We didn’t want it to end this way. We wanted “Junior,” “The Kid,” “The Man Who Saved Baseball in Seattle.”

We wanted one more laser-fast whip of the bat. We wanted one more smooth shot into the right field seats. We wanted one more ear-to-ear smile. We wanted one more moment to treasure.

We wanted the player of our youth, the stuff of legends.

We didn’t get it. What we got was Joe Namath as a Ram, Willie Mays as a Met, and Franco Harris as a Seahawk.

What we got was a proud athlete who hung around one year too long, unable to accept that his prodigious gifts had diminished to the point where he was no longer able to keep up.

Heck, we didn’t even get the same player as last year, the one who could still catch up to a fastball, the one who changed the Mariners’ poisonous clubhouse culture with his sunny demeanor and playful mischief. What we got was a distraction.

The Mariners may have made a mistake by bringing Griffey back to Seattle, but he wasn’t the only black hole in this lineup, and he’s not keeping the next great thing off the field. It was a gamble, but it was a move the M’s needed to make out of respect to a player who changed the game in so many ways.

Five years from now, when Junior is inducted into the Hall of Fame, the 2010 season will be a blip on his storied career, a distant memory for those who remember his glee as he slid into home to defeat the Yankees, his scaling the wall at the Kingdome to snag a fly ball, his crushing the ball into the upper deck during the “Refuse To Lose” season.

I never had the chance to cover Griffey. As I’ve said before, it remains one of my career disappointments. I moved to Seattle in November of 1999, the year he was shipped off to Cincy. When he returned to Seattle, the fan in me was ecstatic

I was at Safeco the night he hit a game-winning homer against Arizona last season. The crowd went absolutely bonkers, and so did I. On that night, I was a 14-year-old kid again, going bananas for my favorite player. It is a memory I won’t forget.

It didn’t end the way we wanted. It never does. But we will always have our memories. Thanks, Junior.

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