Four years before the summer of '98, there was the summer of '94.
I was 16 years old that summer. I was moving toward adulthood, but at the same time I was still a child in many ways. While I would spend the school months trying to show how grown-up and cool I was, my summer was spent playing stickball with my friends, dreaming of playing center field in the bigs, and going on what would be the last childhood vacation I would attend with my parents and siblings.
My Dad, my brother and I have always enjoyed watching baseball games in different stadiums, with a dream of watching one game in every stadium in the majors. It is a passion that has spawned some of my fondest childhood memories, so much so that I have continued the tradition with my son.
Our family vacation during the summer of 1994 brought us to Boston, continuing our baseball stadium tour. I was extremely excited to see a game in the stadium that once was home to some of the greatest ballplayers and moments in baseball history. Since I was from the New York City area, and had been to numerous Yankees games before, I never appreciated that stadium as much as I should have. Fenway Park, to me, was what Yankee Stadium would have been to a baseball fan who didn't grow up 15 minutes away from the "House that Ruth Built". It was a dream come true.
That summer, baseball players were begining to put up monster offensive numbers. Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, Matt Williams, and Frank Thomas were amongst some of the players putting up these huge numbers, and then there was Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey Jr. and Williams were hitting home runs like crazy that summer. Thinking back, they were doing what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would four years later. Both guys were on pace to break Roger Maris' magic homer total of 61. In the midst of this, Griffey was staking his claim as the best all around player in the game, and he hadn't even reached his 25th birthday.
On our way to Boston, my father informed me that we would be seeing the Red Sox play the Mariners. It was either the beginning of August or late July (forgive me, it was 15 years ago), and the talk of 'The Kid' surpassing Maris' record was mounting. Since Griffey played in Seattle, I had never seen him play in person. Needless to say, I was excited. I mean, getting to see the best player in the game play in one of the most-storied stadiums ever would have been good enough, but throw in the fact that I could see a piece of home run history was icing on the cake.
I thought to myself that it was a shame Griffey was a lefty, because it would be cool to see him hit one over the Green Monster.
After what seemed like an eternity of day trips through American history, the day of the game had arrived. I remember it being a warm, sunny summer day. It was the kind of beautiful day that made you thankful for the game of baseball. I don't remember who won, and I don't remember the score, but I do remember sitting in the right field stands next to my father and thinking how great it would be to see history. I remember thinking that this day was so perfect as is, and how I figured that Griffey was probably not going to homer.
Then Ken Griffey Jr., center fielder for the Seattle Mariners, stepped to the plate.
I don't remember what inning it was, what the count was or how many runners, if any, were on base. I don't even remember the opposing pitcher's name. All I remember is feeling like I was lucky to see such a special player. I remember Griffey's effortless-looking, sweet swing. I remember hear him connect with the ball and seeing the ball go high and far.
It was long gone. It was history. Oh yeah, and it was over the Green Monster.
It was the last great baseball moment in my childhood, and since then, Ken Griffey Jr. has held a special place in my heart.
We all know what would go on to happen that year. The baseball players would strike a few weeks later, wiping out the rest of the season. No playoffs, no World Series, no Roger Maris' 61, no being a witness to a piece of history.
I entered adulthood the day the strike stole that moment from me.
I paid less attention to baseball and started watching basketball the next few years, until, like most baseball fans, 1998. The home runs brought me back. Chicks aren't the only ones who dig the long ball.
But nothing in baseball since that summer day in 1994 has made feel the same since.
The past few weeks, there has been numerous negative news stories involving baseball. From A-Rod and steroids to Alomar and AIDS, it's seemed like baseball has been stuck in a rut of negative press.
Then there is a feel-good report that Ken Griffey Jr. could be going home to Seattle.
Then another report a few days later that squashed the feel-good story of the spring, when it was reported the Griffey was in serious discussions with the Braves. Just like that summer day in 1994, Griffey going home was too good to be true.
Then again, today, Ken Griffey Jr. did go home, as he agreed to a one-year deal with the Seattle Mariners, in hopes that he would end his career in the city it started. Just like Mays and Aaron had done before him.
So, feeling good about baseball in the spring is back. I get goosebumps just thinking about Seattle's No. 24, which no player has worn since The Kid left for Cincinnati in 1999, being on the field once again. I feel like that 16-year-old kid who sat next to his father on a beautiful summer day, anxiously waiting to get a glimpse of the greatest player of his generation.
And for that, I say thank you, Ken Griffey Jr.