I just heard the news that Ken Griffey, Jr. has retired.
Hard to explain this without sounding like a silly fan, but I love Junior. Really, really love the guy. A joy to watch, a joy (usually) to chat with, a guy who seemed to have his head on relatively straight. Back when Junior broke in with the Mariners in 1989, I was ecstatic. Growing up in Mahopac, N.Y., my favorite ballplayer throughout my youth had been his father, Ken, Sr. Why? To be honest, I think it started with a 1982 issue of Sport magazine, and a photo of Griffey and Dave Collins, the two new Yankees brought in from Cincinnati. There was something about the way Griffey wore his cap—atop his afro, brim curved and pointed upward. I guess, in some odd way, it was a crush—the dude seemed to have style, and I loved that. So, from then on, Senior was my man. I collected every one of his baseball cards (still have them), screamed his name when we attended spring training in Ft. Lauderdale (he never answered), started a Ken Griffey Fan Club in my science class (A kid named John Booth countered with the Griffey Sucks Club). A few years ago, I was in the Reds’ clubhouse during spring training when Hal McCoy, a beat writer for the Dayton paper, introduced me to the man. I’ve interviewed hundreds upon hundreds of celebs, and I was embarrassingly speechless. Oy.
Junior was like his father, only a much better player. Unparalleled as a flamboyant outfielder, clutch with the power, fast and quick and smart. He made Seattle baseball matter after years of crud, and emerged as the face of the Majors in the 1990s. While I certainly don’t know for sure whether he cheated or not with PED, I choose to believe he didn’t. Maybe I’m naive.
As a reporter, I always enjoyed our encounters. Back in the 1990s, I used to wear a backward Kangol as a way of making sure ballplayers recognized me. I will never forget being, oh, 25 and having Junior approach me and say, “Nice hat.” A year later, he approached me again and said, “Hey, where’s the hat?” When, five years ago, I was working on Love Me, Hate Me, he was unfailingly helpful. Griffey and Bonds were always known to be pals, but—I firmly believe—it was a limited relationship.
These last 1 1/2 years have been rough to watch. People make Mays comparisons, but I’ll opt for Elvis in the final few years of his career. The man still had his voice, still had a few of the moves, but watching him snug into those velvet outfits, well, it just didn’t feel right. Same with Junior back in Seattle. Same uni, same fans—didn’t feel right. Probably because he was no longer the same player. Like when Ali fought Holmes, you can dye the hair and wear the ol’ trunks, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate 10 years of rust. Sigh.
Is Griffey one of a kind? Eh, probably not. There will be other ballplayers who do what he did. But a precious few. He’s not the greatest who ever lived, but he’s right up there in the top category. And, most important, he retires with his integrity and his good name.
He’ll be missed.