A part of my childhood died Wednesday.

No, my dog didn’t pass away. My mother didn’t give away the stuffed bear my parents bought for me the day I was brought into this world. And my trophy collection is still intact on the shelves of my West Chester bedroom. Nonetheless, I felt as if any one of those things had actually happened.

Which is why when Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement on Wednesday, I very nearly shed a tear. Sure, his play had deteriorated in recent years. The recent drama over whether he took an in-game nap will weigh on my mind for awhile longer. But it will soon become an afterthought.

Baseball in my family is a tradition passed down like heirlooms and bad jokes. Chances are if you cut open one of my veins and let me bleed for a few minutes, a sunflower seed may escape my body.

My elders love to talk about how great the Big Red Machine was. They gush about what a honor it was to see Pete Rose play the game like his hair was on fire, or how Tony Perez was so clutch and how Johnny Bench was a strong as an ox.

But I take great pride in saying Junior Griffey was my childhood hero. When my kids ask me, “Daddy, who was the best ballplayer you ever saw?” I won’t even have to think.

The Kid.

I could go on about his tumultuous tenure in Cincinnati. Or how ownership never fulfilled their promise to build a championship-caliber team around him. Perhaps I could question why Junior only trained hard after he suffered major injuries. Maybe wonder why he never made it to a World Series.

And here’s the proverbial Junior question: If he’d been relatively healthy during the last half of his career, would he have broken Henry Aaron’s home run record?

I usually openly give in to this small talk, and wonder what if. After all, what kind of true sports fan doesn’t love to speculate?

Not today.

I wasn’t old enough to remember “The Double” in the 1995 American League Division Series, which featured Griffey scoring the winning run from first in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat the Yankees and essentially save baseball in Seattle.

When I watch the replay of Edgar Martinez’s drive down the left-field line against Yankee ace Jack McDowell, two things stick out. Griffey elegantly galloping around the bases, taking each base at the perfect angle and sliding safely into home.

The other image is after the players are creating a mosh pit home plate, Griffey’s head emerges from the bottom of the pile. He was smiling cheek-to-cheek, pure joy emanating from his smile, which reflected the way he played the game.

There are so many spitting images of Griffey. There would be times you’d see him gallivanting around the outfield during batting practice, shagging balls and constantly joking with his teammates.

I always marveled at his swing, which was nothing less than a work of art. I’ll never forget his Home Run Derby shot off the Camden Yards warehouse. Or his power to all fields.

As a defense-first person, I have no problem stating that Junior reinvented the way center-field was played. No ball was uncatchable, whether that meant diving headlong into the grass or leaping over the ball.

In every sense of the word, Junior was a baseball player. Not just because he could hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw hard, and catch anything in sight. But because of something more.

The Kid loved the game. And I think it’s safe to say it loved him back.

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