The pundits, undoubtedly, will seize upon two things in an attempt to summarize the career of Ken Griffey Jr.
There is the fact that, in an era defined by steroids, Griffey managed to post historic home run totals without being tainted by the specter of performance-enhancing drugs.
And there is the fact that, despite 2,671 regular-season games, he never got to taste the nectar of a World Series appearance — the second-longest drought in history.
Yet while the experts will pontificate about what Griffey meant to the game, employing verbosity to paint a mural covering 22 seasons, the most succinct summation comes from a reader comment on The Seattle Times website: “My childhood officially ended today.”
Is it possible to articulate a more elegant eulogy for Griffey’s baseball career? Is it possible to better define the feelings of Northwest baseball fans Wednesday, as Griffey announced his retirement?
For many, many people, Griffey is baseball in the Northwest, defining the childhood of countless fans from the moment he donned a Mariners uniform as a precocious 19-year-old.
Baseball, in this regard, is unique. It is the only major team sport in which a superstar can be expected to have a 22-year career. The only major team sport in which a particular player can grow old along with his fans.
As Griffey aged, so did we. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. Always evolving.
And Griffey mirrored those changes more than anyone in Mariners history. Heck, there wouldn’t still be a Seattle Mariners if it weren’t for him.
Younger fans might be able to look at the stats and see the 630 home runs. They might be able to read about the highlight-reel catches and the MVP award and the 13 All-Star Game selections, but they will never understand the 1995 season if they didn’t live through it.
That’s when the Mariners rallied from a 13-game deficit in the AL West, won a one-game playoff to earn their first postseason berth, and beat the Yankees in five games as Griffey slid home on Edgar Martinez’s two-run double in the 11th.
It remains the signature moment in Mariners history, and it literally saved baseball in Seattle, providing the impetus for the construction of Safeco Field. Somehow, it’s fitting that Griffey was at the middle of it all, with the photo of him at the bottom of the home-plate dogpile becoming an iconic image.
That is an important part of Griffey’s legacy. So is his evolution from “The Kid” playing with joyful abandon into a mature statesman of the game. So is the fact that his record makes it clear that he ranks among the sport’s all-time greats.
And if the darkest stain on Griffey’s resume is the churlish manner in which he talked his way out of Seattle in February 2000, well, that can be forgiven.
At least it wasn’t steroids, which is the consistent black mark among the home run hitters who have been his contemporaries. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Rafael Palmeiro. Alex Rodriguez. Sammy Sosa. Each of them has been tainted, but not Griffey.
Yes, all of those things are part of Griffey’s legacy, and they are worthy of mention.
But for Mariners’ fans, Griffey always will be remembered for the way in which he embodied baseball’s majestic, lyrical quality. The Boys of Summer, and all that.
With the sweetest swing imaginable and the ability to rob opponents of potential home runs, a young Griffey exuded joy and youthful awe in his own abilities. And in the process, he helped define the childhood of baseball fans throughout the Northwest.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jaynecolumbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne