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Seattle Waves Goodbye To The Kid

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Sports have the power to make a grown man cry much the way a romantic movie can make a woman cry. Anytime a guy tells me he doesn’t cry, I know he’s lying. There is something so moving about watching your favorite teams and players, something so deep and touching, that if a man doesn’t cry with them or at them, then he isn’t really a fan no matter how many logoed pieces of crap he buys.

I have only cried a handful of times over my teams. I cried in joy when the Sonics made the NBA Finals, after flaming out the two previous years, in 1995-96. I did it again while my buddies and I counted out the final seconds at Qwest Field during the NFC Championship Game in 2005 as it became certain that the Seahawks were going to the Super Bowl.

I’ve had some tears of frustration as well, as all fans do when their teams and players don’t pull through. The obvious times, like when I realized that the Seahawks weren’t going to win the Super Bowl or when Clay Bennett moved my Sonics (fuck you again Clay and David Stern) to exile, but also less obvious like when Denver beat the Sonics in the first round of the playoffs.

Forbes Magazine rated Seattle as the most miserable sports city in America. I’m not going to argue with them, but I think that all cities have had their share of misery. Seattle’s misery is just the most recent.

The only other time I cried in frustration and misery was in 2000 when the local sports radio station aired the Cincinnati Reds press conference introducing Ken Griffey, Jr. to the media as a new member of the team. I was determined not to hate Junior to that point. I wanted to remember the good things about him, the amazing Spider-Man-style catches, the incredibly happy smile, and the absolutely perfect swing that every kid in the Pacific Northwest tried to mimic in their back yard. Junior played baseball with an absolutely natural grace.

Ken Griffey Jr, for a long time, was the big fish in the little Seattle Mariners pond. Despite a team that was so bad at times that tickets were left on car windshields around town, Junior was gracing magazine covers and headlining All-Star teams. His career stats are impressive, even with the years of injury he suffered through. Since his call up in 1989 at the ripe age of 18, Griffey batted a .284 average. He hit 630 career home runs (fifth overall on the all-time home run list), with 1,836 runs batted in. When his father Ken Griffey, Sr. signed with the Mariners in 1994, Junior and Dad became the first father and son to hit back to back home runs in major league history.

His legacy is written in the accolades. Junior was the first pick in the 1987 Draft by the Mariners. He lead the American League in home runs in 1994, 1997, 1998 and 1999 while picking up the AL Most Valuable Player award in 1997 and was an 13-time All-Star. He was a Gold Glove winner in 10 seasons, a Silver Slugger winner seven times and won the Home Run Derby three times. His natural talent shined through and it’s significant to note that although he played in an era that will forever be tainted by steroid use, Junior was never once even hinted at having used the pharmaceutical assistance that others needed to keep up with him.

Another side to Junior was his pranks and sense of humor. Probably the best known story in Seattle was the time in 1995 that Griffey and manager Lou Piniella made a steak dinner bet in spring training that Griffey couldn’t hit a home run to each field on three swings. Griffey lost the bet; he got the first two homers but missed on the last one, and delivered the steak the next day in the form of a live 1200-pound Hereford cow in Piniella’s office.

Junior had his own Nike shoe line, a Super Nintendo game, and — best of all for a Mariners fan — went on the record that he would never play for the Yankees because they treated his dad poorly and that Billy Martin had once chased a young Junior out of the clubhouse. Life was good for a Mariners and Griffey fan.

When Griffey left Seattle for Cincinnati, some said it was because the death of his neighbor, golfer Payne Stewart, had made him want to be closer to his children. As a father, I could understand that and I really wished him well in the future. It hurt that he wanted to leave, like a break-up of a good marriage, but it was understandable and although I did hope that he wouldn’t do as well for the Reds as he did for the Mariners, I definitely didn’t wish the injury _plagued eight seasons he suffered through on him.

During the years Griffey was gone, the Mariners kept his No. 24 unassigned in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the Kid would find his way home again. When the Reds finally came to Seattle to face the Mariners in interleague play, the city opened its arms, and heart, to Jr again. The weekend became a love fest for Griffey with signs hanging in the outfield that said “Safeco Field: The House that Griffey Built” and “Griffey, we miss you”.

Junior became one of the few visiting players anywhere to have his every move met with a standing ovation. The Mariners honored him with a highlight reel and a memorial presented by former team mates Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez. Griffey was obviously taken back by the unexpected greeting and it obviously made an impression on him as he decided, after one season with the White Sox, to sign again with the Mariners.

It was obvious to everyone that the Griffey who came back was not the same player who left. His swing was a little slower, the range a little smaller … but that smile, that love of the game, was still there. After the last game of the 2009 season, Junior was carried on a lap of honor by his teammates around Safeco Field to another standing ovation. The team let him know that coming back was up to him. Junior returned for 2010 but decided on June 2 that it was time to hang up his cleats.

It’s the end of an era — one that has covered most of my life in the city. For a long time, Griffey was the reason to go to the game. Slowly the team added pieces and became a contender but Junior was still the diamond on the ring, the straw that stirred the drink, the one key man that saved baseball in Seattle. His skills were unbelievable, his smile and laugh contagious, his leadership undeniable.

There is only one other time I cried with joy for my team. During the 1995 American League Division Series against the hated New York Yankees, Edgar Martinez looped a single down the left field line against Jack McDowell. Junior rounded third, running faster than seemed humanly possible. To this day I can remember exactly what I was doing, at work pulling computer tapes, while I listened to the game. I can remember the tears streaming down my face as I jumped up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs. The same tears erupted again when I watched the replays as soon as I got home. Seeing Junior slide across the plate, a young and still unspoiled Alex Rodriguez jumping into his arms, the rest of the team piling onto him as he rolled onto his stomach and smiled that unforgettably childlike impish grin, those tears are still with me every time I see that. They are with me right now as I think about it.

That’s the memory I’m taking with me from all the highlights of Ken Griffey, Jr.’s career. Thanks Junior, for making this miserable sports town a little less miserable with your shining light.

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About Russ Evenhuis

I'm a writer with a mid-life crisis. I'm into sports of all kind, a Seattle fan to my bones. A retired rugby player, now I punish myself with triathlons when I'm not hanging out with the family, drinking Guinness and playing PlayStation.
  • Brandon T. Wilson

    that is a great article. I hate to see him go. I didnt really appreciate Griffey until he came to Cincy and fans there started on him non-stop for his injuries. Cincinnati is probably one of the biggest bandwagon jumping sports cities in America. They dont know or appreciate what they lost. Thanks for all the happy moments you have given my family.

  • Geoff

    Outstanding article…Jr. will be missed by all true baseball fans.