SEATTLE — On the night Ken Griffey Jr. came home — at last, for good — he rubbed at the wet stuff beneath his eyes and shook his head. A sellout crowd of 46,027 surrounded him with roars, the current Mariners players stood at the top of the dugout with their hats turned backward in tribute and all swung their hands and swayed to Junior’s old walk-up music, Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray!”
A moment 26 years in the making had arrived. After the Mariners selected Griffey with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft, it didn’t take long for hope that a day like this would come to transform into a forgone conclusion. Five years into Griffey’s career, he was basically a living Mariners Hall of Famer. Besides the late Dave Niehaus’ golden voice, Griffey’s flair for the spectacular was the most consistent no-brainer in Mariners’ history.
Still, as No. 24 walked in from center field past the “24” painted on the Safeco Field grass, the inevitable felt like the most amazing thing ever. Those weren’t thunderous cheers; they were individual doses of gratitude joining in unison. And for Griffey, those weren’t tears just because the Mariners surprised him by having his oldest son, Trey, a wide receiver at the University of Arizona, congratulate his father via video; they were years of suppressed emotion being unleashed, ripped away like the seal protecting perishable food.
“I can honestly say I am thankful to be a part of the Seattle Mariners,” Griffey said to begin his induction speech.
Nearly 24 minutes later, after his heart had overtaken his mouth for long enough, Junior concluded with, “I just want to say thank you.” It wasn’t so much a dramatic ending to a speech as it was the acknowledgment that, if he didn’t stop himself, he would talk all night.
Which would’ve been OK. Really, it would have. Griffey spoke about 15 minutes longer than expected, delaying the start of the Mariners game against the Milwaukee Brewers. If he had gone even longer, few would’ve cared.
It’s not often that Griffey allows himself to be this open and chatty in public. He reserves his affable personality for moments out of the spotlight. But with all the grace floating around Safeco Field on Saturday night, he let loose.
“I may have sometimes been standoffish,” Griffey admitted. “I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to play baseball. That’s the only thing that mattered.”
Now, there’s something that matters even more: Though he wasn’t perfect, though he could be difficult, though he left and came back and left again, this night served as an eraser. Expunge the bad. Emphasize the good because there is infinitely more of it.
The Kid is home. For good. Forever.
He’s a Mariners immortal. He’s a Seattle sports immortal.
Griffey deserved this day. He deserved it for more than hitting 417 of his 630 career home runs as a Mariner, for more than winning all 10 of his Gold Gloves as a Mariner, for more than becoming this city’s first true global sports icon.
He deserved it because, after you assess all the highs and lows of 22 seasons in the limelight, all the highlight-reel plays and disabled list visits, all the glory and all the surgeries, the love affair between Junior and Seattle remains intact. It’s a crazy love story, as most are. That love has been tested again and again. But he is still your transcendent star, and you are still the place that nurtured him, encouraged him and energized him as he became one of the greatest players in Major League history.
“As a 17-year-old kid getting drafted by Seattle, I had no idea what I was in for,” Griffey said.
He was in for greatness, and his success propelled a city and turned baseball from a novelty to a passion around here.
You can debate whether Seattle is a baseball or football or basketball or soccer town. But in his heyday, there was no question it was a Griffey town.
Watching his interpretation of the game, how he played with so much athleticism and charisma that it seemed he was from the future, was its own pastime.
But Griffey didn’t make Saturday about his own greatness. He stayed humble. He marveled at the teammates he had, including fellow Mariners Hall of Famers Alvin Davis, Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner. He told Niehaus stories that induced belly laughs. He defended the often-maligned Chuck Armstrong, Howard Lincoln and John Ellis, and no one dared to boo. He even left the current young Mariners an uplifting message, reminding them that it took a while before the Mariners broke through in 1995.
“Jay, Randy, Edgar, Dan and I, we were just like you guys,” he told the current players. “You can do it, too. We made it happen. And you can do it, too.”
His words made it easier to believe in the Mariners’ future. If the Mariners could find another Griffey, it would be even easier.
That’s not possible, of course. There’s only one Ken Griffey Jr.
And now, finally, he’s back in his rightful place. He’s all yours for all time.