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A Hero's Welcome: Ken Griffey Jr.'s Return to Seattle

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A Hero's Welcome: Ken Griffey Jr.'s Return to Seattle

For most people, the end of childhood comes gradually. The final stroke of this elemental phase of your life usually takes time to develop, and most people are often unaware of the measured, minuscule changes that land them in the throes of adulthood.

There is rarely a defining point, a singular moment where you can pinpoint the conclusion of this primordial stage of your life.

For most people.

For me, my childhood had an exact expiration date: Feb. 10, 2000. Had I been more prescient, I would have seen it coming, for it was only a few weeks after Ken Griffey Jr., one of the greatest outfielders the game of baseball has ever seen, had demanded a trade from the Seattle Mariners. 

After a full night of parsing my Legos, I awoke on the 10th to a morning that seemed instantly gloomier than most. I'm not sure if it was my Dad's somber look or my Mom's condolences that originally tipped me off, but I knew that this day, for all the wrong reasons, would not be a fond memory.

And in a moment, I would give anything to forget. I picked up the already-handled newspaper, and saw that the headline read “GRIFFEY SENT TO CINCINNATI."

It was in this instant that the meaning of tragedy became painfully apparent. Granted, tragedy is relative. You see, I’m blessed enough to not know the loss of a parent, or a precarious life on the streets, or even the failure of being rejected from a college. Regardless, for one reason or another, I have been fortunate through the entirety of my life.

The sports teams I followed were no different. My Mariners of the mid-1990s played superbly—unlike their modern counterparts—and were anchored by Griffey, my childhood hero. He embodied everything my pre-teen self strove to be. He was a comic-book hero come to life: The Batman of batsmen, so to speak.

His lithe stature and Ruthian aura made my seven-year-old eyes sparkle with wonder and amazement whenever the lefty scaled the padded, sky-blue outfield wall to bring the ball back from the land of home runs, or when his swing sent the ball into a majestic arc that would never seem to end.

Ah, his swing. If beauty were to ever die, its tombstone would contain only three words: Ken Griffey’s swing. That motion, the astounding perfection of shoulders, elbows, wrists, torso, hips, knees, ankles, and feet, could make women swoon and men renounce their masculinity.

Distraught babies would fall quiet, hardened kings would offer their nubile daughters, and bloody wars would instantly end just to watch Ken Griffey Jr. slice the air with his redwood rapier.

But on the 10th, all of this reality came crashing down like a glass house. That newspaper, the devil incognito, acted as judge, jury, and executioner, officially confining my childhood to the realm of memory. He was my hero. And he had abandoned us. Nothing could ever be done to change the weight or depth of his exodus.

Thus, the lean years began.

Yet, in an odd twist of fate, I was not the only one who began suffering after that infamous swap. Griffey, who I once thought could outrun a Mustang—or at least a Randy Johnson fastball—was soon hampered by injury and fatigue. The freewheeling days of youthful bravado had caught up to him, and his body, once nimble and graceful, was forced to pay the toll of time.

After six seasons in Cincinnati, injuries deprived Griffey of over half of the games. Karma was truly a cruel mistress.

But as Bud Selig, the commissioner of the MLB, would have it, Griffey’s days in Seattle were not quite over. With the advent of interleague play, the great barrier of league affiliation was beaten down and teams from both National and American Leagues could face one another during the regular season.

Rivalries once sequestered solely for the World Series could flourish under the gentle May sun, and teams that had never seen the lush ivy at Wrigley Field or the ignominious catwalks of Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay now had the chance. And at long last, I would have the chance to see my hero return with all the gusto and fervor of his youth.

Right?

Well, yes, but not right away. Patience, as with anything that is worth waiting for, would be required. Years came and went, but—since the thick-skulled Mr. Selig failed to realize what the weight of Griffey’s return would mean—there was no sign of my hero’s arrival on the horizon. At all.

Through my awkward middle-school years, through my wonderful high-school summers, there was not one whisper that the hero would return. And while my love for the Mariners matured, a dearth of World Series appearances had me longing for the glory days of yesteryear.

Good thing I was patient, because as I sat at my hardwood desk in early 2007, barricaded from the harsh February winds by the windows on my right, I saw on my glowing laptop screen what I had been longing to see since the days I watched Nickelodeon: June 22-24, 2007, Cincinnati at Seattle.

Griffey would be returning.

Griffey would be returning.

I immediately began singing—I think it was “Oh, Happy Day!”—and skipping down the carpeted hallway in nothing but a pair of shimmering athletic shorts. Weird looks ensued, although my neighbors really should have been used to my antics by now.

Once the jaunt had worn me out, I quickly called my dad, since he is my comrade in attending baseball games—not to mention ticket-purchaser. After a couple minutes of reveling in the patience rewarded, we cemented our agreement to buy the tickets to those games.

The next few months flew by and before I knew it, June 21 had arrived, bringing with it a combination of Christmas Eve-excitement and childhood-movie reminiscing.

Unfortunately, my dad was—to use a cheap sports analogy—on the disabled list, so I had to scrounge up some replacements. Fortunately, fair-weather Mike and Blazer-backer Clement were willing to join me on the trek north.

The uneventful drive to the Emerald City took place in my clunky red Volvo station wagon, complete with the years-old GoGurt stain above the passenger seat. Plodding shrubbery and pale-green plains marked the tedious, uneventful trip.

