My Griffey Story

Ken Griffey Jr. has never been a comfortable subject for me.

It's not because of anything he did, or didn't do, or anything that was under either of our controls. I grew up a Seattle Mariners fan. But I grew up a Seattle Mariners fan in San Diego. My exposure to the team, for the longest time, was limited to infrequent games against Anaheim on a cheap radio, infrequenter games on national television, and infrequentest trips to the Kingdome to watch them play in person. I started rooting for the Mariners in 1992. For the longest time, to me, the Mariners were ink in a newspaper. They were rarely anything else.

Things changed, of course, when the internet blew up, and then MLB.tv was launched. MLB.tv helped me connect with the team by allowing me to watch them with my own eyes every day. It strengthened the bond. MLB.tv caused me to fall deeper in love with Justin Leone. I didn't start actively posting on the internet, though, until 2000, and I didn't buy MLB.tv until 2004, its second year of existence. Griffey was already gone.

I mean, I knew who Griffey was. Everyone knew who Griffey was. My own mother knew who Griffey was. But, though I was a Mariner fan, Griffey wasn't a part of my childhood or early adulthood the way he was with so many people in Seattle. He didn't save anything for me. He didn't capture my imagination, or make me believe in impossibilities, or sweep me away with his smoothness and grace. Griffey wasn't Griffey to me. Griffey was an idea. I knew Griffey was good, really good, but more than anything else, for me, Griffey was a really good player on my favorite team that my SEGA video game said had the same color skin as Omar Vizquel.

It almost makes me feel inadequate as a fan, if that makes any sense. Inadequate or inferior. The experience of watching Ken Griffey Jr. rise in Seattle just seems like one of those things every Mariner fan should have in common, and I missed out. He just didn't reach me the way he reached so many people. There's a reason his return in 2007, his return in 2009, and his return again in 2010 didn't register with me the way they registered with others. For me, this was Ken Griffey Jr. For so many Mariner fans, this was Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. retired yesterday. Almost instantly, people began sharing their favorite Griffey stories. Online, on the radio, through scrolling texts to FSN. When he slid home. When he homered in eight straight games. That time someone waved, and Griffey waved back. Everyone had a Griffey story, and they were spilling out like so much oil into the sea. And as I sat there trying to wrap my head around the news, I realized that I don't have a Griffey story of my own.

I watched him hit a walk-off single against Toronto the other week. I guess that's a story. I've watched him do a lot of things. I missed out on a lot, but I also got to witness a lot. I have Griffey stories. But I don't have the type of Griffey story that other people do. I don't have a feel-good anecdote that never fails to warm my heart. Griffey never tossed me a baseball when I was nine. I just have observations. Somehow, those don't seem as meaningful.

And yet, though I don't have a Griffey story - or at least the sort of Griffey story that's appropriate for the occasion - I'd be lying if I said that Ken Griffey Jr. hasn't changed the way I approach baseball as a fan. Even though I missed out on nearly all of his rise and development and establishment as a superstar, sure enough, Griffey still made his mark. It just took his retirement to make me realize the true extent to which he had an effect.

Griffey made me understand that players will let you down. I don't mean this as a criticism. I don't. But Griffey forced his trade in February of 2000, when I was 14. When he played a game in San Diego the next season, I attended, wearing my Griffey Mariner jersey with "S-U-C-K-S" written underneath the name on the back on Post-It notes. I was mad. I didn't like Griffey, and I didn't like what he had done. Though I didn't get the whole Griffey experience in Seattle that so many of you guys did, I still knew he was a phenomenal player,a phenomenal player who made a douche move. At a young age, I learned a valuable lesson. Griffey helped me learn that our icons are people, and people are flawed. People do things other people don't like. I suppose hero worship might hold appeal for some, but for me, I'm glad Griffey gave me such a harsh dose of reality. The events surrounding Griffey's trade were an invaluable part of my development as an adult.

Griffey caused me to begin questioning managerial authority and intellect. As I grew up and watched a lot of baseball, I assumed that managers always knew what they were doing. Why wouldn't they? They're the experts. They're the people running baseball teams. Why would a baseball team hire someone that made mistakes, when the job seemed perfectly simple? Then, when I was 12, I went to the Kingdome for the first time, and at the Kingdome, I watched Jerry Manuel and the White Sox intentionally walk Ken Griffey Jr. to face Edgar Martinez, who promptly won the game in the 11th inning. I couldn't believe it. Edgar was one of the greatest hitters the game had ever seen. Why would you prefer to face him over Griffey? As I look back, of course, I understand the rationale better than I did when I was a preteen, but that's the move that got the ball rolling. First, you're trusting. Then, you're critical of everything. Then you get smarter and are critical of some things. Griffey caused me to jump from stage 1 to stage 2, and without that jump to stage 2, I wouldn't have gotten to stage 3.

