Ken Griffey's Return Worth The Wait

Casey MichelCorrespondent IMarch 10, 2009


There are things in life that should not happen. We see them in children’s books or on the Hallmark Channel, but never in our dirty world of grime and struggle. Life is incomplete, which means that it’s imperfect, which means that these Kodak moments we see in cinema or find in literature do not come to fruition.

But that is life.

This—the moment what I’ve experienced, the event that’s stopped me in my tracks—is sport.

Before I share that moment, however, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself.

There’s one person who got me into sports, one person who propelled this passion I carry. He is not my computer-selling father, nor my cookie-crafting mom, nor even my swagger-swinging brother.

This man’s name is Ken Griffey, Jr. and his is the face of my earliest memory of sports.

Although I was seven-years-old, I can still recall it vividly. As my parents flanked me in our Lego-infested basement, my jaw was dropped, my eyes were glued, and my hair was on end. I was witnessing the greatest Division Series the game of baseball has ever seen.

Against the New York Yankees in the 1995 ALDS, my Seattle Mariners had rebounded from a 2-0 series deficit to force a deciding Game 5. Down a run in the bottom of the 11th, Griffey had flashed from first and around third, grinning as he slid across home plate to give the Mariners the most exhilarating win I have ever seen.

In that instant, my path was set. That moment has stuck with me every day for the last 14 years, influencing decisions both academic and professional. Without it, I would be different beyond recognition.

Alas, with every moment of bliss comes a counterpart, and when Griffey departed the Mariners before the 2000 season, the hole in my heart was bigger than the mileage between Seattle and Cincinnati.

My hero had departed, never to return, and the glory days of my Mariners were now a bygone era. Nearly 10 years later, I’ve never felt the same glee as that moment, never held anyone on the same pedestal as Griffey. Ichiro, Edgar Martinez, and Bret Boone were good—but they weren’t the left-handed center fielder whose swing shone of perfect magnificence.

Years went by, achingly, as I watched Griffey tear himself apart with the Reds and the White Sox. Injuries stole his stature as one of the game’s greats. His downfall was swift and wrenching; his hurt was obvious and palpable.

Stuck in the Pacific Northwest, there was no way I could share my fanship and perhaps ease Griffey's struggles. Long ago, I’d pondered the idea of a possible homecoming. A hero’s welcome, I light-heartedly surmised, even though I knew full well that it could never happen. Baseball wasa business, and Griffey’s game had no business roaming Safeco Field’s outfield.

And yet, a twinkle of hope never went out. The lone event that lightened Griffey’s burden was an interleague return to Seattle in 2007. When he pledged to retire as a Mariner, I fancied the idea that a one-year contract was in the future—a consolation prize, little more than gestural symbolism, but better than nothing.

After all, my life was not a Hallmark movie, nor a child’s book complete with the happiest of endings. What more could I hope for?

I knew some things are beyond the reaches of fate. But two weeks ago, something broke that mold.

Griffey, a free agent for the first time in his life, signed with the Mariners.

The birth of my first child will have a tough time replicating the joy that overcame me when I heard the news. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand it. I don’t know how something this unreal, this otherworldly, this patently unfathomable, could have come about.

I know I’m sentimental. Sport evokes these swings in emotion that would make Shakespeare pale in awe. It’s become a shtick for me to bemoan, to aggrandize and to inject more passion into the sporting world than necessary. In the end, these are men who throw leathery orbs around a field of grass. Their movements are inconsequential, and there’s no reason for the idolization that comes about with each passing generation.

Or so you say. See, that inconsequential means nothing to me. Your arguments fall on deaf ears, for I am too busy re-watching Griffey’s 1995 run on my iTunes, reliving the instant when I became a sports fan.

Now here I am, attending school in Houston, a young adult looking back through the images of my childhood. But if you try to find me on April 14, I’ll be at the Mariners’ home opener, looking down from the stands at the image of my childhood.

During the telecast of that fateful Game 5, announcer Brent Musberger said, “Ken Griffey Jr. is fulfilling his destiny.” Musberger may have been 14 years early, but he was right—Griffey’s destiny has come true.

And my childhood, unlike so much else that goes awry in the world, has become complete.

And sometimes, that’s life.