I was inspired to write this little ditty after reading Nathan Bishop's manifesto this morning. His story encapsulated the feeling I think so many of us have in regards to this man. With all of the sensations of my childhood rising to the surface this last week, I thought I'd add my long-winded, hyperbolic, and disjointed experience about my childhood and what he meant in my life.
The year in question was 1994. Like any young lad, I wanted to be just like my older brother. However, after years of our normal game list featuring such character-building classics as, "Knees on ribcage, machine gun dagger-fingers in chest cavity" and "I meant to slurp that loogy before it snapped on your face orifices," I really wanted to beat my older brother. Opportunities do not abound to one-up a sibling whose Madden rating would obliterate yours in every category. On one fateful day, George Kenneth Griffey II afforded me that opportunity.
When my brother gained an interest in acting, I begged to be able to try right along with him. The great thing about entering the business as a child is that you don't actually need any real talent; you just need to be able memorize lines. My father, working two jobs to support his current and former households, came up with $500 a pop to set us up with the now defunct Kid Biz: the Puget Sound's leader in really bad headshots and sending kids to cattle calls they could have found in the local newspaper. My first cattle call, I made it all the way to Universal Studios to meet Steven Spielberg as one of the two finalists for the role of "Uh-huh" in The Little Rascals. With no acting experience or training under my belt (thanks Kid Biz), I folded under pressure and lost the role to a very bratty Courtland Mead. As it was, in the wake of my bitter defeat, my brother won a spot as an extra on the cinematic masterpiece, Mad Love.
I couldn't even retire to my chamber and escape into the newest Goosebumps book without hearing how beautiful Drew Barrymore was in person; his bed was above mine. Day after day I was haunted by his breakout role as Student #12. That is, until the day I was booked as an extra on a short lived mini-series called Medicine Ball. As fate would have it, a young superstar named Ken Griffey Jr., bitten by the acting bug himself, was making a cameo appearance the only day I was on set.
Up to this point, I had a vague interest in watching sports. I knew that my dad liked to watch and root for Seattle teams when he finally got off work, but I'd rather have played Street Fighter: II after a long day of learning how to Stop, Drop, and Roll. At the time, I idolized only two sports figures by name and face: Gary Payton and Ken Griffey Jr. The moment I observed him on set, the one earring, high-top fade, and that trademark smile, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
When I pointed him out to my mother with unbridled enthusiasm, she smiled wide. "Surprise!", she said. She had known he would be there the whole time. I made a vow at that moment to honor the saintly woman in front of me for the rest of my life. My mind started racing. What do I say to him? What if he doesn't like me? What am I wearing?(Coke bottle glasses, a bowl cut, and a very 90s plaid pseudo-polo to be exact.)
The laws of gravity suddenly shifted. I was being pulled to him by some unknown force. As I drew closer to him, the magnitude of the situation overtook me. I began to think I'd be lucky if he even looked at me for a moment. His head turned. We made eye contact. I looked away. My heart stopped. That's when I heard it. "Hey little man, how are you?" he said through a big smile.
Now, if you've never seen The Kid's smile in person: at the stadium, on the streets of Issaquah with Jay Buhner in his drop top, or beaming right at you from feet away, you have missed out on one of the true wonders of the world.
Before I knew it, he had reached down and picked me up into his arms. I was in a whirlwind of emotion. He asked me my name. "Jonathan." I squeaked. He asked if I knew who he was. "Ken Griffey Jr." I beamed. "I bet you didn't know that my real name is George Kenneth Griffey Jr." he revealed. I know now that we don't in fact only use 10% of our brains, but it felt at that moment that my other 90% was unlocked. He said he liked Ken better. I agreed.
We talked for a couple minutes. He threw me up in the air and caught me, not unlike so many baseballs he had gobbled up on that centerfield turf. Again and again, he hauled me in. It was so graceful; I never felt in danger of being dropped. Holding me in his arms, he grabbed a pen and scrawled on a notepad."Nice to meet you, Jon. - Ken Griffey Jr. #24" it read. I took off running with both excitement of what had just occurred and dread that this moment had officially ended.
"Hey kid." he shouted. I stopped in my tracks. The Kid himself had just made me feel cooler than I ever had or ever will feel again. "Don't you want a picture?" he smiled. I ran back into his arms. An intern scrambled to find a Polaroid and snapped what would be the indisputable evidence I needed to make my brother's jaw eternally drop whenever he sought to put me in my place. It was a photograph that would serve as a reminder during my youth that I was worth something. I was worth enough for the greatest athlete in the world to take the time to make me feel just a sliver of the adoration and love with which he was burdened.
I can honestly say that meeting Junior that day changed the course of my life. He was altogether so genuine to me. From that day forth, I watched or listened to every Mariners game I could. I bonded so heavily with my father over the Mariners, and then the Sonics, and then the Seahawks. Being a sports fanatic helped solidify my unique identity from my six older brothers.
When I found out that my cousin was actually going to be able to go to a game, I begged him to ask Junior if he remembered me. I was devastated when he broke his wrist two weeks after my 6th birthday. I lived and breathed the miracle run. My mind was branded with the image of Griffey's smile under the dog pile for all times. I cried when we lost to the Indians. I would cry again when he was traded to the Reds.
When he came back to Seattle, I was overjoyed. I blew up the picture I had from '94 on a sign I brought to Safeco Field and was told that the late Dave Niehaus made a comment about it on the broadcast. I wish I could find that game tape.
The man may not have had the best relationship with the media and the like, but he obviously had a soft spot for kids. I'll forever be grateful for how he was to me that day and what he was to the city of Seattle. Thank you, Kid.