HERE IS JUNIOR TO THIRD BASE -- THEY'RE GOING TO WAVE HIM IN ... THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE ... LATE: Ken Griffey Jr., known in Seattle, at different times, as The Kid, The Natural, Junior, and Designated Tickler, is retiring. An awful lot more after the jump:
The Mariners took Griffey with the first pick in the 1987 draft (he played rookie ball in Bellingham that summer with my high school acquaintance John "Chop" Hoffman, who certainly will never forget it). Actually, there was a reasonable chance that the Mariners would take the perceived less risky choice, Mike Harkey, a pitcher at Cal-State Fullerton, but thankfully, "infinite ceiling, moderate risk" won out. In 1989, at 19 years old and after just two years in the minors, Griffey put on a spring training show of visually arresting defense and crowd-pleasing offense, forcing the Mariners to make him their starting center fielder, where he stayed for 11 years. As a Mariner, he won an MVP and four AL home run titles and gained a reputation as a stellar defensive center fielder (though the conventional wisdom now is that his stunt-like heroics made us overrate his range). In those eleven years, he won over Seattle with the purest swing of his generation and his electric smile.
Griffey missed half the 1995 season with a bum wrist, and when he came back in August, Seattle was all but out of the picture. Griffey led a furious charge that, coupled with an Angels collapse, erased a thirteen-game Angels lead and left the teams tied by the last game of the season. The Mariners won a one-game playoff, promptly dropped the first two games of a five-game series with the Yankees, erased that deficit, and then played the most memorable game of my lifetime, which ended with Griffey scoring from first on Edgar Martinez's double, Griffey's wild-eyed smile peeking out from underneath a teeming mound of jubilant teammates.
By 2000, Griffey wanted to leave Seattle. Whether for money, lack of hope in the Mariners' direction, or (as he said) family reasons, I don't know. If you ask me, he made a choice that a man has a right to make. A lot of Seattle fans resented it, perhaps unfairly, but Griffey didn't help things with his poor-me presentation. In any event, after Seattle shipped him to his hometown, Cincinnati, for Mike Cameron (as it turned out, Seattle got the better of the deal), Griffey's legs gave out on him. He was usually injured, and when he finally got healthy for long stretches, he had begun the decline phase of his career.
In 2009, he returned to Seattle for a year-long victory lap where he didn't hit much and didn't play much defense, but served the valuable role of tickling Ichiro! into happiness. The plan should have been for him to retire at the end of last year, but Griffey didn't see that his bat speed had disappeared, and the Mariners weren't about to tell him he couldn't come back. So he came back in 2010 to stink, and his presence (and that of Mike Sweeney) caused a logjam at DH and a series of cascading roster problems that ruined a promising offseason. That's not Griffey's fault -- blame the guys who gave a has-been a few million dollars, not the guy who took it.
In truth, I was mad at Griffey for jilting me in 2000, and I was mad at him for overstaying his welcome a decade later. But I was mad the way a parent is mad when his five-year-old cuts off his three-year-old's hair, or when his sixteen-year-old wrecks the car. You get over it. I have never said and will never say that those two things erased the joy of that magical summer and fall of 1995, or of Griffey crashing into the unforgiving Kingdome wall and coming down with a ball peeking out of the web of his glove and a surprised grin on his face, or of the follow-through from that gorgeous swing twisting his body into a corkscrew, watching the ball sail over the right field wall to the vodka-soaked rasp of Dave Niehaus screaming "fly away." Griffey was Seattle's first legitimate superstar, and today I'll celebrate his career, not his retirement.