When word broke late Wednesday that Ken Griffey Jr. chose to sign with the Mariners over the Atlanta Braves, hysteria broke loose through Seattle–the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Starbucks offered $1 lattes. Griffey is the player that saved baseball in Seattle, a transcendent figure who loomed larger than the Space Needle. The “Kid” was the greatest all-around player of the 1990s and the image of him scoring the winning run in the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees will forever be etched into the minds of Mariner’s fans.
Junior made 10 straight All Star games in the 90s, as well as collecting 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Slugger awards. He hit 382 HRs in the decade and drove in 1091 runs, punctuated by his MVP season of 1997 when Griffey put up a line of .304-56-147. He is a definitive first ballot Hall-of-Famer and was the only active player to be named to the All-Century Team.
But Junior is so much more than just mind-boggling numbers. He was the young kid with the backwards cap and 1000-megawatt smile. He played the game with such passion and reckless abandon that he won over fans not just in Seattle, but everywhere the Mariners played. Griffey’s love of baseball was evident each time he stepped onto the diamond. He was the prodigal son of a struggling franchise, sent by the gods of baseball to leave an indelible mark upon the Mariners, finally giving them the identity they had sought for so long. The clouds seemed to shy away everytime Junior came to the plate, and the sun shone just a little bit brighter each time he robbed a foe of a would-be homerun.
Just as when he burst onto the scene in 1989, Griffey is joining a Mariners team that needs him much more than he needs them. The Mariners lost 101 games last year, and would undoubtedly struggle to sell tickets with the down economy and a god-awful mediocre team. Not any more; Griffey’s 1 year/$2 million contract will look like a bargain when factoring in all the ticket and merchandise sales that will accompany his return. His #24 jersey will sellout quicker than the Turbo-Man action figures in Jingle All the Way.
However, Junior isn’t just some golden cow for the Mariners to trot out onto the field. He still has some gas left in the tank, and is eager to prove that he can perform at a high level. Although last season’s numbers weren’t great (.249-18-71), Griffey is certainly an upgrade over Endy Chavez in left-field, and should also see some time at DH (again, not hard to improve over Jose Vidro’s performance last season). And who knows, maybe that fresh breeze blowing in off the Puget Sound will rejuvenate Junior enough to capture the spirit of ’95, and play one last time like the kid Seattle fell in love with.
Seattle sports were in desperate need of a shot in the arm after losing the Sonics to Oklahoma City and the disappointing Seahawks season. Wednesday night Seattle caught lightning in a bottle, as one of the city’s most beloved sports heroes finally returned home. M’s fans will once again get to see the Kid chasing down flyballs, and can “ooh” and “aah” at the swing sweeter than a box full of Krispy Kremes. Fans will finally have a reason to come to the ballpark and countless employees will have an excuse to call in sick. Starting April 6, Opening Day, Griffey will begin to write another chapter in one of the most storied careers in the history of the game, in the place where it all began. Junior saved baseball in Seattle once, and now the question becomes, can he do it again?