Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saving Baseball in Seattle

On June 22nd, 2007, Ken Griffey Jr. returned to Seattle for the first time since 1999. I was at that game. I arrived 2½ hours early and stood in right field waiting for Griffey to take batting practice. He wasn’t up right away, and as I waited in that corner, fans started pouring into the seats with the same thought in mind “If I can catch one of these batting practice home runs, I will die happy.” When it was finally Griffey’s turn, the small group of twenty-somethings that had filled the seats was already cheering louder than the majority of games when the stadium was full. We held up signs that had been given to us before the game, and at least half of the crowd sported an early 90’s Mariner jersey with the number 24 sewn onto the back. A few fly balls went our way, and even when the ball was more than fifty feet away, you could see yourself catching it, rushing it home, telling all your friends and displaying it on your fireplace, eventually handing it off to your grandkids.

After batting practice was over, it was time for the Ken Griffey Jr. tribute ceremony. The seats were already packed to the brim, and everyone was on their feet, giving a standing ovation to the Diamond Vision monitor as it began its long tribute video. Seattle Mariner icons like Dave Niehaus, Alvin Davis and Jay Buhner were quoted on the screen, each receiving cheers of their own from the anxious crowd. Finally a clip video set to Aerosmith’s “Dream On” played a montage of Griffey’s moments in Seattle:

- The homerun in the 8th consecutive game
- The catch against the wall that broke Griffey’s hand
- Hat backwards
- Junior and Senior
- The All Star Game homerun in Baltimore that was belted into space
- The 100th, 200th, 300th and 398th homeruns of his career (as well as several in between)
- The home run robbing catch in 1990 and his smile of pure joy as he himself realized he brought it back.
- The game winning home run in 1995, the first home run since coming off the DL and the beginning of the most improbable comeback in MLB history.
- “They’re gonna wave him in! They throw to the plate will be….. LATE! The Mariners are going to play for the American league championship!”

Everyone in the audience must have seen that final clip a hundred times in the 12 years since Griffey was seen on the bottom of that pile. But, if you looked around any section in the stadium at that moment you would have seen at least twenty grown men tearing up, as though all the happiness of their childhood finally came back to them in one fleeting instant.

The game itself was forgettable. At least it hopefully will be someday, as the Mariners ended up losing by 15 in what could arguably be the most disgraceful defeat of the 2007 season. But once the game was over, every individual that attended couldn’t help but feel somehow complete, as though by bringing back Griffey it reminded all of us why we cared about the Mariners and why we care about baseball. With no disrespect intended towards Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson or Edgar Martinez, it was Griffey that gave us baseball and showed us why we love the sport.

There are critics who argue that Griffey did not save baseball in Seattle – and these critics are met with the collective stares of the Griffey generation, their mouths agape, unable to comprehend the very idea let alone form a cohesive argument against it. “It wasn’t Griffey, it was Edgar and Buhner and A-rod” they say, or “Read ‘Out of Left Field’ by Art Thiel” the critics cite, “the Seattle fanbase didn’t even play that great a role in keeping the Mariners in Seattle.”

But therein lies the disconnect between those two viewpoints. Critics argue that he did not save the Mariners. But what they do not realize is it was not the Mariners that needed saving. It was baseball. Baseball in Seattle had become irrelevant. The Seattle Mariners were not a baseball team, they were a citywide joke - a benign cancer that people knew was there but generally ignored because it barely affected their daily life. Sure, some parents still tried to teach their children to throw and catch, but why? Why would the youth waste their time on a sport whose home team in 1988 was approximately thirty-six games out of first place, and whose sole all star game representation the previous two years was Harold Reynolds whose offensive production numbers placed him pitifully in the bottom 50% of all active hitters. In fact, in 1987, his “All Star caliber numbers” had him hitting slightly worse than Nick Punto hit in 2006, which put him far below average but just a hair above absolutely terrible. How could the team playing in a stadium that was basically a giant concrete breast implant possibly teach thousands of young kids why they should care about baseball?

