It's Like You Never Left, Kid

Grown men reduced to tears, a rock star downloading 14-year-old playoff footage on his iPhone, an entire city falling in love all over again: Ken Griffey Jr. is back in Seattle, and, damn, it feels good
April 26, 2009

Before the start of the Mariners' home opener last week, Ken Griffey Jr. emerged from behind the outfield fence onto a red carpet, beneath a canopy of blue, green and white balloons, and a wave of nostalgia swept off Puget Sound. In a field-level seat on the first base side of Safeco Field was 20-year-old Garrett Imeson, who at age 11 months had been in the stands for Griffey's 1989 debut in Seattle. ("He's a foundation of my childhood," Imeson said.) In terrace-club seats on the third base side were Carlee and Spencer Butherus, who are expecting a baby boy in July and naming him Griffey. ("He's bigger than life for us," Spencer said.) In the concourse was a vendor who goes by Rick the Peanut Man, and he could not help but give Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, a hug. In the upper deck, fans hoisted letters that spelled: the kid is back. In the front row autograph seekers dangled Griffey's rookie cards. The Mariners essentially made their home opener Turn Back the Clock night. They did everything but serve 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. chocolate bars and blast The Way I Swing, the rap song cowritten by Griffey and Kid Sensation in '92. The full-throated standing ovation started before Junior hit the red carpet in right centerfield and persisted even after the next player, third baseman Adrian Beltre, was introduced, leaving Beltre to wonder if any of the love was actually for him.

"It takes you back to the mid-'90s, front yard, hat backward, wiggle in your stance, sweet lefthanded swing," says infielder Matt Tuiasosopo, who grew up imitating Griffey in nearby Woodinville, Wash. "Now, I walk in the clubhouse, and I still get starstruck when I see him. It's Griffey, man, Griffey. My friends don't even ask me that much about playing in the major leagues. They ask me what it's like sitting on the bench next to Griffey."

Outside of Green Bay it is hard to find a city that gets more sentimental about an athlete. When Griffey signed a one-year, free-agent deal with Seattle in February, Dave (Softy) Mahler was so giddy that he lost his voice while hosting his talk show on KJR 950 AM. When Griffey hit a home run on Opening Day in Minnesota, members of the Mariners' marketing and community relations staff watching it on TV wiped away tears as they celebrated at the Pyramid Alehouse across the street from Safeco Field. On the night of the April 14 home opener, Grammy-nominated band Death Cab for Cutie was on tour in Minneapolis, where front man Ben Gibbard watched Griffey's first at bat on his laptop in the Millennium Hotel. "I just kept thinking, I should be at that game," says Gibbard, who is from Bremerton, Wash. When he awoke the next morning, craving another Griffey fix, he queued up Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series on his iPhone and watched Griffey race from first to home in the 11th inning against the Yankees, a series-winning sprint punctuated by a dog pile at the plate, the 25-year-old Kid grinning beneath all the bodies. "Even if they are just bringing him back as a p.r. move, it doesn't matter," Gibbard says.

Four days after that mad dash in '95, then Washington governor Mike Lowry convened a special session of the state legislature—the only special session he called in his four-year term—to secure nearly $300 million of funding for a new baseball stadium in Seattle. The measure passed and prevented the Mariners from being sold and moved to Tampa Bay in the off-season. Yet when it is suggested to Lowry that he is the person most responsible for saving baseball in the Pacific Northwest, he demurs. "No, if you're going to give credit to anybody, give it to Griffey. That image of him crossing home plate, that huge infectious smile of his, it grabbed the hearts of the people of Washington."

It takes you back to the mid-'90s, front yard, hat backward, wiggle in your stance, sweet lefthanded swing. Now, I walk in the clubhouse, and I still get starstruck when I see him. It's Griffey, man, Griffey. My friends don't even ask me that much about playing in the major leagues. They ask me what it's like sitting on the bench next to Griffey.
Mariners infielder Matt Tuiasosopo​

The stadium is not the only Seattle landmark with Griffey's fingerprints on it. In the summer of '89, Joshua Prince-Ramus was a 19-year-old college student home for the summer in Poulsbo, Wash. His mother hung a photo of Griffey in his bedroom with the message, THIS GUY HAS A $90,000 SUMMER JOB. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO? That summer Prince-Ramus landed a job running errands for a law firm, later graduated from Yale, went to Harvard's Graduate School of Design and became the lead architect in charge of designing the Seattle Central Public Library. "I always made a connection between Joshua and Griffey because they were the same age, same height, same weight," says Marcie Ruskin, Prince-Ramus's mother and a Mariners season-ticket holder since 1984. "When I see Griffey, he takes me back to that time. He makes me think of my son."

