Griffey changed baseball in Seattle
Junior turned an entire region on to baseball with his swing and smile
This already has been a lousy spring in Seattle, but the overcast skies seemed a little grayer Wednesday afternoon and we all felt a little older. Ken Griffey Jr. announced his retirement as a player.
His retirement shouldn't have been surprising -- Griffey was batting .184 with no home runs this season and had barely played the past two weeks. Yet it still was a stunning moment, as if someone abruptly slammed the door shut on our youth. As a friend of mine said, Griffey was the first superstar whose career we followed from beginning to end. And now that it's over, it's like saying goodbye to more than a player -- it's saying goodbye to an era of Seattle history, when grunge was king and we were all going to retire young on our Microsoft stock profits and sales of all those Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie cards. Starbucks may have grown into a world giant during the '90s, but Griffey provided more of an energy boost to Seattle in those days than all of Howard Schultz's caffeine.
Long-sleeved flannel shirts have been out for a long time, though, Apple just surpassed Microsoft in stock value, the Sonics are in Oklahoma, the Mariners are in last place and now Griffey, the Kid, is a retired father with teenagers and an expanding waistline. And I can't find my car keys.
"There is going to be a big void that will never be filled," Seattle designated hitter Mike Sweeney said Wednesday. "You can't match Ken Griffey Jr., his charisma on the field, his heart. You can't replace Ken Griffey Jr. on the field or off the field. I think Milton Bradley put it best when he said, 'On a day like this, it should rain in Seattle.'"
And Sweeney played with Griffey for only a little more than a season. Imagine if he really knew what baseball was like here before Junior arrived. Asked what Griffey meant to the team, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong replied, "He was the team."
Indeed, before Griffey the Mariners were known best for drawing more fans for Funny Nose and Glasses Night than for Gaylord Perry's 300th victory. They never had a winning season before Griffey, and attendance was low enough that if we didn't use our tickets for one game, we could bring them to another game and they would let us in. There was always room.
That changed in 1989 when Griffey arrived to begin his 630-home run Hall of Fame career. My friend reminded me Wednesday that when I was a cub reporter interviewing Junior for a Baseball America cover story during spring training that year, Griffey took me out to his car to show off its 22-or-whatever speakers, a la Nuke LaLoosh and his Porsche with the Blaupunkt system. I have only the dimmest memories of that interview and no recollection of the car speakers, but I guess that's just another sign of old age.
Griffey often is credited with saving baseball in Seattle, but it really was the whole Mariners 1989 rookie class that deserves credit for turning the region on to baseball. Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez were rookies with Griffey in 1989, and six years later, it was Johnson who pitched the final inning for the victory in Seattle's 1995 playoff series against the Yankees, and it was Edgar who doubled in the tying and winning runs.
It was Junior, however, who scored the winning run that night, and his smile while lying underneath the happiest mosh pit in Seattle history had enough electricity to power an entire grunge festival. And it was Junior who was the smiling face of the team during the '90s.
"He put Seattle on the map for baseball," said Mariners infielder Matt Tuiasosopo, who grew up here. "He built this stadium and this organization. Him and Edgar and all those guys. I remember when I was 7, 8 years old, going to the Kingdome to watch him play, and when I was a 12-year-old All-Star and being in the dugout with him. I just think about growing up as a kid watching him all the time."
Seattle turned on Griffey when he pouted his way out of town via the 2000 trade to the Reds -- if he really wanted to be near his family, why not just live full-time here? -- but as the years passed we overcame the bad feelings and warmly remembered all the good times he provided. We welcomed him back with sellout crowds when he returned to Seattle in 2007 for the first time since being traded to Cincinnati. Mariners pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith made his major league debut against the Griffey and the Reds that weekend and struck Griffey out. Seattle fans booed the pitcher.
"They booed because they wanted to see him hit a home run," Rowland-Smith said. "I didn't know how to react. I felt like I disappointed 40,000 people."
You can't match Ken Griffey Jr., his charisma on the field, his heart. You can't replace Ken Griffey Jr. on the field or off the field. I think Milton Bradley put it best when he said, 'On a day like this, it should rain in Seattle.'” -- Mike Sweeney, Griffey's teammate
Griffey returned to Seattle as a Mariner last season, and that homecoming was largely successful. He hit 19 home runs, but more importantly, he helped rejuvenate what had been a terrible clubhouse and lifted Seattle to a surprisingly successful season. There were times when his swing still looked as sweet as it did during 1997 and 1998, when he hit 56 home runs each year and was considered the best player in baseball. It was unclear whether he would retire at the end of last season, so his teammates took no chances. They lifted Griffey on their shoulders and carried him off the field.
In retrospect, that's probably the way he should have gone out. We all had high hopes that he might be able to retire by leading the Mariners to the World Series this season. Instead, the season has been disastrous. Griffey batted .184 with just two extra-base hits for a team that has been terrible offensively. Worse, he found himself in the center of controversy when the Tacoma News Tribune reported that he fell asleep in the clubhouse during a game in May. As upset as Griffey and some of the Mariners were about the story, no one denied it, either.
Barry Bonds was known for napping from time to time, but the key difference was Bonds still hit home runs when he woke up. Not Griffey. That he no longer had the power or bat speed was evident several weeks ago when he hit a drive deep into the gap in right-center. Griffey took a crow-hop to begin a home run trot but the ball barely reached the warning track.
It was time to go. But after all he meant to the Mariners, that was his decision to make, not theirs. He finally made it Wednesday.
His final at-bat came as a pinch-hitter Monday night against the Twins with the tying run on base in the ninth. He hit into a fielder's choice and was lifted for a pinch-runner.
That's not the way anyone here wanted it to end. We wanted him to walk up to the plate in the final game of the World Series with everyone from Aberdeen (Kurt Cobain's hometown) to Walla Walla (home of ACME in the Road Runner cartoons) listening to Dave Niehaus call the play-by-play. We wanted him to swing at a belt-high fastball, showing off that stroke so sweet four out of five dentists recommended you not even look at it. And we wanted the ball to fly, fly away, giving the Mariners the world championship and lifting Seattle higher than any plane Boeing ever designed.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.