Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The End of an Era: Here's to the "kid"

There are millions of old men who grew up in New York in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s who will tell you that a part of them died in 1995 when New York Yankees icon Mickey Mantle passed away from cancer. They will tell you that the “Mick” was the greatest natural baseball player they had ever seen, and that their childhood was now officially complete---even 40 years after they were out of high school.

That day has now arrived for me with the announcement that Ken Griffey, Jr. has decided to retire after 22 years in the Major Leagues.

Griffey was not only the most gifted baseball player I’ve ever seen in my lifetime; he was the guy every kid growing up wanted to be. He was fast, strong, and as exciting a person as he was a player. Go outside right now and see guys wearing their hats backwards. You were seen as trying to be too cool before Griffey made it the norm in the 1990’s.

I was born in 1988, just a year before Griffey made his debut with the Seattle Mariners. Griffey, the son of ex-major league all-star Ken Griffey, Sr. was a heralded prospect who reached the big leagues at age 19. He would never disappoint. Although he was already a rising star in the game, Griffey came into his prime during the 1994 strike season when many felt he would challenge Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. The next season, Griffey would pick up right where he left off.

1995 was a transition year in my life. I was seven years old when my parents decided to move to another neighborhood in part because there were no other young people my age that I could hang out with. In September of that year, 1995, I started a new school. Almost immediately, on September 6, 1995, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr. broke the record for consecutive games played with 2,131. Although I really had no bearing for what Ripken was accomplishing, it was still a highlight that I remember watching on television to this day.

However, there was another guy I would see on Sportscenter almost daily during this time. Griffey, Jr. was shown almost daily hitting a home run, making an otherworldly catch, or making running from first to home look like a fox running the bases. He also had a persona that would light up the television. I knew I wanted to be exactly like him.

Around this time of 1995, basketball was my primary sport. I shot around everyday in our backyard, and though I had played baseball in the yard it was not a major focus for me. In early October of 1995, I began to have a change of heart. Griffey had just led the Mariners to the division series against the New York Yankees. They went down in the best of five series 2-0, but rallied to force a game five. Trailing by one in the bottom of the ninth, Griffey singled up the middle to tie the game. In a moment that I can still clearly picture and hear, I’m still awed by how it came to change my life. Edgar Martinez ropes a liner into the left field corner, broadcaster Brent Musberger: “Griffey, is coming around, in the corners Bernie [Williams], he's gonna try to score, here's the division championship, Mariners win it! Mariners win it!" It’s said that Griffey’s feet didn’t even touch the ground as he ran, although that’s just a rumor. Everybody who saw that moment will never forget it. It was Griffey at his most elegant, and graceful self just flowing around the bases without a hitch. I still have the Sports Illustrated cover of him scoring the winning run in my room.

My sports life would never be the same.

When we moved on November 6, 1995, two things happened: the Cleveland Browns announced they were moving to Baltimore and Ken Griffey, Jr. was the biggest sports star---other than Michael Jordan---in America. When I was younger, I was a tad big and was not all that fast. The new kids my age in the neighborhood, though, all liked to play baseball so I played with them everyday. I would try to be Junior, either making running catches, stealing bases, or hitting left-handed. I would run sprints everyday so I could get faster to play centerfield. It was my main goal to someday play centerfield on whatever team I played on, bat third, and wear number 24. I saw Griffey play numerous times in Baltimore in the late-90’s, and every time I saw him I gushed over his persona and ability on the field.

Five years later in 2000, Griffey would leave the Mariners to join his hometown Cincinnati Reds. He was never really the same player as age and injuries would catch up with him, but I still continued to try and emulate him. I was able to play centerfield on my team and would bat third. I became just as fast as anybody else I played against. In high school, I was able to be the centerfielder for three years, and although I never hit third, I still tried to emulate Griffey out in center just like usual.

Griffey was a megastar when I was growing up. He had a Nike shoe just like Jordan, his hat was worn backwards, and he was simply the coolest guy playing baseball. I played his video game in the summers of '97 and '98 with my neighbor that lasted well into the night. No baseball player had his own game like that before, and really no other has since quite like Junior.

His star faded as the generation grew up, as injuries and age would really wear him down before his final tour back in Seattle, where he is charged with saving the Mariner franchise and getting the city to build Safeco Field, but he is still revered by my peers and me. Griffey will finish with over 600 home runs, which is an amazing feat. He is also one of the only big sluggers of the era who is not seen as a performance enhancer, which makes his star shine brighter in some eyes. He was still one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen. If he decided he wanted to be a football player, he could have played in the NFL.

For me, Griffey came along at the right time. His star shined the brightest in the mid to late 90’s when I was trying to find somebody to emulate in baseball. I often watch Griffey highlights to this day and continue to marvel at what he accomplished and how he was able to do everything so gracefully on the field.

Watching him at the end of his career was not pretty, but in years to come nobody will remember 2007-2010; they’ll remember the guy who was the modern-day Willie Mays. The guy who shattered his arm making an incredible catch against the wall, and the guy who wowed us all at the home run derby’s. Griffey will go into the hall of fame in five years, and there isn’t anyone who deserves to be enshrined there from this era more.

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