The card has not been taken out in a long while, covered in a hard plastic sleeve and enclosed in a notebook buried somewhere in my old room. There are pages and pages filled mostly with the card’s look-a-likes in that notebook, most of which bear that same cross-stitching of a compass and a baseball.
‘Seattle Mariners’ is branded in the bottom-right corner.
The card was my most prized possession for an extended period in my life (before I discovered that balloons could be filled with water), and still remains one of my few links to a career filled with home runs, Gold Gloves, smiles, and an unexplainable importance to a game I grew to love.
The card presently runs for nearly $50 on the market. I can remember breaking the bank on it when I was five years old and my neighbors took me to my first (and last) card show, spending two hard-earned dollars of my own money—foraging through couches for dimes and nickles is no walk in the park.
But the card is not for sale—it might never be.
There is so much tied to that card, to the player on it, that giving it up would essentially be giving up a small piece of what has molded sports into such a passion.
To recall the card’s description is to recall my first impression of Julia Roberts—easy:
The bat resting coolly on his shoulders. Sitting, relaxed, on top of the dugout bench in the Kingdome. The ultra-cool, David Duval-type sunglasses. A hat turned backwards. That ‘I-Can-Do-Anything’ smile. That swing.
Ken Griffey Jr. was baseball in the early 1990s, especially for a kid living in North Carolina with no distinctive ties to any team around. The Atlanta Braves were the closest major league club around, my two grandfathers created a split-decision between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinatti Reds, and the nearest professional team was the Triple-A Charlotte Knights.
The Mariners were never playing on TV back then - which still inherently holds true - so the only way to see Griffey play was to tune in and hope Charley Steiner would narrate his feats on a 45-second clip of SportsCenter.
No all-access Major League Baseball packages. No Internet capabilities. No YouTube.
Forty-five seconds at a time, The Kid became the most iconic and memorable athlete throughout my life not named Jordan. And no, not Jordan Palmer.
Every quality about Griffey fit with all that is good in sports. He was the perfect poster boy for Major League Baseball: an easily-marketable image following the 1994 lockout, the good-looking and ultra-athletic black athlete baseball needed, and a man who unfailingly went about his Hall of Fame business with dignity and class.
Forty-five seconds at a time, Junior joined Jordan to create all the sports entertainment needed for every one of my childhood summers. So when it came time to head to that baseball card show with my neighbors, there were zero doubts as to who would be the beneficiary of my $2 bank account: any vendor selling a Griffey card.
For an athlete over two thousand miles away to have such a lasting effect on a young person, there must be something exceptional about them. Put it this way: Rick Mirer and Detlef Shrempf were not sparking any idolization, nor even thoughts of support, from me during their time in Seattle.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was exceptional.
Yet, despite becoming the most important figure in baseball for an entire generation, he also became one of the most forgotten in sports history.
As the Steroid Era came to a head, the apple of the baseball world’s eye for an entire generation faded in the mediocrity of Cincinnati baseball. The sports media’s gaze shifted to St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco—as, admittedly, did my own.
Maybe if I had not kept that card buried in a notebook in my room during the time, I would not have lost sight of what baseball was really all about.
Junior was playing great baseball still, even spectacular at times - hitting .282 with 166 home runs between the McGwire and Sosa home run race in 1998 to Barry Bonds’ asterisk-laden, unbelievable 73 home runs in 2001. But the height of the Steroid Era belonged to the steroid users, and every other player just fell into a undeserved shadow.
Estimations and reevaluations will incessantly follow Griffey from his retirement yesterday to his sure-to-come Hall of Fame induction and beyond.
But this is not how I will remember him. My memories of George Kenneth Griffey, Jr. will not be a collection of “what if” scenarios, but rather a belief that I grew up watching a player that has solidified his place as one of the greatest in history.
My memories will be held in a different light.
...The bat resting coolly on his shoulders. Sitting, relaxed, on top of the dugout bench in the Kingdome. The ultra-cool, David Duval-type sunglasses. A hat turned backwards. That ‘I-Can-Do-Anything’ smile. That swing...
I’ll choose to remember 10 Gold Gloves and a three-time Home Run Derby champion that made every kid in every neighborhood get their aluminum bats and tennis balls out of the garage to see who could hit one farthest over the backyard fence.
I’ll choose to remember a Most Valuable Player.
I’ll choose to remember a father and son who made history.
I’ll choose to remember, “Here is Junior to third base, they’re going to wave him in. The throw to the plate will be late, the Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My, oh my!”
And now he is retiring - “I don’t believe it”.
The other day, Griffey took the field for the last time, retiring at the age of 40. The sport will miss The Kid...I will miss The Kid, obviously.
While there are certain recollections that will still continue to lay hidden beneath pages in a dusty notebook for years to come, the memories tied to that first baseball card and what that player meant towards shaping an obsession with sports will be a part of me forever.
Thanks for the past 20 years.
Here’s hoping I never forget again.