An acquaintance who came to Seattle in 2003 asked me this week, “I know Griffey was a great ballplayer, but what is the deal between him and Seattle?”
She was remarking on the adoration that gushed like abrupt snowmelt around here when word came from the Baseball Hall of Fame that Ken Griffey Jr., had ascended to horsehide Valhalla.
The Space Needle flew a flag in his honor, the Seattle Times turned over page one to him, and Friday afternoon, after his plane from New York arrived at Sea-Tac, commuters northbound on I-5 had to pull over because he needed help to make a late-afternoon press conference. So . . .
His baseball numbers were so splendid that his election was as predictable as Sunday turning to Monday. But that wasn’t the point.
To answer her question . . .
Partly, his achievement was validation for a generation of sports fans who grew up around his 13 major-league years in Seattle. The baseball tradition hereabouts had been two outs and nobody on until Griffey arrived, all smiles, blasts and leaps.
The perfect baseball player. Here.
In a concrete shed. On a crappy rug. With a trident logo pointed in the wrong direction, and a for-sale tag perpetually fluttering in the air conditioning.
The other part of it was the six weeks in 1990 that a 20-year-old kid had a chance to play major league baseball with his 38-year-old father, Ken Sr.
It would be easy to write something here like, “You hadda be there.” But no, you don’t hadda. All you have to be is a boy who had a father. Or wishes he had a father.
Among the all-time best sports movies is “Field of Dreams,” whose emotional pivot point was a simple game of catch between son and father.
Imagine that moment playing out in the major leagues for six weeks. Dad hitting second, son hitting third. Both playing the outfield.
Wasn’t done before. Hasn’t been done since. Exactly everyone who caught a glimpse would have given fortunes to trade places.
Among all the highlights, feats, pranks, controversies and mistakes of the Griffey era, the episode was unique, unforgettable and atop his list.
In his press conference that was Griffey at his sincerest and most approachable, he talked about the time together, including the moment when they homered back-to-back in September 1990 at Angels Stadium off Kirk McCaskill.
“He’d sit next to me in the dugout,” Griffey said. ” He’d say, ‘This is your team. I get a first-row ticket to watch you play. I’ve never seen that.’
“We starting having little bets. Who’s going to get the first hit, whose going to hit the first home run. Then he hits the first home run: ‘That’s how you do it, son.'”
Next up, Junior’s count ran to 3-0 and he checked the third base coach for a swing-or-take signal.
“I got the green light,” he said. “I looked back for a second. Usually, young hitters don’t get the green light. I hit it out. He made me shake everybody’s hand before he shook mine.
“I sat next to him, and he elbowed me. ‘You know what we just did?’
‘Yeah, we went back to back.'”
“Me being a kid, my focus was on the game. He’s 38, thinking about history and I’m thinking about the game. As I got older, I started to understand my place in history. It’s hard to understand, really, what it was like then.”
Well, no, Junior. Everyone who watched it unfold, understood.
Many things great and small passed since that time. Some people will never forgive Griffey for forcing his trade in 1999 and walking out on the team in 2010, plus other assorted dustups in his career. Pile them all up, and they are in the cold shadow of his feats, and that late season of 1990.
Baseball watched, transfixed.
It was fleeting, as all things are in a business where everything starts anew in April. But it was not forgotten.
I was supposed to be on my way to Minneapolis now. But when I learned Griffey would be around, I had to stop by, say hello, and hear some stories.
I wanted to answer a question.
“In a concrete shed. On a crappy rug. With a trident logo pointed in the wrong direction, and a for-sale tag perpetually fluttering in the air conditioning.”
Maybe one of your finest turns. Nicely done. Bowing in your general direction.
Couldn’t agree more. Great article. Only one person on terra firma who could have written it.
Thanks. Maybe I should do more hasty writing in the car on the way to the airport.
fantastic, art. happy for you.
Another column to savor Art – thank you!
