The first time I saw Ken Griffey, Jr. in person was in 1992, also my first trip to Camden Yards. In my mind, Junior homered. It seems like Junior always homered when I went to the Mariners. But he didn’t. I distinctly remember that game also being Bret Boone’s major league debut, and Retrosheet and Baseball Reference – indispensable sources for checking your baseball memory – inform me that Junior only doubled on August 19, 1992. What I remember is Griffey facing either a really slow curveball or maybe even an eephus and moving up in the box with the pitch en route, like you occasionally see in slowpitch softball. In my mind, the ball flew over the fence. Maybe it was really a double, or a loud foul. The memory resonates because it fits with my belief: Griffey was an amazing player who moved at full speed while the game went on slowly around him.
Two years later I moved to Seattle and saw Griffey play in person dozens of times. It seemed like he homered every game. Majestic blasts to right and laser shots to left. Sometimes both in the same game. I saw Mike Schmidt in his prime, the best third baseman of all time. I saw Edgar Martinez in his prime, an amazing hit machine. Ditto for Ichiro. I saw Alex Rodriguez’s first six years, a precocious talent. But Junior was different, his game beautiful, his swing sweet, his gate majestic. Kenny was the best I’ve seen.
I was on the phone with my brother for Griffey’s signature moment as a Mariner. Game 5 versus the Yankees in the ’95 ALDS. Junior on first, Edgar lines it down the left field line... I immediately started yelling in my rental townhouse, “Go Griffey! Go Griffey! Go Griffey!” It was a metronomic chant. He made it. The Mariners, thought surely to be gone to Tampa Bay, rode the momentum to a new stadium. Like that home run in Baltimore that wasn’t, Junior may not have literally saved baseball in Seattle, but it sure seemed like it. Definitely plausible.
Griffey returned to Seattle for a three-game lovefest in 2007. I attended the Sunday matchup, the third of a three game series. Griffey homered. He homered again. Griffey always homers.
Junior returned to Seattle in 2009. He was a shell of his former self, yet I was glad he was back. But he never homered. Not when I was there, at least. He somehow managed a walk off liner to the right field corner May 20th. It was his last hit. He was in the on-deck circle when the game ended two weeks ago, the last time I saw him. He didn’t get in that game, and he won’t be in any more. Griffey retired today.
My defining memory of the Griffey II era in Seattle actually came before it started, in Peoria, AZ on the last day of spring training, 2009. We got there early. Junior was signing autographs down the left field line. He stood there for 30 minutes solid, smiling the whole time, signing autograph after autograph. Both my sons – then 6 and 8 – have baseballs signed by Ken Griffey, Jr. Griffey could be moody and persnickety, but that day in Peoria he was everything you’d want in a baseball hero.
Junior left after he got pulled out of the game, as many veterans do in spring training. He walked down the right field line toward the clubhouse with his youngest son in tow. Just as Junior’s dad shared moments on the field with him, he shared this moment with his son. He was leaving the game, passing the torch. I snapped a picture. Today, Griffey left the game for good.