It couldn’t. And it didn’t. The kids born in and around the early 80’s were completely disinterested. Even the adults had grown apathetic. People watched baseball, but they were not fans of baseball. It was a sport like any other, and had football been on TV five times a week, there is no doubt it would have been watched instead. Baseball was like a cheesy sitcom – you’d watch it when nothing else was on, and enjoy it for the same reason.

That’s when Griffey came.

At 19 years old, Ken Griffey Jr. was anything but intimidating. His smile could be described as “goofy” at best (although the infamous ear to ear smile is one of everyone’s fondest Griffey memories), his hair was like that of a little boy’s that hates shampoo, and his stature was closer to brittle than it was to brawny. While his father may have been a member of “The Big Red Machine,” his son looked more like “The little engine that could.”

But from the moment he hit a double in his first at-bat, and a homerun off his first pitch at the Kingdome, you could tell the Kid was something special. It wasn’t his numbers that were particularly impressive, nor was it his “potential.” It was the pinnacle of baseball that you could see in everything he did – the purity and perfection of his game. Babe Ruth may have been one of the greatest players of all time, but Ruth was a big man; a big man who swung hard and hit well. With Griffey it was different. Griffey was the essence of baseball. He was pure skill incarnate. Watching him hit was like visual poetry. And the ease with which he used his glove was nothing short of extraordinary. Willie Mays became well known for “The Catch.” Griffey made that same catch almost weekly. He performed acrobatic feats that would make Olympians jealous, and his glove caught more hard hit balls than an overworked urologist.

And then there was his swing. Never in the history of athletics has something so perfect been repeated so consistently. Baseball was invented for Junior’s swing, and we were lucky enough to bare witness. Before the bat left his shoulder, you could see it seething. It hungered for the pitch, swaying in anticipation, growing more and more impatient as the pitcher hesitated in his wind up. If you watched each pitch carefully, you could see the ball attempt to hang on to the pitcher’s fingers, reaching backwards to no avail, trying to hang on rather than meet its fate. And Griffey embarrassed the ball. Humiliated it. It wasn’t an at-bat, it was an execution. The ball was a target and Griffey was the sniper.

As the bat cut through the air it was like the world stopped. Fans were on their feet before the bat hit the ball, because when you watched Griffey swing – you knew. And so did Griffey, as he would drop his bat effortlessly behind him and begin his confident trot around the bases before the pitcher had time to turn around. Every homerun that Griffey hit was a moment I never wanted back.

Griffey was baseball. He was more than just a Seattle athlete, he was THE athlete. He brought baseball into the lives of not only the younger generation but generations since, as those that he touched are starting to have kids of their own and are teaching their kids the game of baseball that they came to know. No one, not Edgar, not Jay, not Alvin Davis, not Barry Bonds – not even Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio could ever have had the affect on baseball that Griffey had in Seattle. He single handedly changed the meaning of “Goodbye Baseball” into something wonderful. He saved baseball for a generation that almost grew up without it.

In January of 1988, Ken Griffey Jr., then only 18 years old, attempted suicide by swallowing over 200 aspirins. He was rushed to the hospital, had his stomach pumped, and survived. I can tell you without pause that I would not be anyone if he had succeeded. Without Griffey, I would not be interested in baseball. Without baseball, I would not have been interested in sports, and without sports, I would be nowhere.

Finally, someone said about the game this past year “Griffey is the kind of person that you can put into a crowded stadium with 40,000 people cheering for him and only one person booing, and he will hear the boo. At that game, no one booed.” No one. And I can honestly say that I would sacrifice 2 or 3 years of playoff appearances if it meant I could watch Griffey play in a Mariner uniform again, because it is thanks to him that I will be able to enjoy baseball long after he’s gone.

So here’s to you on your 38th birthday, Griffey. I hope you have several more years of health and happiness, and I will continue to check the Cincinnati box scores until the day you retire. You may not have saved the Mariners, but you still saved baseball for me.


freelasabird said...

Oh the hours of my life wasted playing Ken Griffey Baseball for Super Nintendo. Good times.

H said...

Woah. Just found this post while lurking for an image of Jr. What an amazing read it has been...Surely brought a tear.

And yes...He did save Baseball; It would be awesome to see him call it quits as a Mariner.

chase said...

Same story as "H" there. Thanks for the good read.