When Ken Griffey, Jr. retired earlier this week I realized I was officially old. 

I remember a night in 1988 when we took my niece up to Everett, WA to see the then Everett Giants play the Bellingham Mariners featuring an 18-year-old phenom by the name of Ken Griffey, Jr. From that point on I referred to my niece as a Griffey baby. 

She turned 24 earlier this year and works as manager of a sports club. So yeah, I’m getting old.

It’s hard to explain what Griffey, Jr. meant to Seattle sports back in the late 80’s. The Mariners aren’t exactly the best team in baseball these days, but back then they were one of the worst teams in professional sports. 

The Mariners were a replacement team given to the city in 1977 after a successful law suit against Major League Baseball for allowing Milwaukee to steal our original team, the Pilots, after one season in 1970. That law suit was to be the only big win for the team until Griffey, Jr. came on the scene.

From 1977 to 1991 the Mariners never breached the .500 mark for an entire season.

Adding to the fact that the team was dreadful was the stadium where they played. The Kingdome was a large concrete cylinder with all the charm of a roadside culvert with seats.

One of the worst nights of my life was a Mariners-Yankees game in the mid-80’s. Myself, my brother-in-law, and mutual friend went to bat night with five kids in town.

Back then they used to give the kids real bats and sometime during a late rally the kids discovered that if all 30,000 of them pounded the floor with their bats at the same time the Kingdome would echo so hard that the entire building shook from the noise.

The Mariners came back from a 6-1 deficit that night and won the game on a Tom Paciorek three-run homer in the ninth. That blast set off the kids in a bat pounding frenzy that caused most of the adults in attendance to miss work for an entire week. 

I later told someone that what we went through that night was akin to jumping into a trash dumpster and having a crowd of people whack it on the side with large logs.

And that was a good night at the Kingdome.

But when Griffey came to the team everything changed. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed as a sports’ fan.

It took two years before the team had it’s first winning season, and several more before the city built a new stadium. But almost immediately things got noticeably better for the Seattle baseball club.

Griffey was one of those rare athletes that matched the hype of his arrival. He was that good.

And when his Dad came to the Mariners in 1990 marking the first time a father and son had played on a major league team, the city fell in love. 

When the team started winning shortly after, the romance was in full bloom.

If you are a true baseball fan and you never got to see Griffey play in his prime you missed something special—because you really had to see him in person to realize just how good he was.

Whether it is the time during his sophomore season when he ignored the cut off man to throw out a runner trying to score from second on a deep single or when he tomahawked a ball several feet out of the strike zone for a home run that kept his record setting home run streak alive in 1993, Griffey was incredible to watch in person.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t controversies. But they were so minor and so “Griffey” that they seem quaint in this day and age.

One of those controversies was his refusal to sign autographs for adults. 

This was during the sports memorabilia hey day. It’s hard to believe now but there was a time in the late 80’s and early 90’s when people were investing in baseball card sets like Glenn Beck invests in gold now. 

Griffey got upset when he found out that many of the autographs he was giving out were for memorabilia sellers rather than real fans. That was when he went to his “kids only” policy. 

He would sign all day long for children when they flocked to him, but adults were ignored or waved off. Some people were bugged by that but most of us understood his reasoning.

The team won games and division championships with Griffey in 1995 and 1997, but they were never able to get over the hump and win the World Series.

In 1998, the team traded star pitcher Randy Johnson in order to avoid losing him in free agency. The team went 76-85 that year and 79-83 the next despite monster numbers from Griffey, Jr.

That’s probably why when he asked to be traded to his hometown after the 1999 season the fans of Seattle accepted it and wished him well. He always did his best for the city of Seattle and the city wanted to return the favor.

They welcomed him back with open arms last year despite diminished skills. He played decently in 2009 but this year he hasn’t been able to capture the old magic. 

I don’t think anyone was surprised that Griffey retired in the middle of the season considering his performance this year. He’s been less than a shadow of his former self— he has been, quite frankly, terrible.  

It’s always hard to see your heroes when they come back down to earth. I remember seeing Nolan Ryan in his last game. It was supposed to be his second to last outing but two batters into the game there was a loud pop that resounded throughout the stadium.

He faced two more batters after that and walked them both. I don’t think he came within a foot of the plate on eight straight pitches.

The old cowboy tipped his hat to the crowd as he left. It was then that I realized that Nolan was a very bald, middle aged man with a broken gate. 

I also knew he would never pitch again and it made me sad.

That’s how I felt when I heard Griffey, Jr. was retiring last week. He was a class act in an era when we seem to have fewer and fewer of them.


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