When you have the opportunity to ask Ken Griffey, Jr. a question, you ask Ken Griffey, Jr. a question. That'd been my thought as soon as I received word Nathan and I would be able to attend last night's press conference. This is a Hall of Famer, the greatest Mariner ever and a legend in this city. Have to ask something.
As I mentioned the other day, I wasn't here for Griffey's prime—for all of the stuff that had him on the podium in the first place. I was here for the departures, both of them, and it was those that I was most curious about.
With all that was accomplished here with the Mariners, and then both of your tenures with the organization ending in less-than-ideal fashion, what does it mean to come home in a way—for this to bookend your legacy here in Seattle?
That's what I wanted to ask, but I didn't know if I would. I'd gauge the room, check the temperature of the questions and, if the tenor was what I'd expected it to be, I'd scale back just a bit.
It was, and I did—mixing it with another thought that'd bee circulating through my head.
Ken, you're widely credited, with others, for saving baseball here in Seattle and likely go down as this city's greatest athlete. What does it mean for this to be the culmination and bookend to that legacy?
But that isn't what I asked. As I was waiting for my turn, determine exactly when that'd be and who I'd butt in after, I decided to trim a bit of fat, and what I asked instead was
Ken, you're credited
, with others, for saving baseball here in Seattle and..."
This was a Friday night press conference for a celebratory event. There was red carpet and everything. Everyone was lobbing them up there. But this question, with the key words omitted, caught way too much of the plate. And Griffey hit it back hard.
"There were 24 other guys that helped me," said Griffey, "so it's not one guy that saved baseball in Seattle."
"It was Edgar, Jay, Dan, me—everybody. It's not just one person. We all had our part. That's just how I think of it. Nobody is bigger than this game and it took a lot, but we all pitched in in certain ways and helped keep baseball here."
When I look back on the evening, the first and likely only time I'll have ever been there as Griffey bantered like this, I'll remember the answers like these interspersed among all the other more humorous comments. Griffey is still very much 'The Kid,' but sprinkled among jokes and stories were incredibly insightful comments like this.
I mean, just shortly before my question, and that serious answer, he commented on his superstitious nature in responding to a question on why he hadn't yet set foot in the Hall of Fame.
"I traded a car in because it didn't have any hits in it, Jay will attest to that," Griffey said as he motioned towards the back of the room, where Buhner was standing. "You go 0 for a couple days and then you're like 'It ain't me, it's the car. It's gotta be something else besides me.'"
After questions meandered to other subjects, they returned to a more serious one, Griffey was asked about what it meant to have his number retired alongside Jackie Robinson's here at Safeco Field.
Of course, Griffey first wore 42 out of respect for Robinson long before every player did so, having donned it April 15, 1997—the 50th anniversary of Jackie breaking baseball's color barrier. Then ten years later, after the number had been officially retired throughout baseball, Griffey placed a call to then-commissioner Bud Selig, asking if he could again wear the number out of respect. Selig, of course, granted the request—and this would eventually lead to all on-field personnel wearing number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.
In response to the initial question, Griffey delivered a cool and measured response.
"If he didn't do what he did, maybe none of this would be possible," he said.
"I don't think I did half of what he did. Baseball-wise, you're going to look at numbers and things like that. But the way he went about his life and the things that he did, nobody can compare to that. He's a trailblazer in more ways than one."
Griffey has always been aware of his place in baseball, and the importance of those who came before him. He also clearly understood that it isn't just what happens on the field that matters, whether that was in the broader macro sense or even just in smaller personal relationships.
While the extended press conference was insightful, the fifteen or so minutes during which Griffey held court with a small group of reporters afterward is something I'll always remember. As time would go on, various reporters would peel away, so I'd step closer and closer, and layer after layer would peel off my perception of who Griffey was and is.
I mean, I don't intend to be too serious, this is a standup that included Griffey paging through his phone and playing the ringtones he'd set for various people, like this one for Ichiro.
But it was in this standup people got into the questions I'd always wondered about, on what-ifs and regrets.
What if he hadn't gotten injured the way he had in Cincinnati? Does he think about where he'd sit now in baseball's history?
"The injuries that I had were on the field and they were playing hard," he said. "I knew at an early age that you play long enough, you play hard enough, something can happen. That's the 'what if'—if I would've not played hard and those injuries happened. I did not. I played hard and injuries happen."
What about regrets? With those things played out in Cincinnati, and what was left behind in Seattle, does he wish he did things differently?
"It was a lot tougher decision than people thought," Griffey said. "The one thing is, I know how it feels to grow up and have your dad be gone all the time and not wanting that for Trey and Taryn at that time."
"My thing is, being a dad is more important because I can play baseball anywhere. People look at it, some people don't understand it. I'm going to be a dad a lot longer than I was a baseball player. So it was tough, but I think it worked out in the end. I get to come back and get remembered as a Mariner."
Now, it wasn't all serious. Of course, because it can't be with Griffey. He discussed the awkward difficulty in figuring out what to call fellow baseball legends in text messages.
"Do I put 'Mr. October', err—?"
He told the story of one of the first pranks he pulled as a professional ballplayer, though didn't like using the word "pranks"—and this one was so over-the-top I'm not sure it'd qualify.
He said he was 17, he just got drafted and was down in Atlanta. One day, sitting in the dugout, he looked down and his shoestrings were on fire. The classic hotfoot.
"So the next day I get there early. I put everybody's shoes in the middle of the clubhouse, put rubbing alcohol on them, and lit the shoes on fire in front of everybody."
"Willie Stargell's like, because my dad's right outside, 'Griff, come get him! He lit everybody's shoes on fire.'"
Griffey liked to have fun, that much was clear. So as the Mariners' Tim Hevly was about to call it a wrap on the standup, I wanted to squeeze in one more question about that.
I asked about playing with some style and personality, as he did, and how players today still catch flak for doing so. I thought it was something of a soft question, but was curious as to his perspective, it was perspective he had.
"It depends on if you're embarrassing somebody," he said. "That's where the line is drawn. When you're playing with style and you're playing with personality, everybody does it. But when you start doing it and embarrassing people it becomes different—baseball's the only game that polices itself."
Nathan then wrapped it up with a question on video games, and if Griffey played them. He shared he'd make sure they'd put in codes that he knew, so he could hit a home run every time, because "you can't lose and your own game. That's rule one."
But that balance, that dichotomy, that's my lasting impression of Griffey based on one presser and one standup. He's both hilarious and incredibly insightful—thoughtful at every step, as well.
I spoke briefly with Shannon Drayer about it on the way out, on the standup specifically, and she said of covering him on a regular basis that "It was that. Every night."
Ken Griffey, Jr. is a complex character. Much more complex than an hour or so in Safeco Field's interview room could ever reveal. But even at the most basic level, it was revealed there.
I don't know how many more of these things I'll get to do, but I'm glad I got that one, to get even but a glimpse of someone who stands now as the greatest Mariner ever—but is obviously a lot more than that.