"I've been watching him all spring, and I'm telling you, they should be worried about the bat being knocked out of his hand."
-NL Scout, March, 2001
A stoic, gray-haired man rips a baseball off the fence in Colorado. Though more than forty years have tried to take their toll on him, his legs are still there. As he rounds second, his torso appears to float, unmoving, while his legs seem to grow in length, allowing a stride longer than should be possible.
As he strides, I remember it all - The MVP, 262 hits, gold gloves, walking off Mariano Rivera, Something Out of Star Wars:
For a half-second, you think he's going to go for home, and nothing could be more appropriate. A 3,000th hit unlike any other, for a player unlike any other. Instead, maybe that speed has waned ever so slightly, he stops at third. He takes off his helmet, and that sudden shock of closely-trimmed gray hair matches perfectly with the gray of his uniform. His expression is, as ever, stoic.
One thousand miles from Denver, James Paxton is on the ground, grasping desperately at his left elbow. After years of injury and underperformance. After being drafted in the first round, failing to sign with Toronto, planning to return to school and being told by the NCAA "No. You don't get to play anymore." After working to conquer his weight struggles, his mechanical struggles, James Paxton has finally found the success that seemed to perpetually dangle in front of him. He struck out Mike Trout, an alien sent from the planet of superhumans who invented baseball to remind us of our fallow mortality, four times.
At 107 pitches Scott Servais let Paxton start the 9th, and Andrelton Simmons' line drive not only found Paxton, but the very tip of his elbow. A crowd ready to celebrate three days of joy, shocked into silence. It's never, ever easy.
We should have known, way back in 1996, that he was too good to be true. The numbers are comical: .358/.414/.631. 54 doubles, 36 home runs, 20 years old. Alex Rodroguez was a talent we couldn't comprehend, because the narrative had already written the legend of Ken Griffey Jr., who was very much in his prime. King Arthur doesn't have a younger, poorer peasant draw a sharper, brighter sword from a larger rock a few years into his reign. That's not how this works. Yet that's what the late 90's Mariners felt like. Two "Greatest Talents of their Generation", in the same generation, in the same lineup.
It couldn't last, and of course it didn't. We all know Rodriguez's hubris, greed, and insecurities took him down a path that at times was incredibly dark. But at some point, perhaps it was seeing the end in front of him so starkly, Rodriguez stopped talking to the media, and began talking to his teammates. He built relationships with them, taught them, invested in them. Along the way he found out he loved teaching, and the team found out, after years of acrimony, they didn't mind him so much after all.
Yesterday morning the end was announced for Alex Rodriguez. He will end his career as perhaps the most talented player I have ever seen, and arguably the greatest baseball player to ever play for the Seattle Mariners. He will receive no jersey retirement, no hall of fame, either local or national. His name will bring a sneer, an eyeroll, or a choice phrase from large segments of the game and its fans. That complicated legacy is the bounty he prepared for himself with his actions. He seems to have finally accepted that, and stopped trying to get people to love him. He's moving forward by doing the one thing that never failed him, which is working in baseball. Personally, I wish nothing but the best for him.
A few weeks ago I didn't shave for a couple days, and the hairs on my chin were a pronounced gray. There is a moment in life when the passing of time hits you, as though each passing day adds more and more tension onto a rubber band, until one day it breaks, snaps back and hits you right in the face. The Seattle Mariners and I are four years apart in age. At an earlier time in our lives that felt like quite the gap. Four years in childhood means you can't really play together. In high school it means one of you lives in mortal fear of the other. In college, one of you is entering adulthood, while the other is leaving childhood.
As the years accumulate, however, you realize four years is nothing, and start to recognize shared life experiences. Children are had, grow, achieve, fail, leave, and come back. Your greatest moments happen, and you are so busy you don't recognize them as such until years later, when everyone gets tired of you telling the same stories over and over. You start to recognize your place, and that time will not allow you to grow forever. Eventually, maybe not today, but someday, you have to recede, allow the stage for the next ones, and hope you didn't screw it up too badly for them.
It doesn't happen without Griffey, none of it. That's just the truth. The Mariners played baseball for twelve years before Griffey, and like the childhood of Jesus, they are largely useless to the broader narrative. So many words, so many stories, so many things have been done and said, there isn't much left for this space. Three days should have been too much, and on Saturday morning I said as much to friends, expressing a sense of "Griffey Fatigue". The Mariners allayed my concerns, spending the weekend offering thrill after thrill to over 130,000 fans.
I am beyond out of things to say and feel about Ken Griffey Jr. He was my idol, as he was everyone else's. The past year has been the rare moment when you realize something in your childhood was shared by almost every child of your generation, a nation over. He left us, twice. But as he's shown over and over again since his retirement, Seattle is his baseball home. He is our Ruth, the rare player and personality for whom hyperbolizing his impact is impossible.
For three days, the Mariners past and present were intertwined. The three greatest position players to ever wear the uniform were on display, in ways that seemed perfect for each player's respective legacy. The team actually swept the Angles, with huge hits, excellent pitching, and some memorable moments:
Time passes, and as it does so legacies are formed. The Mariners are old enough now that their first generation of legends stand at the end of their careers, and we collectively look to the current team to bring us new legends. It was a weekend that marked the passing of a lifetime, and perhaps the beginning of a new one.