Ken Griffey Jr.: The Legacy of a Legend

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Ken Griffey Jr.: The Legacy of a Legend
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

How do you write about the man you grew up worshiping?

Is it possible to write about such a person rationally? Probably not. But it is impossible to overstate the importance Ken Griffey Jr. had on my life.

I don’t remember Griffey’s major league debut in 1989. I mean, I was not even two years old at the time. My first memory of Griffey is his homer that hit the warehouse at Camden Yards during batting practice for the 1993 All-Star Game. 

But I remember the impact he had on me before that specific moment. Starting at age three, I played baseball in my driveway (I lacked a backyard), using a toy called a “pitch hitter.” This device would, using a spring, “pitch” a ball straight up in the air, at which point I would take a swing at it.

Using that device, I would create elaborate baseball games in my driveway, involving the Seattle Mariners and their hated rival, “Black Jack” McDowell of (at that time) the Chicago White Sox. Why I chose him, I don’t know, but I recall him being a “Mariners killer” whenever he pitched, so that made me dislike him. Also, his nickname and his bearded face were very intimidating.

Not only would I play out full games, I would broadcast them as well. The only problem was that my speech wasn’t very good (I mean, I was three years old). I simply could not pronounce “Ken Griffey Junior”, even though he was my favorite player.  It would come out more like “Keen BIFFEY BUNIOR!” In fact, most of my “broadcasts” from about age three to six were incomprehensible.

But that was okay; my next-door neighbor, who we shared the driveway with, kindly tolerated the constant yelling and plastic baseballs flying into her yard. But after some speech therapy, one day I could finally say the name “Ken Griffey Junior,” which was a great moment. 

But it was nowhere near the greatest. 1995 is what turned my love of baseball into an obsession. Of course, a lot of kids are obsessed with baseball at the age of seven. Everyone thinks they can be a major league player. (Even I still held out hope until at age 11, I was put in the minors for the second straight year...in Little League.) 

But 1995 was a year that is simply a watershed season in my life. First of all, baseball was coming off the nasty 1994 strike, which actually drove many fans away from the game. I was too young to be that angry, although I do recall it being very disappointing. I was keenly aware that the Mariners had never made the playoffs and had only accumulated two winning seasons since their inception in 1977.

The season started out well enough as the Mariners were in first place for most of April and May.

Then on May 26, Griffey broke his wrist making a spectacular catch up against the rock-hard Kingdome outfield wall.

I don’t think I knew the meaning of the phrase “overcoming adversity” until that happened.

How does a team overcome the loss of its superstar? It was the absence of Griffey that made me appreciate him even more. Alex Diaz will forever hold a special place in my memory for the admirable job he did filling in for “The Kid” in center field. His defense was simply remarkable during those long months as he made spectacular diving grab after diving grab.

But you can’t replace Junior’s offense, and the Mariners slowly fell out of contention for the AL West title. Fans started talking about the possibility of winning the newfangled “Wild Card” as a means to get into the playoffs. But as Jay Buhner famously said (and I am paraphrasing...I think), “F*** the Wild Card.” 

Griffey returned in August, but the harsh reality was that the Mariners found themselves 11.5 games out of first entering the Aug. 24 (which happens to be my dad’s birthday) game against the New York Yankees. Only around 17,000 fans showed up to the Kingdome to witness what happened, and unfortunately I was not one of them.

The Mariners entered the game 0-42 when trailing after eight innings. They were not exactly a team that had a flair for the dramatic at that moment. 

Then the Mariners tied the game, and with one on “The Kid” unleashed his first career walk-off home run. Those who stayed erupted in joy as Dave Niehaus declared on the radio, “THE MARINERS HAVE DONE IT...FLY AWAY!” 

A month later the Mariners were in first place, and the Kingdome was averaging over 40,000 fans per game.

Then on Oct. 8, 1995, Edgar Martinez hit “The Double” off Black Jack McDowell to beat the Yankees and save baseball in Seattle. Griffey ran faster than anyone had ever seen him run before as he scored from first base on the play.

His smile at the bottom of that pile of players is etched in my memory like no other image of sports I’ve ever seen.

What Griffey taught me was that no matter the circumstances, no matter the problems you face in life...perseverance is the key to success. You must persevere through your issues, and eventually your luck will turn. The Mariners missed Griffey badly, but they did just enough without him to stay in contention for a playoff bid, and when he returned and hit the most important homer of his life, the season turned on a dime.

What “The Kid” also taught me is that an optimistic attitude is the only good way to go through life. He always smiled, played the game the way it was meant to be played, and genuinely had fun on the baseball field.

Because, after all, baseball is a game and should be fun. Too many of our professional athletes focus on the business aspect of it (*cough, A-Rod, cough*), when in reality it’s meant for kids. 

How appropriate that the greatest player of the ‘90s was nicknamed “The Kid.”

In this cynical age we live in, many people will scoff at the notion that baseball can be a metaphor for life. But the Mariners and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1995 had such an undeniable impact on who I am today that I believe it to be true.

Griffey’s joy that he played the game with is something I try to take into my life every day. Being happy, I think, is critical to being truly successful. Material goods mean nothing if you aren’t happy.

But every day I run into obstacles, just like Griffey ran into that wall on that May evening. It might slow me down or stop me for a while, but I have my support system that says, “F*** the Wild Card,” keep focusing on your dreams.

My dream happens to be that I want to be a Major League Baseball broadcaster. I realize there are very few of those jobs available. It might be a long shot, but weren’t the 1995 Mariners’ chances of coming back from an 11.5-game deficit in late August also a long shot? It’s something I will continue to pursue as long as I have a love for baseball, which I don’t think is leaving me anytime soon.

Lastly, and this is something that has come out in recent years, it is highly probable that Griffey was the only “clean” superstar of the so-called Steroids Era. Honesty is so important, yet so many people try to lie and cheat their way to the top. Griffey showed the world that that is not necessary.

Some people ask me, “Aren’t you mad that Griffey basically demanded a trade and forced his way out of Seattle?” Well...no. He left Seattle to be closer to his family (he took less money to play in Cincinnati). Then he returned, years later, unfortunately as a shell of who he once was. But he still had that smile on his face, still had the love of the game in him.

On June 2, 2010 he realized that the joy had faded somewhat, so it was time to retire. He leaves behind a legacy that cannot be measured simply by numbers. His legacy is that he profoundly impacted the lives of countless kids who grew up in Seattle, and around the country as well.

Naturally, his final hit as a Mariner was a game-winner.

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