Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Goodbye Ken Griffey

Although it was clearly time, I am saddened by the retirement of Ken Griffey, Jr., also known as the man who saved baseball in Seattle.

Before Griffey arrived on the scene, Major League Baseball's experiment with locating a team in Seattle had been an unmitigated disaster. First there was the one year experiment with the Seattle Pilots before one Bud Selig moved them to Milwaukee. In 1977, Seattle got another chance with the Mariners. And the team was terrible. Just awful year after year. Before Griffey, the team's best players in its history had been the legendary Alvin Davis and Mark Langston. Seattle played in the Kingdome, arguably the worst stadium in the history of the game (though Montreal fans might have something to say about that). No one came to the games. Many people predicted the Mariners would move to Tampa or some other baseball hungry city.

And then along came Ken Griffey, Jr. He was amazing and he was fun. He was 19 years old and a freak of nature. He played center field like a gazelle, making remarkable catches and robbing players of home runs. He had titanic power and a beautiful swing. And he played the game with a smile on his face. All of a sudden, Seattle baseball was fun to watch. Combined with robbing Montreal of Randy Johnson, finally calling up Edgar Martinez from AAA instead of running Jim Presley out there every day, and acquiring a number of other good players, Seattle became a good, if flawed, team.

In 1995, they had a remarkable comeback to take the AL West from the Angels and make the playoffs for the first time in their 18 year history. They faced the Yankees in the first round and came back from New York down 2-0. Thinking the series was over, I went anyway assuming I would watch one game and go home. But then Seattle won. And they won again. And in Game 5, the game went to extra innings. Griffey got on first. Edgar Martinez doubled down the left field line and the speedy Griffey rounded third, scored, and Seattle won the series. It was amazing. Baseball was saved in Seattle. Griffey was in the middle of one of baseball history's greatest careers.

Things didn't stay great forever. Griffey eventually grew a bit distance, felt unloved in Seattle, and wanted to return to his home in Cincinnati. The Mariners agreed and traded him for Mike Cameron. Griffey then proceeded to get hurt year after year. His time with the Reds didn't go well. The Reds didn't win and Cincy fans tended to blame Griffey since he was getting paid so much and was always hurt. Eventually the injuries and the years took their toll. I saw Griffey play CF for the Reds in 2006. It was sad to watch him not come even close to balls he would have snagged in his youth.

Still, I was happy to see him go back to Seattle to close out his career. He shouldn't have come back this year, but that's all forgotten now.

Ken Griffey, Jr. was a great player. He played during the Steroid Era but no one ever accused this freak of an athlete of cheating. When he was healthy, he was amazing. And when he was hurt, he didn't roid up to return. He is the best player I have ever seen on my home team. He will probably be the first person to go into the Hall of Fame as a Mariner (it could be Edgar Martinez but I'm not sure he'll ever have the votes. Meanwhile, Randy Johnson will probably enter as a Diamondback).

I almost feel as though an epoch of my life has now concluded. The greatest player of my high school and college days has left the game. I guess millions of baseball fans have felt the same way as Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and so many others have retired. Part of being a baseball fan is immersing yourself in the history. That means eventually you become part of the memories of past glories yourself. I never truly felt that way until this moment.