I graduated from college in 1991 and promptly took up residence in a house with three other guys in Green Lake, a young, active neighborhood in the heart of Seattle.
Those were the days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, and Ken Griffey Jr.
There will never be another Ken Griffey Jr. He was the "Willie Mays" of my generation. A once-in-a-lifetime talent whose charisma beamed like a bright spotlight whenever he took the field. There will be players who put up more gaudy statistics, but there will never be another Griffey Jr.
Legends and rumors of his talent and grace began hitting the sports pages when the Mariners drafted him number one overall in the 1987 draft. Many scouts had already entitled him a five tool player and the best prospect in 20 years. This was back before the internet when information was second-hand, at best, and largely through word-of-mouth.
When he finally arrived, in 1989, he was like a breath of fresh air in the Mariner organization. An organization that was the armpit of the major leagues straddled with a barren, soulless stadium called the "Kingdome". The Mariner players were as faceless as their stadium, with such forgettable names as Alvin Davis, Gordon Thomas, Spike Owens, Jim Presley, and Floyd Bannister.
Ken Griffey Jr. gave the Mariner's life. His love of the game was infectious. His joy radiated and lit up the cavernous Kingdome.
And man, oh man, could he play the game of baseball.
He was like watching a ballerina in the field. Completely full of grace and dignity. His home run swing was majestic, the greatest in the history of the game as far as I'm concerned. When he hit one out, he'd pause just a little and walk towards first base, watching the ball sail over the fence, and then begin a slow jog around the base path.
But it was his play in the field that was truly awe-inspiring. I would purposefully get the cheap bleacher seats in center field and watch his entire movement every game. He had an almost precient ability to guess where the ball was going to be hit. But it was his long, gallant strides and almost casual catches that made the game look so easy for him.
And it was easy for him.
Sometimes God just makes other people a little more special, and Ken Griffey Jr. was one of those people. I don't think he ever had to work hard at the game. He didn't lift weights. As far as I know, he didn't watch tape of pitchers. He just went out, hit, and fielded.
His statistics during his stint in Seattle were legendary. He won 10 gold gloves and hit 484 HR's. He won the MVP in 1997. He was the catalyst behind the Mariner's 1995 run to the pennant.
He single- handily was the reason that Safeco Field was built in 2000. Without the 1995 run, and his star power, the city council would have voted against the stadium, and the Mariners undoubtedly would have left town.
When he decided to leave in 2000 for his hometown Cincinnati Reds, the Seattle fans couldn't even find it in their hearts to hold it against him. He wanted to play for his childhood team and be closer to his family. Who could begrudge a man for those reasons? He even took a pay cut to play for the Reds.
When he finally returned in 2007, it was to five minute standing ovations. The crowd gave him a standing O for grounding out, or shagging a fly, or just by warming up in the on-deck circle.
Unfortunately, his time in Cincinnati was never as fruitful as his time in Seattle. It was as if he had angered the baseball Gods by turning his back on his Seattle fans. He never won another Gold Glove. He hit only 171 home runs. He was beset by a series of injuries and setbacks. His teams never won. Worse, the Cincinnati press and fans felt he was arrogant and disrespectful. He was just another player in a long line of Red greats that included his owner father, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and George Foster.
When he finally returned in 2009 to Seattle, it was as heart-warming of a homecoming for which any of us could have ever hoped. Sure, he wasn't the Ken Griffey Jr. of 1995, but he was OUR Ken Griffey Jr., and he belonged in Seattle.
In an era of cheating and steroids, when seemingly every record is tainted with PED allegations, Ken Griffey Jr. was clean. He was natural. His 630 lifetime HR's came the old-fashioned way. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio.
A lot of media types have been really hard on Griffey Jr. this year for not retiring after 2009. I'm not. The man made the Mariner organization and he deserved to stay as long as he wanted. I was especially angered that some anonymous players tipped some journalists that Griffey Jr. was napping at a game. What a load of malarkey! I don't care if he pulled up a hideaway, poured himself a glass of warm milk, and slept through the whole damn game. I'd rather watch an old Ken Griffey Jr. sleeping that anyone else on the Mariners playing (with the exception of Ichiro Suzuki).
I actually played basketball with Ken Griffey Jr. around 1993, when he was the biggest star in Seattle. He was a very affable and friendly guy. He gave me a big bear hug, told me I couldn't drive on him, then playfully laughed when I finally managed to hit an open jumper. He never had any of that typical jock arrogance associated with most athletes.
So long Kid! You were the greatest that I've ever seen and there will never be another like you.