*Note: this is written mostly for non-sports fans, but I think you'll probably get something from it too, dear LL reader*
We had a family friend who once said my first words were "Ken Griffey Junior."
I can't exactly explain why I love the guy as much as I do. In a way it's dumb. Or at least, on the surface it is. Why should I really care if someone can take a thin stick of wood and hit a ball 400 feet? All I can say is that for some reason, we allow athletes to transcend their sport and give them figurative powers as well.
Major League Baseball has done a really good job recently with some of their promotions, and they get to the heart of the matter. An advertisement shows some slides of Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia -- who at 5'9" and 180 lbs doesn't exactly fit most of our models of world-class athlete -- and makes mention of the adversity he faced as an undersized player, concludes, "This is beyond perseverance. This is beyond baseball." (link here.) It may sound a little silly, but they are exactly right.
When we watched Griffey in the late 1980s into the middle 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. was potential incarnate. He was the power and wonder of youth. He was completely without limit. He could have hit 800 home runs or more, and shatter the records of generations past. He could make us, Seattle, champions. He could make us relevant. He was OUR potential. He was the sign that yeah, things might be bad now, but there are good things to come. You could even say he was hope.
Ken Griffey Junior is why I am a baseball fan. As kids growing up, we all have potential. They tell us we are the future. Those of us who were baseball fans in Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s were also watching the future unfold before us on the diamond. It was really easy as a kid to identify with Junior, his thin frame and is freakishly bright smile that virtually everyone mentions when speaking about him. He was one of us. Hell, we called him "The Kid." He was out there playing the game and having fun, doing things adults never thought possible, perhaps just because he didn't know it was impossible in the first place.
Not a week seemed to go by where he didn't put a beautiful swing on a pitch and turn it into the right field stands, or take one step into the fence before jumping a second time to steal a home run, or even do both in the same game like he did in the final game of the Kingdome in 1999.
I stayed up late and had the radio on in my room the night that Griffey was traded to Cincinnati. I can't say for certain that I knew it was coming, but I'm pretty sure I did. I cried. I don't cry much, but I do cry about some sports things once in a while. My future was going away. The future wasn't ours anymore. It belonged to someone else now, all the people in Cincinnati who bought up "Griffey 24" jerseys only to find that he wasn’t going to wear that number at all.
I went to Chicago in the summer of 2005. Part of that was to see the Mariners play the White Sox, and part of that was to visit a friend from college who was running a club with me. I wanted to do both of those things, but the reason that I simply had to make the trip was because the Reds were coming to town right after the M's, and they were going to play the Cubs. I recall seeing Junior send two balls over the fence. At that moment, I felt, I had closure. Of course, it helped that the Mariners somehow managed to reach the playoffs in 2000 and win an unprecedented 116 games in 2001. Maybe our future wasn't entirely gone.
If you read up on this over the next couple of days, you’ll read a lot about how Griffey "saved baseball in Seattle." I'm not sure what to make of that exactly. Had Griffey not been a Mariner, there probably would not have been that much of an interest in maintaining a Major League ballclub, and owner Jeff Smulyan may have never sold the team to Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo who kept the team in Seattle in 1992.
That the Mariners play in Safeco Field today is largely because of the 1995 Mariners team, which Griffey was a part of, but Junior was injured for much of the season with a broken right wrist after making an incredible catch in the right-centerfield corner. The fact that the Mariners made the playoffs in 1995 is mostly due to pitcher Randy Johnson and designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who turned out an historically impressive season not terribly unlike Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941. By the way, many people still consider Williams to be the greatest hitter who ever lived.
There are still players like Junior today who embody the concepts of future and hope, though perhaps there is not a single player who truly embodies that youthful fun attitude of Griffey. Today I look at Felix Hernandez, Mariners pitcher who is but six months older than I am, and when I see him dominate opposing batters, I wonder why I can't be that good at what I do. But still, when I see him dominating, I see me doing the same thing.
For kids in Washington D.C., perhaps the pitcher Steven Strasburg will be their future and their hope. In Atlanta, 20-year-old outfielder Jason Hayward could be that guy. In Tampa Bay, third baseman Evan Longoria is that guy. For me, regardless of Felix Hernandez or Ichiro or whoever is next, that guy is Ken Griffey Junior, and now that he's retired, I just started feeling a lot older.