One might assume that all of these people would have forgotten Griffey, considering that he left 10 years ago, or resented him for essentially forcing a trade out of town. To the contrary, their affection only grew stronger with time—in part because his reason for leaving, to go home to Cincinnati, resonated with them. When Alex Rodriguez returned to Seattle in 2001, after leaving as a free agent for the Rangers and a record-setting contract, fans dumped fake dollar bills on the field and scrawled signs that would later become tabloid headlines and clubhouse nicknames: A-FRAUD, NIM-ROD, A-WAD. When Griffey returned in 2007 with the Reds, the same fans cheered him like a son. One sign in the stands read, I WISH I KNEW HOW TO QUIT YOU, GRIFFEY.

Last year the Mariners lost 101 games, the first franchise with a $100 million payroll to pull off the feat; the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City; and Seattle-based Microsoft announced plans to lay off thousands. Griffey represented a link to a booming time, when the Mariners were a regular contender, the Sonics were in the NBA Finals, and Microsoft was launching something called Internet Explorer. Griffey would sit courtside at Key Arena, begging Sonics coach George Karl to give him a 10-day contract. "There was a feeling of rejuvenation back then," says Karl, now the Denver Nuggets' coach. "The streets were crazy. The Mariners were good, the Sonics were good—the scene was hot, and Ken Griffey Jr. had a lot to do with it."

Griffey met his wife, Melissa, at an underage dance club in Seattle called Oz and courted her with dinners at Cucina! Cucina! He lived in a modest house in suburban Renton, then a bigger one in Issaquah. When he asked to be traded from Seattle to Cincinnati in 1999, he said he wanted to be closer to his family, but since his family was in Orlando, the rationale sounded fuzzy. "It's a fine line between love and hate," Griffey says. "When I got to Cincinnati, there was a lot of hate mail [from Mariners fans]. Then, over the years, people started to understand why I did what I did." They heard him talking in interviews about the two-hour flights he was catching to Orlando, the off-days he was spending with his children. "We believed him," says Robert Imeson, a Mariners season-ticket holder since 1989, who took not only son Garrett but another son, Parker, to watch Griffey when they were infants. "It's a lot easier to tell your kids that a player is leaving for family than for money."

When he is in that Mariners uniform, he still looks like a kid. But he's a man now.
Ken Griffey Sr.

At Safeco Field, Griffey has the same locker, same parking spot, same uniform number, same luxury box for his guests he had before he left. Visitors to the home clubhouse are again greeted by a face that looks exactly like the one on the 1989 Upper Deck rookie card, only now the face belongs to Griffey's 15-year-old son, Trey. Griffey is 39 years old with an expanding waistline, specks of gray in his goatee and no hi-top fade. The Kid faces adult stresses. His parents are divorced, and in a one-week span in 2006, both were diagnosed with cancer, Ken Sr.'s prostate and Alberta's colon. They are both in remission, and on April 14 Alberta was at the Mariners' home opener while Ken Sr. was being introduced as the commissioner of the new Florida Winter Baseball League. But one person close to Griffey did not make it. His best friend, Frank King, whom he had known since elementary school in Cincinnati, died of rectal cancer last year. "When he is in that Mariners uniform, he still looks like a kid," Griffey Sr. says. "But he's a man now."

GRIFFEY WAS forced to grow up the moment he left Seattle. He had one winning season with the Reds, seven managers and missed more than 400 games because of shoulder, knee, hamstring and foot injuries. A 10-time Gold Glove centerfielder, he tried to play right in Seattle's home opener, but his back stiffened, and he was sent to the bench as a designated hitter, where he figures to spend most of this season. "His burst is gone," says a National League scout who has been watching Griffey since he was a minor leaguer in 1988. "Even the swing is slow. Seeing him now makes you confront your own mortality."