But as we finally crested the last hill to Seattle, seeing the aptly named Space Needle sitting alongside the skyscrapered downtown, I could feel the anticipation building. I’d taken this drive, passed the green-and-white metal sign pointing to Safeco Field innumerable times before, but never before had I felt this yearning in my chest, this warmth in my gut as I imagined what was to come.

As we drove up, Safeco Field, the home of the M’s, came into full view. This mass of evergreen girders and guttered metal looks more like a Boeing airplane hangar than a ballpark, but I love it nonetheless. It had replaced the dour Kingdome, a pile of concrete that was more of an eyesore than the oft-maligned Minneapolis Metrodome.

The one aspect that joined the Kingdome with "The Safe" was a short right field porch, built in the hopes of retaining a certain left-handed slugger...ah, what could have been.

Since the summer sun had burned off the damp Puget Sound fog, the retractable roof had opened and cast a shadow over us as we walked through the empty, weed-filled lot on the west side of the ballpark. After giving the ticket to the teal-colored, geriatric attendant, I ascended the stairs behind left field.

As I reached the top I looked to my right to glimpse the shimmering green, the deep brown dirt, and the stark white chalk-lines meshing to create a magnificent spectacle, one that I could never tire of seeing. But this time, the view was different, because all around me people donned shirts, jerseys, and caps with only one name attached.

"Griffey."

Everyone—everyone—was here for him.

Bumping my way through the packed concourse, I finally made it to my seat, 40 rows directly behind home plate. Looking out, I could see the swath of every color of the palette filling the 45,000-plus crowd. Sprinkled throughout the wave of fans were signs, painted in red and blue marker, reading “No ’Roids in Griffey” or “Welcome Back Junior, We’ve Missed You.”

It seemed wherever my gaze fell, I found someone who reveled in this day just as much as me. Like a war hero returning from years of fighting abroad, Griffey’s fans had gathered, en masse, to offer him the warmest welcome the Evergreen State had ever seen.

Sitting down, I overheard someone mutter that batting practice had ended 15 minutes early for a “proceeding,” and a knowing sensation spread throughout my body. I quickly pulled out my camera and prepared for whatever was to come, but my patience would not be tested long.

A hush quickly fell over the crowd, as images of Griffey, once again in Mariners white and blue, appeared on the giant video monitor. There was his first at-bat in in the majors, his slender frame looking lost in the pillowy Mariners garb.

There were the towering back-to-back home runs he and his father hit in 1990, a feat no one could—hell, should—have ever predicted. There was Game Five, the deciding game of the 1995 American League Division Series. And instantly, I am transported into my seven-year-old self again.

I am sitting in my dank, musty, carpeted basement alongside my dad as my mom rocks back and forth in the ratty armchair on my left. The yellowed walls are starting to peel, and the shelves of toys are, as usual, a mess. But we’re not noticing this right now. All eyes are on the TV in front of us.

The Mariners have made the playoffs for the first time in their 18-year existence and are facing none other than the pinstriped posterchilds of pompousness, the New York Yankees, in the best-of-five American League Division Series. Having dropped the first two games in New York, the M’s had returned to Seattle with their backs to the walls.

They somehow took the next two games to even the series, but right now, the Mariners find themselves down a run in the bottom of the 11th inning.

Facing the Bunyan-esque Jack McDowell, the Mariners sent their diminutive fireplug Joey Cora to the plate, whose bunt promptly carved a nice little resting spot on the first-base side. With Cora on, Griffey then sent a line drive through the hole at second, pushing Cora to third and bringing Edgar Martinez to the plate.

Martinez, with the look of the grizzled veteran he would eventually become, laced a fastball down the left-field line, scoring Cora easily to tie the game. The boisterous crowd hoisted “Refuse to Lose” signs and rose out of their seats to cheer, but, as we immediately realized, the play was not yet over.

A streaking bullet was rounding second—it was as if Griffey was about to run out of his uniform—and in typical October fashion, we realized there was going to be a play at the plate.

Griffey flew around third, arms churning and legs a blur. The relay took one, two hops in its race to catcher Jim Leyritz. But the ball was no match for Junior. As Griffey slid into home plate, the horde of Mariners fans erupted in a cheer I thought would blow out my TV speakers.

And when he was being dog-piled by his exuberant teammates, Griffey’s face broke into the childlike smile he had become known for—the carefree smile that made you think, yeah, everything would be all right.

And that night, everything was more than all right. Everything was perfect. And it was that perfection that people from all over had now traveled to Safeco to remember. So, 12 years later, when Griffey finally emerged from the visitor’s dugout, the accumulated weight of all those years without him was lifted.

In the foreign colors of red and black, Griffey approached the microphone stand, hands held behind his back as he gathered his thoughts. But we wouldn’t let him. For three straight minutes, we cheered for him. We cheered because of all he had done for us; we cheered for his honesty in an era of steroid-induced deception; we cheered because of the nasty fortune he had been dealt.

I cheered for my childhood hero, whose arms soon extended in thanks to the fans who will always consider him one of their own.

As soon as he managed, “I never knew how much I missed this place,” I felt the first tear, seven years in the making, sneak its way out and onto the back of my hand. Tears found their way to Griffey, too, especially when he was greeted by former teammates Edgar Martinez and the bald-pated, recently-retired Jay Buhner.

Although the Mariners would go on to lose that game by the astounding score of 16-1, the worst loss in Safeco Field history, it didn’t matter. My hero had returned, and, for the weekend, I was a kid again.

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