Having grown up idolizing Willie Mays I never expected to see another 5 tool player as good as Say Hey. The Kid was Mays in a bigger body and I will always cherish having taken my son to the games I did, letting him know he was watching something very, very special,
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I remember taking my son to a game at the Dome and sitting in the right center bleachers. It was a Sunday afternoon game vs. the A’s and they had the bases loaded in the 7th or 8th inning and someone on the A’s hit a drive into center field over Griffey’s head. He caught the ball on the dead run with his back turned to home plate and caught the ball, saving three runs. One of the few times I’ve gotten goose bumps seeing something live at the ballpark and I immediately thought of Mays in the ’54 series seeing it. Was pleased to hear a replay of Rizzs’ call after the game where he flashed on the Mays catch as well.
My son is 31 now and I’ll have to ask him if he has any memory of the play. He was probably 5 or 6 at the time. It happened probably 100 feet from us. Just amazing.
BTW, I grew up idolizing Sandy Koufax. Those were the days! ;-)
Sandy was a hero of mine too. Met him once when I was 12. Still remember every moment.
Thanks. The father-son thing around sports greatness is strong,
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Great article, Art! One minor edit…the “and” at the end of the first paragraph makes for an awkward read.
Agreed his flareups and tail lights pointed in the wrong direction pale compared to the joy of seeing him play, his accomplishments in the game and for Seattle baseball. Great article, Art. Stay warm in Minnesota.
The Griffey story has gotten sweeter over time, especially after the M’s shocking and depressing non-drafting of Tim Lincecum (and many other disasters too numerous to mention). It makes Griffey having played in Seattle seem all the more miraculous. We stole one from the baseball gods on that draft day in 1987. Or perhaps Griffey was their gift to us. At least we’ll always have that.
Independent of personalities and controversies, the Mariners had Junior, A-Rod and Randy and never made the Series.
Some people will never forgive Griffey for forcing his trade in 1999 and
walking out on the team in 2010, plus other assorted dustups in his
Count me amongst that group. You can have him.
Was that such a bad decision? He wanted to go home. And when all is said and done after the 116 win season two years later what exactly did the M’s accomplish?
Yes, Junior wanted to go home (or at least play for a team in the same time zone as his family.) That’s a good reason. And as mentioned by Art elsewhere, he wanted to get out of Safeco Field and play his home games at a more hitter-friendly ballpark. That’s a questionable reason. But they’re his reasons.
Recall how the trade to Cincinnati went down – Junior had approval on all trades and, at first, submitted a list of four or five teams he’d consider. Then he reversed that and said he’d only approve a trade to the Reds. What does that do to the Mariners negotiating position? Yes, pretty much takes all the cards out of their hand. To me, that move was pretty rude on Junior’s part, but I’ve gotten over it. Like Art said above… all of our relationships are complicated and not subject to easy resolution.
I’ve also wondered if trading Randy for prospects played a roll as well as Alex being in the clubhouse. An up and coming All Star with an even bigger ego.
I get why some people feel that way. I also think we yearn too much for Hollywood endings when if we’re honest, most of our relationships in life end up unresolved, rumpled or incomplete.
Junior is special because we all saw him grow up here. Players like Russell Wilson were a fairly polished product when they arrived. Junior came to Seattle fresh out of high school. We’ve seen him at his best and at his worst and his worst is simply him wearing his emotions on his sleeves. Every time he took the field, or the turf in the Kingdome days, we knew magic was going to happen. Then it became that we knew history was going to happen. He played the game clean and when all was said and done he returned to the M’s to close out his career. He respected the game, the Seattle community and Mariners history. He practically IS Mariners history. Though a World Series would have been great to cap off his time with the M’s no one can take away the fact that the Michael Jordan of baseball was a Mariner in his prime years. Few clubs can make that claim.
You’re right about him growing with us, nearly like a teenager in the house.
And the warm/fuzzies keep rolling.
The Griffeys put the exclamation mark on Father/Son baseball. Side by side and back to back. Was there with my son to watch Jr., Edgar, Randy, the Bone, et al. that wonderful year of ’95’. After the games, we’d go home and play catch as well. All of that was awesome in itself, but having my son with me to take it all in made it that much better.
Then I get to play catch with my son’s son his first time at age 5. Then my son teaches his son how to play ball and pitch and he became an all star little leaguer and I got to watch my grandson’s last little league game pitching a shutout, striking out 12 of 14 before the game was stopped at 10-0 in tournament play this summer.
You nailed it again Art, but really, this time all you did was write what Jr. said.