Ken Griffey, Jr. retired Wednesday, and I miss him already.
Maybe already isn’t really that accurate of a term. I’ve missed Ken Griffey, Jr. for about 10 years.
Yes, for the last 10 years the smile and the backward hat and the general aura of Griffey has been apparent, but nothing compares to his original tenure in Seattle. Nothing may ever compare to his original tenure in Seattle.
The only word that comes to mind when I think of Griffey’s 1989-1999 Seattle period is iconic.
I was born in 1989, so a large part of my childhood was sculpted by Griffey’s first stint with the Mariners. It was one of the major reasons why I took a giant interest in baseball. I was fascinated by everything about Griffey. His mind-boggling statistics, his celebrity, his expansive list of endorsements.
I wore his shoes nearly every day, I played his video games. I watched “Little Big League” over and over and over again. I’ll probably watch it again whenever I finish writing this. I remember his endorsement with Pizza Hut. Life didn’t get much better than a Friday night movie from Blockbuster (probably “Little Big League”), a pan pizza and the awesome Griffey book thingy that came with it. I probably had 10 of them.
I flipped through the seven or so pages and memorized everything. Griffey liked to show up to the clubhouse an hour or so before everyone else. Griffey killed time by playing cards. Griffey wore Nike, so Nike was cool.
In pre-Devil Rays Tampa, I connected with baseball before I connected with a team. I cheered for whoever held spring training closest to me, and I cheered for Griffey. I remember reading my “SI for Kids” when I was around 6 and seeing that Griffey’s dream was to win a World Series because he “wanted to experience the victory pile.” I remember hoping I’d get to see it happen for him. We all know how that ended. He would have to settle for the pile that saved baseball in Seattle.
But to cheapen Griffey’s legacy to endorsements and fame would be an absolute shame.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was on path to be the greatest baseball player of all time. How else do you explain the beginning of his career?
There were the steady home run numbers that put Griffey on a pace that could have shattered the career mark. He finished with 630 and that is with a number of years hampered by injury-based struggles. He had stats that would make any sabermetrics nerd drool.
Griffey made the MLB All-Century Team, joined in the outfield by names like Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
He became the face of Seattle sports, not just a star player but also a saving grace. He was credited for building Safeco Field although he was traded shortly after it opened.
Griffey had requested the trade, so that he could both play for the team that he grew up watching his father play for, and so that he could contribute to a clubhouse that was on the brink of contention in 1999.
Ironically, the Mariners would turn out to be the team on the brink of contention without Griffey. They would reach the ALCS in 2000 and 2001, losing to the Yankees in both seasons. On the other hand, there were the Reds. The Reds missed the playoffs in 1999 only after losing a one-game tiebreaker to the New York Mets.
Griffey was supposed to push them to that next level. His dreams of being at the bottom of a World Series pile had manifested while watching his father win back-to-back World Series with the Reds in 1975 and 1976. This was his chance, but instead it would become the downward spiral of his career.
The Reds finished 85-77 and missed the playoffs in 2000. Attendance in Cincinnati spiked for a year but quickly fell back down. In 2001, they Ranked 22nd in MLB in attendance. They also finished 30 games below .500 in 2001 and would only reach .500 once more during Griffey’s time there.
The infamous story of Griffey’s time in Cincinnati will always be told in injuries. A book could be written solely on the effect of injuries on Griffey’s career, so I will keep it short and simple here.
In three consecutive seasons, from 2002-2004, Griffey suffered some kind of season-ending injury. These injuries kept him off of the field and destroyed the tremendous bat speed that he was so well-known for having. Because of this, the rest of his career was a rather insignificant blur from a production standpoint.
However, he was able to make up for it by simply being Griffey.
It was Griffey who first asked if he could wear No. 42 to celebrate and honor Jackie Robinson Day. Now MLB fields all over the country are flooded with No. 42 jerseys every April 15.
And it was Griffey who got emotional in 2007 during his first trip back to Seattle since being traded. After a series of welcoming ovations, Griffey said that he would love to return to Seattle if the circumstances allowed it.
He made a 44 game pit stop in Chicago in 2008 as a trade deadline transaction. The White Sox were a team in the midst of a pennant chase and this was something of a last-ditch effort to get his World Series pile. It fell apart in the ALDS at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays, and Griffey was a free agent for the first time in his career.
In the name of all things nostalgic, Griffey returned to Seattle.
His home debut featured one of the great crowd reactions of all time. Famous rock bands get farewell tours. Griffey got 150 more games in a Mariners uniform. Statistically, they were unremarkable at best, but I’m pretty sure statistics were not why they brought No. 24 back.
It was the fitting end to an excellent career that never quite reached its dazzling potential.
Griffey will be missed.