Griffey made me see that Ichiro is human. Griffey made the world see that Ichiro is human. We'd seen flashes, when Ichiro would deliver his All Star Game speeches, or when he played for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, but we hadn't really seen the human side of Ichiro in Seattle until Griffey came along and tickled his ribcage. That changed so much about the way Ichiro is perceived. Before, while everyone acknowledged Ichiro's greatness, there were those that called him selfish, or distant, or cold, or disinterested. Griffey brought out the little kid. Griffey brought out the good teammate. After Ichiro retires and says his goodbyes, everyone will look back on his as being among the most magnificent and awe-inspiring careers they've ever seen, but I have to believe that Griffey will have played a significant role in getting the final holdouts to embrace Ichiro with open arms.

Griffey made me see that Milton Bradley is human. Sometimes I wonder if Bradley even thought he was a person anymore. Before he came to Seattle, Milton Bradley was more of a cartoon character than anything else. The way he behaved, and certainly the way he was covered, made him come off like some underdeveloped overactor on a television show. Being able to play next to a childhood hero, though - a childhood hero that took Bradley under his wing - it opened Milton up. It revealed the depths of his character and the depths of his emotion. While discussing Griffey's retirement in a postgame interview yesterday, Bradley was openly crying. Seattle has taken Bradley in and made him one of their own, and I wonder if that ever would have happened had it not been for Griffey's lead.

Griffey caused me to start putting some stock in things like team chemistry and leadership. For a while, I was every blogger ever. When people talked about veteran leadership in 2007, I rolled my eyes. When people talked about the missing spark in 2008, I rolled my eyes. Even when people talked about how Griffey had changed the clubhouse in 2009, I still rolled my eyes, and it wasn't really until the Bradley trade that the lightbulb started to flash. I found myself defending the trade in part because Seattle seemed like such a good environment for Milton, and I found myself believing it. Seattle was a good environment. Griffey was Bradley's hero, and Mike Sweeney certainly welcomed him into his heart. As I talked about how Bradley could flourish in a supportive environment, I started asking myself why this stuff would only apply to one player. Everybody benefits from a warm, supportive environment. I started to understand the ways guys like Griffey and Sweeney could have an effect off the field, and as such, I've gradually pulled away from my old, stereotypical blogger identity.

Griffey made me understand that there are different types of baseball fans, and we should never judge or lambaste someone for the way he chooses to take in the game. Again, for a while, I didn't understand how so many baseball fans could be so stupid. So uneducated. I didn't get why Safeco cheered louder for Willie Bloomquist than for Mike Cameron, and I openly blasted them for it. It wasn't until Griffey returned in 2007 to several raucous ovations that the wheels started spinning. I hated that people cheered Griffey's home runs. I hated that people booed Ryan Feierabend for throwing a pickoff. I hated that they didn't seem to care about the Mariners at all. Slowly, I started to get it. Baseball is entertainment, and people can choose to be entertained however they want. Ripping someone's fanhood is no different than ripping someone's taste in music, or ripping someone's taste in food. Some people want to break things down. Be analytical and calculated about everything. Other people want to enjoy the game without getting a mental workout. Other people want to sit back and just cheer for their favorite player. How is that wrong? Why did I ever think that was wrong? Why should it bother me if the guy next to me hasn't heard of UZR? It was the Griffey fans that first really got me thinking. They used to drive me insane. I get it now. I'm not one of them or anything, but I'm not going to make a big deal of that fact. They just wanted to cheer for the guy that made them fall in love.

And, lastly, Griffey made me question what we're rooting for. Griffey made me start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there's more to this than winning. Honestly, it was Griffey's 2010 that did this more than Griffey's 2009. Griffey at least made a statistical contribution to a decent team in 2009. Griffey was terrible in 2010. On the field, he was hurting more than he was helping. It was so visibly obvious that he was finished. And yet, every time he came to the plate, he'd get an ovation, and every time he pinch-hit in the late innings, that music would start to play, and there'd be a buzz in the air. People didn't care how bad he'd been. Then - and right then - people just wanted to witness the magic.

I didn't understand how people could be so blind. I didn't understand how so many people could get their hopes up, only to see them so often get crushed. But those people didn't worry about how bad our record was, or how bad Griffey's numbers were, or how low the odds might've been. One big hit would make everything better. One big hit and it would be 'Junior does it again!'

It's fitting that, for Griffey's last Major League hit, people saw that magic. He delivered. For one final time, he delivered.

All my life, I've just wanted my teams to win. I still do. I don't want to root for a bunch of cellar dwellers or anything. Losing sucks. But if the only thing you cheer for is success, winning and success, then 29 times out of 30, your season ends with disappointment. Your season ends with a loss, or your season ends while other teams are still playing. It's important, then, to find other things to be happy about. Other things to root for. Good trades. Encouraging player development. Players you like. Things that can help get you through some of the tougher times with a smile on your face.

I want my favorite teams to win more than I want them to do anything else. I want to see what it's like. I want to feel how a championship feels. It doesn't look like that's going to happen in 2010, though. 2011's not looking so good, either. I don't think there's a championship looming in my near future. Yet I watch. I continue to watch. I continue to watch in the impossible hopes that everything suddenly turns around, but I also continue to watch for the sake of watching. I watch not only so I can see some wins, but I watch because there is beauty in the game, ever-present beauty, beauty that doesn't take a championship or even a winning record to appreciate.

And for that, I have Griffey to thank.

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