Photo by Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY
Ken Griffey Jr. was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Sunday afternoon, and there couldn’t be a more deserving player to be given such an honor. Through the course of his 22-year career, Griffey embodied everything that was great about the game of baseball. From the fans’ perspective, you could see he never took himself too seriously as he always had a smile on his face and kept things loose with his signature backwards hat. However, for this writer, he represented more than just baseball, Griffey was a role model and a sports hero.
I looked up to Griffey as Superman. There was no ball in center field out of his sprawling reach. If a ball was within reach of the top of the wall in center field, Griffey brought it back. I’ll never forget the day in 1995 when my dad told me Superman was broken. Griffey had broken his wrist when he leaped and crashed into the center-field wall hands and feet-first at the Kingdome in Seattle. As it turned out, my hero was more Spider-man than Superman. The play has gone down in the annals of Seattle Mariners history as the “Spider-man catch.”
Having grown up a baseball player myself, everything I did on the field, game or practice, was modeled after my hero. Every time up to the plate: step in and sweep dirt to the front of the batter’s box, sweep it to the back and dig in my back foot, because that’s how Griffey does it. “Crouch down in your batting stance a little more,” my coaches would say. No thanks, that’s not how Griffey does it. “If you flip your hat around the sun won’t be in your eyes.” I don’t care, this how Griffey does it.
I’ll never forget moving to a new state before my 13-year-old season and getting moved to the outfield from catcher for a change of pace. I couldn’t have been more excited; I was just like Griffey. In my first game in the new league I took a ground ball in left field and, just like I had watched Griffey do so many times, fielded it in-stride and made a perfect throw home to put out the runner at home plate. Internally, I was losing my mind; I’d never made such a play before. On the outside, cool and collected because that’s how Griffey does it.
In an era of juiced-up ball players hitting 500-foot home runs and routinely notching 45-homer seasons, Griffey was the one who did it clean. He had the flow of the sweetest swing in baseball as the bat danced through the strike zone, then sent balls sailing over the outfield wall of 44 Major League ballparks. And you always knew when watching on TV when the ball was leaving the park because of the way Griffey slowly strutted out of the batter’s box to watch his work leave the yard.
The same year Griffey broke his wrist with the Spider-man catch, I also learned what it was like to cry tears of joy. My family was living in Utah at the time, so Mariners games were few and far between on TV. Because of this, I stayed up late every night to watch the 1995 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. With the Mariners trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Joey Cora led off third base with Griffey on first. Edgar Martinez roped a line drive to the corner in left field. Cora scored easily to tie the game. Griffey wheeled from first and was waved home as the relay came to catcher Jim Leyritz. The throw was late as Griffey slid feet-first into home.
The Mariners won 6-5 and advanced to the franchise’s first-ever American League Championship against the Cleveland Indians and my nine-year-old self experienced tears of joy for the first time.
After 22 seasons that included 630 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, 13 All-Star Games and one MVP, a 40-year-old Griffey Jr. called it a career partway through the 2010 season amid clubhouse turmoil. The 2010 Mariners were a clubhouse divided under manager Don Wakamatsu and—as he had always said he would do—Griffey called the team to let them know he was hanging it up as he drove across the country to his home in Orlando.
The final appearance Griffey made in Major League Baseball came May 20, 2010 when he fittingly lifted the Mariners to a 4-3 walk-off win over the Toronto Blue Jays. A piece of me left professional baseball that day in June with Griffey, but I’ll always have the memory of Griffey throwing a peace sign to me on the center-field patio at Safeco Field.
Some people’s childhood heroes are immortalized in comic books and movies, mine has officially been immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Thank you for the memories Mr. Griffey.
I’m a Pacific Northwest guy who loves his Pacific Northwest sports. An amateur movie buff who prefers the disc to digital. Chasing the sports writing dream while I geek out on Assassin’s Creed.