The Kid, The Son, The Natural, The Legend: Ken Griffey Jr. Retires

Michael Tillery | 6/4/2010, 5:36 a.m.
Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. Courtesy Photo...

Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. Courtesy Photo.
The day Ken Griffey Jr. cried for the first time his legacy was cemented and not simply because he was in the land of the living. He and Hall of Fame baseball legend Stan Musial were born in the same city (Donora, PA), the same day (11/21), 50 years apart. That their names are synonymous transcends eras of fans, athletes and a soul for the game transferred from his Father's love for his profession to the baseball diamonds in a young Griffey's eyes.

That was just the beginning. 630 home runs and infinite smiles later, Junior retires from baseball the same day he was the number one pick in the draft 23 years earlier. For the game, it's definitely apropos he retired as a member of the Seattle Mariners for he saved baseball in the city and because of his popularity, Junior had a lot to do with the building of Safeco Field.

Life was so different in 1989. It was tense year for change. There was Tienanmen Square, the introduction of Sega Genesis and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Rain Man won the Oscar for best picture. David Dinkins became the first Black mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder the nation's first Black governor. Public Enemy dropped Fight the Power. To put the year in further perspective, 1989 was the year current pro athletes Michael Beasley and Freddy Adu were born and also the year boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson, Black Panther Huey P. Newton and actress Lucille Ball all left us.

We needed a smile...

At 19, Ken Griffey Jr. stepped into a major league batter's box with the highest of expectations and hit a double in Oakland off ace Dave Stewart. He followed with a home run his first at bat in the Kingdome and Seattle fans were sold on his youthful expressions, talent and passion sui generis. The world got a supreme look at baseball's future and before the injuries he was as good as any athlete in any sport we have ever seen.

It began with his Pop.

Ken Griffey Sr. was an outfielder for those great Big Red Machine teams of the 70's and Junior was in the club house when the Reds won the World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. Their relationship was special and it was never more evident than when they both played with the Mariners in 1990 and 1991. The Griffeys became the first Father and son to become teammates and also the first to hit back to back home runs in Angels Stadium on September 14, 1990.

Earlier in the initial game as teammates, Junior stated his best moment was when his Pop threw out Bo Jackson at second from left field...Harold Reynolds applied the one hop tag and the mercurial Jackson was out by four steps and left shocked.

He hit his 500th round tripper on Father's Day and with the landmark homer he tied his Pop in hits with 2,143.

What a Father's Day gift that was...

His 600th was smashed with his Dad and family in the stands. The Griffeys are a soul model example of a family story every kid should know regardless of race.

Because we are so close in age, his performance resonated personally in a way other superstar athletes could not. I was coaching at the 13-15 level in baseball and most of my kids...even if they batted right...would turn their hats around and try to hit from the left side in emulation of The Kid. They had the stance down...the confidence...the look to left field before the windup...the bat movement high behind their collective helmets. It gave me a chance to teach and my teams were some of the best all around in the state. They played with vigor and had a zest for the game leaving some coaches intimidated.

I let them play with fun in their soul and just like with Griffey some thought it was an exercise in disrespect. Nothing could be further from the truth for Junior, like a buddy of mine says, was the first baseball superstar of the Hip Hop generation and played with a natural flair arguably never before seen.

The game was so easy to Ken Griffey Jr.

Think about it. The day Junior retires, there was a near perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga. During, there was a catch in the ninth reminiscent of famous robberies by Willie Mays and Griffey that fell from the heavens and into Austin Jackson's glove. I wonder if Jackson had any idea his amazing catch would be lock step with history...

Unfortunately, we live in a cynical world and pundits will associate Junior's career with an air of underachievement for whatever reason to suit their definition of journalism. They'll scream he didn't get to or win a World Series and also criticize Griffey Jr. for not working on his body as much as they thought he should.

Remember something, his body is his and his injuries were not a byproduct of partying too hard or running the streets. Ken Griffey Jr. is a great family man who relished every moment with his kids just as his Pop did with him. His injuries were a result of freak plays. Rounding third, there's a chance anyone's knee could pop or running after a ball he had to have, there's a chance of suffering a wrist injury hitting the wall.

He came back and while he was never the same player, he was great enough to keep smiling and finish what he started ala Chris Webber and Grant Hill.

He played hard, won hard, lost hard and smiled hard.

His is also a story of perseverance and labeling his career as nothing but top level is diminishing a chance to place his career in proper perspective with our youth in mind.

There will forever be comparisons to Barry Bonds, just as Willie Mays is compared to every nuance of Hank Aaron and that is fine as long as the right connections are made.

Bobby Bonds and Ken Griffey Sr. had as much a hand in history as their more famous offspring.

Before Barry's power explosion, Griffey was the player we all thought would smash Hank Aaron's mark. It was great to see Junior battle Mark McGwire in 1997 when he hit 56 and again the next year when he rocked the same power number. We thought at least he would catch Willie's 660 but Bonds got there first and then eclipsed Hammerin' Hank.

The specter of steroids will shadow the legacy of Barry Bonds but not so with Ken Griffey Jr.

It's no coincidence Bonds and Griffey Jr. became the game's best. It's a testament to the success, failure, wisdom, resolve and commitment each Dad shared with his prodigal son.

Each played for his Dad's former team where it appears the game latched onto sons on a collision course with the pinnacle of baseball history.

Junior was so close to his Dad, so why not take a chance to play in Cincinnati where his mind and soul were burned with definitive baseball glory?

The fans of Cincy deserved an opportunity to see his talent come to fruition. They watched him grow from a child into a once in a generation talent and despite 3 maybe 4 lean years in terms of production, but the city will cherish Ken Griffey Jr. nevertheless.

The fans of Seattle wanted one more shot of cheer, so for 24, it was back to the great northwest...
Many players do not get the opportunity to go return home again and as the video shows, Griffey is beloved in Seattle. He blazed memories to generations of fans because he's one of the greatest on and off the field.

Remember the smile and subsequent step out of the batter's box when he hit the warehouse during home run derby in Camden Yards?

Remember the crowd's response?

It wasn't merely his offense that made us look. He was an athlete who revolutionized an athletic position, is one of the best center fielders of all time (thanks Matthew Whitener of Cheap.Seats.Please) and will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Junior won 10 Gold Gloves...one for each year of the '90's. He had an above average arm and a Seattle glove Gary Payton could envy. He made the spectacular look routine.

One of the greats is gone and the pages of time are advanced once again.

Slow down your thoughts...as if you were in his cleats...chasing down a ball...like only he could...and remember his love of the game simply for what it was...

Just a great time with Dad.

Michael Tillery writes for thestartingfive.net.