Tonight, I cried, albeit hidden from the eyes of my wife, when Ken Griffey Jr. was inducted into the Mariners Hall Of Fame. Not because he was inducted, but because the way he brought into the family.
Ichiro, the most silent, hard-to-interview, max-salary guy in the bigs, even had a word for him wearing the Yankees pinstripes. He talked about the 2009 season when he was finally united with Junior on his return trip to Seattle.
Now I wasn’t taking notes, so forgive me if I’m off a little bit on my quotations here.
“You were my hero growing up, I couldn’t wait to be your teammate,” said Irchiro on the Jumbotron during Junior’s tribute.
Then, Ichiro turned his hat backwards, a symbol to when Griffey first did it during batting practice early in his career to get the old, decrepit baseball writers’ diapers in a bunch, and quoted the late, great Dave Neihaus by calling one of Griffey’s home run shots. “My Oh My,” he said, bringing the packed house at Safeco, and myself, to tears.
Griffey was much more than the best centerfielder since Hank Aaron. He was, arguably, the best baseball player ever to play the game. With the ability to hit for average, power, stretch singles into doubles, steal bases, go from first to home (who can’t remember him scoring on Edgar’s double in the Kingdome against the Yankees?), and play, again arguably, one of the best center fields of all time, Ken Griffey Jr. was the one guy you could use to turn around a fledgling organization.
And when he first appeared in a Seattle uniform at the tender age of 19, it was apparent to all who watched him play.
It’s not often you get a chance to meet your idol growing up as a child. Even less often do you get to stand in front of him and ask him questions professionally. But when it happened to me, I’ll never forget it.
In 2009, when local boy Rob Johnson was added to the everyday roster for the Mariners, myself along with Pat Ryan, Bill Foley and Paul Panisko jumped on the opportunity to see him in action during the Mariners’ Opening Day festivities. Johnson was the backup to Kenji Johjima, and we were unlikely to see him even play during that series. But we made the trip anyway.
And when we were there, not only did we get to see Rob play, we also got to get to know Griffey. But it wasn’t until our trip back in 2010 when Griffey truly treated us as one of his own.
Here’s a column I wrote following my trip in 2010 when I finally got the chance to talk with my childhood idol.
Judging by the average douchebaggery from shock jocks and headhunting media outlets superstar sports figures have to put up with daily, it was no wonder Ken Griffey Jr. spurned my interview request a year ago.
Looking back, he was returning to a city that he almost single-handedly put on the baseball map – the same one that crucified him for signing a free agent deal to play in his home state of Ohio for the Cincinnati Reds in 2000.
And since his return to the Emerald City in 2009, he’s been more untouchable than MC Hammer circa 1993. It’s almost as though being an obvious first ballot Hall of Famer, Griffey’s been off limits to trash talking scribes looking for the almighty scoop.
Coldness and candor is a professional athletes defense mechanism. By not talking to the media they don’t know or trust, none of their words get twisted, rumors don’t get started and their lives aren’t turned into living soap operas.
I know as good as anyone negativity sells. Gossip columns and tabloids are in every supermarket check stand aisle, and the so-called professional journalists dig and delve into an athletes private life just for a byline on a breaking story.
Guys like Griffey can smell fear. And fear is exactly what I was giving off when I asked him for a minute last year. And the dirtier the headline, the more coverage it receives.
He saw right through me … Even if he misread my intentions.
However, one year later, Griffey’s just a regular dude.
In two visits to Safeco Field, Griffey has gotten to know us. KBOW radio’s Paul Panisko, Montana Standard sportswriter Bill Foley and myself have been in the mix covering Anaconda-born and Whitehall- and Butte-raised Rob Johnson during the Mariners’ Opening Day celebrations. It helps that his locker is right next to Johnson’s as well.
Last year, he warmed up to us after Johnson explained where we were from and what we were doing in the M’s locker room. This year, it almost felt he went above and beyond to make us feel at home.
When Robby was busy with the media following his first home Opening Day start in his career Monday in a 2-0 loss to the Oakland A’s, Griffey was shooting the bull with us and talking trash to Johnson.
By Wednesday night, after Johnson was late coming to the locker room while spending time with his son, Lane, Junior was telling us about his daughter’s AAU basketball adventures and bragging up his 16-year-old son’s leg press and time in the 40.
In other words, he was no different from your brother, friend or neighbor. He’s just a proud dad.
What’s more, that awkwardness I felt being in the presence of my all-time favorite sports idol was put aside because one of the 20-best baseball players ever to put on a major league uniform, and possibly the biggest star in Seattle sports history, took the time to be just a regular guy.
I won’t go into details what we talked about. I don’t think it’s my place. All I know is when a guy takes the time to make you feel welcome, especially when that man is a hero of your childhood, it cements the way you think about the goodness of people.
For two years, the only media entity in the press box that even gave us the time of day was Ryan Divish, a native of Havre covering the Mariners’ for The News Tribune in Tacoma. From what I’ve gathered, it’s no wonder these athletes walk on eggshells.
Seattle media, and even some of the M’s press box staff, comes off as stuffy and elitist. In two visits, we wanted as much to do with them as they wanted from us.
All we went out there for was to continue to spread the word of our own local sports icon Rob Johnson. But now, thanks to the calming embrace of Griffey, it seems as though we have a couple friends in that locker room.
So, how did your week go? For me, my three-day adventure ended when Griffey, normally short and sweet with the media, telling us to drive safely, thanked us for coming and shook our hands.
Rob has always treated us like gold. Now, thanks to him, Griffey does as well.
When was the last time your childhood came full circle? For me it was Wednesday. And I can’t tell you how proud to say Ken Griffey Jr. was more than I ever envisioned him to be.
After his induction speech tonight into the Mariners Hall Of Fame, I can sit back and comfortably say the man you saw speaking so candidly, humorously, peacefully, and poininently, was the same guy we got to know in 2009 and 2010.
As I look back at the column I wrote in 2010, the line about being a proud dad rings even truer. He broke down into tears when he saw a note from his son, Tre — the same young man he was speaking glowingly about when we were in the clubhouse — who couldn’t make the trip because he’s in preseason camp with the University of Arizona Wildcats football team. Then, when he spoke about his best friend Jay “Bone” Buhner, it brought it all home for me.
As a father myself now, when Junior turned and told everyone, in lieu of his own parents, the one man he would want to raise his children if something were to happen to himself or his wife was Jay, it was too much.
It was just Junior, front and center, from the heart.
I know he may never read this, but by chance if he ever stumbles upon it, congratulations on your honor Junior. You epitomize the class of an organization I’ve lived and died rooting for, and I feel as comfortable now as ever knowing my childhood idol was the perfect person and athlete to emulate.
And because I have a say in it, my own children will know the story of people like Rob Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. probably a little too well.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.