SEATTLE (AP) — The perfect swing that we could never emulate. The diving, leaping catches we only dared to copy with the protection of pillows and couch cushions on the floor. The smile that told us baseball could be fun for even the best player of our generation.
For those of us who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Ken Griffey Jr. was the first transcendent star of our youth we could claim as our own. He was the guy that kids in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were emulating. Yet we had the chance 81 times a season to go inside the dreary concrete confines of the Kingdome and watch Griffey perform.
He was ours.
Griffey will almost assuredly be voted into the Hall of Fame next week, potentially with the highest percentage ever. It will be a reinforcement of what we were able to watch up close. The ultimate accomplishment to go with all the numbers, awards and the fact that if not for Griffey’s greatness — and the success of the franchise in 1995 — Safeco Field never gets built and baseball may have left Seattle.
When Griffey takes his place in Cooperstown, he’ll take the entire Northwest with him.
Griffey wasn’t from our region, but we adopted him as ours. He grew into an adult before our eyes and he taught us we could play the game with joy. Wear your hat backward. Smile. Laugh. Play with the same delight as if you were playing wiffle ball in the driveway with your buddies, arguing whether the fly ball cleared the power lines and landed for a home run.
If The Kid played baseball like a kid, then it was OK for us to play that way.
There had been other fantastic players to come through our region: Steve Largent, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp to name a few. None of them matched what Griffey meant to us.
Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” will always lead to flashbacks of watching Griffey stroll to the plate.
Ken Griffey Jr. candy bars? We bought them.
“Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball” for the Super Nintendo? We played it as much as the first versions of Madden.
That No. 1 Upper Deck baseball card with Griffey’s smile? It’s never left the protective plastic case from the day it was purchased.
Before every game was available on TV, summer nights were spent sitting outside listening to Dave Niehaus on the radio provide a living narrative to Griffey’s career, then staying up late to watch the local news hoping for a 20-second clip of the latest feat of No. 24.
The homers and the catches are too numerous to list, all looking effortless. The Spider-Man into the wall at the Kingdome. The back-to-back homers with his dad and the shot off the warehouse in Baltimore. Bookend moments like homering in his first at-bat in the Kingdome and the final game there. The 56 homers and MVP in 1997, and a Gold Glove for each finger on both hands.
And the most memorable moment in franchise history when Griffey’s sprinted home from first base to win Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS over the Yankees, accompanied by Niehaus’ radio call: “Here’s Junior to third base. They’re going to wave him in. The throw to the plate will be late. The Mariners are going to play for the American League championship.”
Griffey won’t be the first with a Mariners connection to reach the Hall of Fame.
Gaylord Perry is in, but his link to Seattle is pitching his way to a 300th win during his 1 1/2 seasons there.
Niehaus is in for his years of service as the voice of baseball in the Pacific Northwest, creating a soundtrack that was easy on the ears if the baseball itself was for many seasons tough on the eyes.
Randy Johnson entered a year ago, but he plied his Cy Young form while pitching in Arizona and elsewhere later in his career.
This is where Griffey is different from anyone else with a Seattle connection. Drafted and cultivated through the Mariners farm system, he lived up to all the expectations that came from being a No. 1 overall draft pick and became the best player of his generation.
The criticisms of Griffey are valid. He never embraced the Northwest the way it engulfed him. Part of that was youth, part was demeanor. His departures from Seattle on both occasions were messy; the first time strong-arming a trade from the Mariners to Cincinnati before the 2000 season and then literally driving away in the middle of the 2010 season and calling it a career.
Even with those blemishes he is still beloved. Consider that when Griffey was inducted into Seattle’s Hall of Fame in 2013 it was the only sellout of that season and even Griffey was left wiping away tears by the end.
“Sometimes I may have been standoffish. I didn’t mean to,” he said that night. “I just wanted to play baseball. And that was really the only thing that mattered was me going out there and playing and trying to win ballgames for this team.”
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