The Man Who Saved Baseball in Seattle wasn't even at Safeco Field when they announced his retirement Wednesday. Strange, but true. From slumping problem to instant memory, overnight.
Gone in a matter of a second or two, just like one of his 630 career homers.
There will be lots of people who say it's too bad it had to end this way. The Nap Heard Round Puget Sound, the zero homers and the lack of even warning-track power in this, what dissolved into his final year. But that's not the story today. That's short-term stuff, the gossip-column fodder and dashed-hopes grist of last-place clubs.
• Recap: Mariners 2, Twins 1
No, if you want to know the Meaning of Griffey, look around gleaming Safeco Field. Spend an evening in Seattle as thousands of Mariners fans scurry through Pioneer Square in the hour before first pitch. Think back to October 1995, and the wild-eyed exuberance of the Mariners as they stunned the Yankees, and a city falling in love with baseball.
That's Ken Griffey Jr.
"Ken is truly the heart and soul of this franchise," long-time Seattle chief operating officer Chuck Armstrong said in a statement for the ages. "Without his contributions, there is little doubt that Safeco Field would not exist and, almost certainly, baseball would have left the Northwest."
Boston had Ted Williams, New York had Joe DiMaggio, Cincinnati had Pete Rose ... and Seattle had Griffey.
Even with diminishing numbers after he turned 30, Griffey is a slugger for the ages, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The record book says he ranks fifth all time in home runs, 12th in total bases (5,271), 31st in runs scored (1,662), 46th in hits (2,781) and, in a testament to one of the most feared sluggers ever, fourth in intentional walks (246).
In history, only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660) rank higher on the all-time homer list.
In Seattle, only coffee and Mt. Rainier might -- might -- rank higher in popularity.
But there was a majestic time when Griffey stood taller.
|Junior's career grades|
|1. Barry Bonds||762|
|2. Hank Aaron||755|
|3. Babe Ruth||714|
|4. Willie Mays||660|
|5. Ken Griffey Jr.||630|
|6. Sammy Sosa||609|
"Ken's enduring legacy will be as the ballplayer most responsible for keeping major league baseball here in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. ..." Mariners chief executive officer Howard Lincoln said. "For me, Ken Griffey is more than just a fabulous baseball player. He is a great man in every sense of the word. He is a wonderful family man, he is a man of deep compassion who has given generously to his fellow man, and he is a man who has played the game of life clean and with passion and conviction."
As one behemoth after another fell in the Steroid Era, from Bonds to Mark McGwire to Sammy Sosa, the arc of Griffey's career more closely paralleled that of the game's old-timers who played before performance-enhancing drugs stained the record book.
Sure, he got bigger as he aged, but in all the wrong places (oh, that booty ... by the end of his career, he looked just like his old man in the field). Yes, the injuries began racking up ... and there was no magic elixir to heal them when they did. The bat slowed ... and its speed never returned.
The more wrong this year went for Griffey, the more you wished that he and the Mariners had picked the final game of last year when, following a victory lap homecoming of a season, Griffey's teammates literally carried him off the field on their shoulders.
That's the picture that should be lasting, not some fuzzy vision of a tired old slugger napping in his luxury chair in the Mariners clubhouse while the game played on. In time, it will be. After a sojourn in Cincinnati, Griffey had discovered you can go home again. And the Mariners, adrift at sea the past several seasons, were reminded of a glorious past. Both sides should have recognized it could never again be as good as it was in 1995 ... or, even, 2009.
In the end, Griffey had two lives in Seattle. That of one of the greatest players ever, the very first baseball all-timer Seattle could call its own. And then that of elder statesman, a living legend taking an encore to deafening applause.
His signature moment always will be that sweeping October slide across the Kingdome plate to drive a stake through the heart of the Yankees in '95, a time in his career that was accessorized with that cherubic, Hall of Fame smile and the ever-present backward baseball cap. He was baseball's version of Mary Tyler Moore: Between long gallops to the ball in center field (he won 10 Gold Gloves) and that suitable-for-framing swing, he could turn the world on with his smile.
And, ahem. That backward baseball cap? At the time, then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter raged that it was an affront to the game, just another example of a member of the younger generation disrespecting the holiness of the diamond.
Looking back(ward), now, against the backdrop of BALCO and human growth hormone and gross distortions in the record book, that silly cap statement of Junior's screams with the Beaver Cleaver innocence of days gone by.
The Murderer's Row of Griffey, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez, the rifle-shot home runs that elicited deafening roars in the Kingdome, the indoor fireworks ... what a time they had. What a time we had.
Alas, the applause never can last forever, and into his middle age, Junior requested a trade to Cincinnati to be closer to his family and, well, you probably know that chapter. He never again heard cheers like he had in Seattle. Injuries piled up, frustration mounted, twilight set in, the White Sox appeared as a blip on his scorecard when he approved a trade in an effort to get back to the playoffs one more time. Then he took what was left of one of the sweetest, most picaresque and most productive swings ever, and went home. And alas, the World Series will forever remain an elusive dream for him.
"This is a sad day for the Mariners," Jack Zduriencik, the Seattle general manager who brought him home, said Wednesday. "It is rare in this game when you get an opportunity to reunite a player and a team. We feel honored that Ken was able to end his career where it began, here in Seattle."
The pleasure was all ours. In Seattle, and well beyond.