Long before Ken Griffey Jr. was an honorary teammate who was more mentor than ballplayer, he was, well, a ballplayer.
A dang good one.
The Kid burst onto the baseball scene in the 1990s with a sweet swing and a charming smile, doing his part alongside grunge rock, Starbucks and Microsoft to put Seattle on the map.
Now, 22 years after the Mariners drafted him No. 1 overall, Griffey is calling it a career, no longer OK with being merely a clubhouse presence and a sub-.200 hitter (.184 in 2010, to be exact).
Griffey wasn’t at the ballpark on Wednesday, June 2, and his retirement announcement came via prepared statement. He talked about not wanting to be a distraction, and about leaving of his own will.
It was certainly a subdued way to say goodbye to one of Seattle’s all-time great sports personalities, the guy who brought fun, and winning, to a team that had been in short supply of both.
If Griffey went out like a lamb, though, let’s not forget he came in like a lion.
His charisma, big bat and that ever-present backwards ballcap helped revive a struggling franchise that was thisclose to relocating out of the Northwest. Many pro athletes possess features that make them likable to fans; Griffey’s playful attitude and immense talent made him lovable, especially in Seattle.
It’s tough to measure Junior’s impact on the Mariners, but consider this: The franchise opened for business in 1977. The M’s drafted Griffey in 1989. Two years later, the team had its first winning season – ever. That’s 14 years of sub-.500 ball. In 1995, the Mariners won their first American League Division Series, and in 2001, the team set a club record with 116 regular-season wins.
Griffey was already gone to Cincinnati by the ’01 season, traded to the Reds so he could play for his hometown team, but he played a direct role in Seattle’s earlier milestones and, perhaps, an indirect role in that latter one.
Winning is, as much as anything, a culture, something that must be learned, practiced and expected in order to be achieved often, and before Junior came to town, Seattle had not even graduated to the learning stage of that process.
Griffey played in 127 games his rookie season, hitting 16 home runs and 61 RBIs, and he hardly looked back after that. By the late ’90s, he was topping 40 homers and 140 RBIs per season, turning in back-to-back seasons with 56 home runs in 1997 and 1998, with 147 RBIs the first year and 146 the next.
Griffey leaves the game with 630 homers and an all-but-certain first-ballot ticket to the Hall of Fame.
He showed flashes of brilliance after leaving Seattle in 2000, belting 40 homers that season for the Reds and 35 in 2005, but injuries kept him from setting the MLB records many thought he would crush. He played for the Chicago White Sox in 2008 before returning to Seattle in 2009.
Junior insisted his role with the Mariners would be that of a mentor to Seattle’s younger players, and he also took on the unofficial role of clubhouse prankster. He performed both duties the same way he approached being a slugger earlier in his career – with an effort that appeared to be effortless and a smile that flashed easily and often.
Just like in his heyday, you got the sense that Junior was simply having more fun than anyone else.
That all changed in 2010, as The Kid’s bat finally started to show his age, practically begging for a new nickname for the 40-year-old former slugger.
Griffey wasn’t playing as much, hadn’t hit a home run in 98 at-bats and there was the matter of that .184 average – 100 points below his career mark.
If Griffey was disgruntled over not getting playing time, he never said so. He knew his place with the team, and insisted he didn’t want to be a distraction.
The game clearly was just no longer fun for him – a sad thing for Mariners fans, considering how fun he made it for them, for so many years.
Ken Griffey Jr., ESPN
Ken Griffey Jr. – Seattle Mariners, Yahoo! Sports