Root for the laundry, they say. Don’t take it personal, it’s just a business. Don’t let sport stars be your heroes. You’ll understand when you’re older.
As kids, we don’t understand any of this. As adults, we don’t want to admit we understand this. Sports are our escapes, our way to avoid reality, a chance to pause life and relax for a few hours.
As a kid growing up in Seattle, it was impossible to not emulate everything Ken Griffey Jr. did. Maybe it was the mega-watt smile, the backwards hat, the charisma and confidence oozing from Junior’s eyes, all of it. Whatever it was, Junior became the cool older cousin to a generation of children in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever he did, we did. Natural right-handed batters switched and tried hitting lefty. One ear, only the left ear, was pierced (alright maybe that was only me, but I doubt it). Gloves and bats were painted black and the coveted #24 jersey begat arguments, near-fistfights, tears and jubilation in countless little leagues. Hours were spent practicing fantasizing about robbing homeruns defensively and crushing them during our turn at-bat.
For a decade, Junior was ours. Even as the national spotlight grew and the attention transfixed the nation, the pride in our hearts grew exponentially with every video game, Wheaties box, movie and TV show appearances. All the Nike commercials that were supposed to be clear hyperbole would incite Mariners fans who would swear up and down that Junior could do everything if he wanted to. Griffey versus Bonds wasn’t a debate in the Northwest, not even close. In fact, it was a joke to some, fighting words to others, but largely ignored by the masses.
The All-Century team in 1999 was probably the pinnacle of adoration for us. Everything we did was talk about our older cousin, our hearts bursting with pride, rocking Seattle caps everywhere we went. Whispers of Ruth and Aaron became normal conversation and went from dubious to confidence in just a few years’ time. Even with players such as Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar and Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, there was no doubt that the team and Seattle was Junior’s.
February 10th, 2000 broke a million hearts, if not more.
Watching Junior, OUR Junior grin ear-to-ear and answer questions wearing a Reds hat 2,000 miles away in Ohio seemed like a never-ending nightmare. We told ourselves it was an April Fool’s joke, even though the calendar smirked and declared otherwise. We pinched ourselves and we slapped our faces, but we couldn’t wake up, because we weren’t asleep. We couldn’t breathe, and we couldn’t believe it was true. We didn’t want to believe it was true. In the year that followed, we tried to rally behind Rodriguez, but it wasn’t the same. With one eye following the Reds and Junior, baseball in Seattle wasn’t the same. How do you replace your favorite? How do you love another? How do you replace charisma and charm, especially a decades’ worth of goodwill overnight? Not with the cold and calculating Rodriguez, who surprised no one a year later when he took the cash from the Rangers.
Even after being handed a new cult hero in Ichiro, our hearts longed for Griffey, the one who spurned us. Always wanting what we can’t have, as the Mariners’ play declined, our lust for Griffey increased. Mariner cornerstones Martinez and Buhner retired, replaced by anonymous jerseys and players. Although Junior’s career in Cincinnati didn’t materialize the way he envisioned, our support never wavered. When he hurt, we hurt. All those trips to the disabled list broke us inside. When highlights aired across SportsCenter with homeruns #400, 500, 600, our faces smiled, but our hearts screamed in agony. When he returned as a visitor in 2007, the outpouring of seven years’ worth of repressed cheers, love and adoration flooded over and nearly overwhelmed the man. You never forget your first love, and Junior had branded his mark across millions of hearts in the Northwest.
They say you can’t go home again, but Junior being Junior, proved that wrong twice. Having left for Cincinnati for himself, and coming back to Seattle for us. February 18, 2009 proved just how much we missed Junior. Even though we never stopped wearing our #24 jerseys, after nine years they were relevant again. The backwards hats never left, but the smiles were genuine again. Welcome home, Junior, we screamed. We embraced him again, and again it fit just right. We loved like he never left. Even now, the #24 jerseys at Safeco easily outnumber the rest. The house that Griffey built, indeed. Only the house isn’t just physically at 1250 1st Ave in Seattle. It is in the hearts of parents’ who passed the love of the M’s to their children, in the hearts of the generation of kids emulating 24, in the forefront of every fan who roots for the Mariners. Mariners, Junior. Junior, Mariners. Forever ubiquitous.
It is only fitting that #24 gets inducted on July 24. The alignment is delicious, and once again, Seattle’s Junior has the attention of the nation. Our smiles are genuine, our hearts proud again, our childhood memories scream to the forefront of our minds as today escapes from our fantasies and becomes reality…when you know, you know. 27 years ago, we knew what we saw in that 19-year-old kid who couldn’t stop smiling. Junior, you carried us for so many years. Today, we carry you.