By now, most of us remember the picture of the moment more than the moment itself. It forever captured Ken Griffey Jr. with his incandescent grin shining out from under a mass of Mariners teammates celebrating the 1995 playoff win over the Yankees.
Hard to believe, but he was just 25 then. He could turn into our Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He might play here until he’s 40. He could be the greatest ever. All things were possible back then. It didn’t quite turn out that way as he took a nine-season absence from Seattle. But we were right at the time to recognize the obvious: He would be a transcendent talent.
This, the time of his retirement, serves as the moment to go ahead and anoint him the best we’ve ever had.
Provincially, we don’t like to believe that we’re an outpost that gets largely ignored by the rest of the nation’s sports fans. That didn’t hurt Griffey, though. He defied geography and time zones.
Just as the nation turned into a cult of highlights, Griffey created some every night, with his bat or his glove. And with that smile. No one else playing here ever came close.
As for accolades, Griffey is on top, but not by a landslide.
He was a 13-time All Star (10 in Seattle) with 10 Gold Gloves and an American League MVP honor in 1997 and a runner-up in ’94. He averaged 34 home runs and 104 RBI in his first stay (11 seasons) in Seattle. He also was Rookie of the Year.
Mariner teammate Ichiro Suzuki might be the closest in terms of accolades collected. He’s been a nine-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year and also an MVP in ’01. He’s got nine Gold Gloves and could collect more.
Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones made it nine Pro Bowls, was one of the greatest to ever play his position, and will be a Hall of Famer as soon as he’s eligible. (Hey, and his middle name is “Junior.”) He’s never been a league MVP, although no tackle ever has been. And he was stealthy about his public profile.
Defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy was NFL defensive player of the year in 1992, on a 2-14 team, and had eight Pro Bowl appearances. Like Jones, he had a low profile.
Receiver Steve Largent was the lone iconic Seahawk from the early years, and landed in the Hall of Fame after seven Pro Bowls, but he was never a league MVP.
The Sonics? They hoisted a title trophy in 1979, but the glory was fairly widely spread. Gary Payton earned a national reputation and was a nine-time All-Star as one of the game’s great perimeter defenders. He was a major force behind the 1996 run to the NBA Finals, but the era was so dominated by Michael Jordan that almost everybody else playing was in a secondary role.
Seahawk running back Shaun Alexander had one of the great seasons in 2005, winning the NFL MVP award. As is the case with most running backs, the time at the top is limited, and he was done after eight seasons, and only five were truly productive.
A sleeper would be the Storm’s Lauren Jackson, when we look at honors won. She led the team to a WNBA title in 2004 and was a two-time league MVP (’03 and ’07). She’s in her 10th season.
Also, nobody has created so many memorable moments as Griffey, such as opening day of ’97, when he homered in each of his first two at-bats of the season against the Yankees’ David Cone. And he put together those back-to-back seasons with 56 home runs in 1997 and 1998. And toss in all the defensive gems.
We may wonder, during his prime production, how much all those ’roided-up sluggers stole the spotlight from Griffey, whose training regimen has never drawn suspicions.
Taxpayers may argue that Safeco Field isn’t actually “The House That Griffey Built,” but he helped lay the foundation. Did he save the franchise? Sure played a role.
No one else caused the everyday fan to become so attached.
After the ’95 AL West one-game playoff with the Angels, in the clubhouse, the champagne showers were sprayed with such joy that everybody in the place was soaked. Clothes, notebooks, tape recorders … drenched. I had to crank out a story and get to the airport to catch a flight.
Yes, I had to speed a bit to get there, and I was pulled over. Oh, no … I was soaked in booze and absolutely reeked. When I rolled down the window for the cop, he was certain he’d nabbed the biggest lush of his career. I still had a dripping wet press credential around my neck, and explained where I’d been.
Oh, man, he said, I wish I could have been there. That was something, eh?
Yes, indeed, it really was something.
You mean you get to go in the clubhouse?
Do you get to talk to Junior?
Well, yeah, usually in a group of others.
Man, that must be something … I love Junior, he said.
He told me to hurry on, and that I better ditch the sweater before I tried to get on my plane.
Like just about everybody else around here, the cop loved Junior. Probably still does. Because there’s never been anybody like him.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org