In this backward baseball era, when so many of the best players simply refuse to age, Griffey's steady decline may be more of a testament than an indictment. He has not been linked to steroids, not even in clubhouse gossip circles, and his body did what most unenhanced middle-aged bodies do—it became softer, slower and prone to breakdowns. "I think we know now," said the scout, "after everything we've seen, that Ken Griffey Jr. was clearly the best player of his era."

"I'm not a player who beats his own drum," Griffey says. "I put up O.K. numbers—not Bugs Bunny--style numbers like some other guys—but O.K. numbers. It doesn't bother me that I didn't get all the recognition. It really doesn't. I tried to keep things as honest as possible. People will either appreciate it over the years or they won't."

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who says he had been plotting Griffey's homecoming since the All-Star left, paid him a visit in February at the National Pro-Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach. The two had dinner, during which Armstrong asked Griffey to come back, not because he would be a boon to the box office, but because the team needed a lefthanded power hitter in the middle of the lineup. Griffey was thinking seriously about signing with the Braves because they play closer to Orlando, but then he remembered Emmitt Smith going out with the Cowboys, Jerry Rice with the 49ers, albeit on ceremonial one-day deals. "The difference is, those guys didn't get to play," Griffey says. "I would have loved to see Emmitt get one more carry." A phone call from Willie Mays, brokered by Griffey's former Mariners teammate Harold Reynolds, helped close the deal. Mays had finished his career in New York with the Mets, hitting .211 in his last season, Exhibit A of a player who had hung on for too long. But Mays told Griffey that he was actually grateful for that opportunity because it allowed him to reconnect with the city that had embraced him first.

Like Mays, Griffey could be setting himself up for an ungraceful exit, but so far he is in the right place. At week's end the Mariners led the American League West, and though Griffey's batting average was .206, he had two home runs and an on-base percentage of .357. But Griffey is not here to work walks. When he homered in the second game at Safeco, against the Angels, he showed the crowd what it came to see—the facile, looping lefthanded swing, the casually dismissed bat, the middle-distance stare toward the rightfield seats.

I think we know now, after everything we've seen, that Ken Griffey Jr. was the best player of his era.

He still provides comic relief, one part of his game that has not changed. Griffey stopped an interview this spring at the Mariners' complex in Peoria, Ariz., when he spotted outfielder Ichiro Suzuki fiddling with a brown bag that looked suspiciously like a man purse. "I know that is not your bag!" Griffey howled at Ichiro.

"Yes," said Ichiro, just back from the World Baseball Classic. "That is my bag."

Griffey shook his head in mock horror. "Oh, no," he said. "Now I guess I've got to take you shopping, too."

DURING THE final week of spring training, as Griffey stood in the on-deck circle during an exhibition game in Peoria, he was reminded just how his unique relationship with the city of Seattle began. Sitting in the crowd was George Argyros, who owned the Mariners in 1987, when they had the No. 1 pick in the draft and Griffey was coming out of Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati. Argyros lived in Newport Beach, Calif., and he wanted the Mariners to pick righthanded pitcher Mike Harkey from nearby Cal State--Fullerton. Bob Harrison, a senior Mariners scout, liked Griffey better than Harkey, but when he graded the two, he gave them both 70 points out of a possible 80. About three days before the draft Harrison heard that Argyros was on his way to the Mariners war room at the Kingdome, and he knew what would happen if Argyros saw the identical grades. "He would tell us to take Harkey," Harrison says. "So I added a couple of points to Griffey's score." When Argyros left the war room, he told Harrison, "You take whoever you want, but be damn sure you're right."

Without those couple of fudged points in '87, without that furious sprint in '95, there would likely be no Seattle Mariners, no Safeco Field, no Butherus child named Griffey due in July. Griffey is uncomfortable with all the adulation, but he savors the notion that people will come to Safeco this summer to see him and stick around to watch someone else, maybe the next incarnation of the Kid. Because in a year, two tops, Griffey will slip back to Florida for good and into his second career as a self-proclaimed "permanent vacationist." But for now he is still working nights, so Seattle can take one last trip back in time.

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