. We even became switch hitters. Seattle may have bred more nine-year-olds that batted from both sides of the plate than any city in America, simply because all the righties had to give Griffey’s swing a try. To this day, there are grown men who can pick up a bat and give a dead-on impression of Junior at the dish: elbow cocked, head perfectly aligned with the right shoulder, stalk straight stance. It’s a skill that deserves space on a résumé.

We wore his gear – his jersey, the t-shirts with caricatures bearing his likeness, his Nike brand, anything with a Mariners logo. Junior made teal a sought-after color and singlehandedly inspired people to go out and buy Gargoyles sunglasses (remember those?).

We played his video games, complete with a left-handed batting Alex Rodriguez and a southpaw Jeff Nelson. He made Nintendo more than just a mustachioed plumber with eyebrow-raising speed.

We watched the shows he was on, the movies he was in. We listened to Naughty By Nature because they performed his walk-up song.

For a handful of kids in the ‘90s, religion was as simple as the altar at which we worshiped: The Church of Junior.

***

Finally, we have Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Above all else, we were so very proud to call Ken Griffey, Jr. our own.

Prior to 1989, superstar athletes had been few and far between in the Emerald City. We had fantastic players and our fair share of all-stars. But none as compelling the world around as the one who would play center field for our baseball team.

Seattle sports fans crave validation. We tend to feel forgotten in a corner of the map that isn’t exactly well-known for its athletics. When Junior came to town, he yanked the spotlight towards our city. For the first time, we had an individual that the rest of the nation wanted to see day in and day out, an individual wearing the name of our town across his chest that. Our craving was satisfied.

At the time, we needed him more than he needed us. A talent like that could have plied his trade anywhere – he just happened to be doing it here. When he left after the 1999 season, we stubbornly tried to convince ourselves that the relationship forged with Griffey was insubstantial, no different than that of any other athlete who’d passed through town.

We were wrong, of course.

The adoration we’d shown towards Junior over a decade’s time had left us vulnerable. His abrupt departure had scarred us, and we were hurt. What we needed was time to heal. And thankfully, time heals all wounds.

When Junior returned to Safeco Field as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 2007, we had absolved ourselves of any lingering scorn. The ovation that greeted the now-37-year-old outfielder was so overwhelming it prompted Griffey to admit he hadn’t realized how much he “missed being in Seattle.” Less than two years later, he was back for good.

In the twilight of his career, the Ken Griffey, Jr. that inked a deal to return to the Seattle Mariners organization in 2009 was hardly the same as the 30-year-old who’d left nine years earlier. Weathered by age and injury, Griffey was back not to rekindle the magic of days gone by, but to provide a few fleeting glimmers of greatness before riding off into the sunset.

True, he was far from the five-tool twentysomething who once roamed the outfield like a gazelle. But with every at-bat, fans greeted his presence with roaring applause. With every hit, a handful of fans would rise to their feet and cheer. When he delivered a dramatic pinch-hit home run in his third month back in Seattle, the home crowd forced a curtain call – and at least one fan teared up listening to the game on radio in the parking lot of a Dick’s Drive-In.

The moments of sheer brilliance were just that, moments. They weren’t as pervasive as they had been in the ‘90s, but it didn’t matter anymore. Every single thing Junior did in that 2009 campaign felt special. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced with any athlete before him, and unlike anything we’ve experienced since.

As his Hall of Fame plaque now attests, Ken Griffey, Jr. was a “fan favorite, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.” The words are enshrined in Cooperstown, on the wall of baseball’s most hallowed ground, along with the player who endeared himself to all of us.

***

Junior was the greatest, just the greatest.

He is that once-in-a-lifetime phenom that will inspire a ceaseless stream of “I saw him play” stories as we all get older. Our grandkids will get sick of hearing about him in the years ahead, and that’s just fine with us.

We love him for any number of reasons – his ability to turn a hanging curveball into a souvenir, his knack for transforming line drives in the gap into highlight-reel grabs, the pure joy he displayed every time he took the field – but, we revere him for just one: his authenticity.

Junior was, and always will be, an inimitable superstar who never seemed fazed by his own stature or enamored with his own success. Almost dismissive in nature to his own accomplishments that fans recount like scripture, the unique brand of humility only makes us appreciate him even more.

He gave so much to his fans, and yet never did anything more, in his mind, than his job. For that, we are truly grateful. For that, we ask for nothing else.

He helped strengthen our families, gave a generation of kids a hero to admire, and inspired an entire region to believe in a game and a team.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is in the Hall of Fame and among the most decorated players in the history of baseball. He thanked everyone else for the honor. We thank him for the memories.

Thank you, Ken.

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