The joy was gone, and now so is The Kid
Ken Griffey Jr. retired only after age took away the thing he treasured most — the joy of playing.
Seattle Times staff columnist
My last memory of the great Ken Griffey Jr.: It wasn't Sleepgate. It wasn't his final at-bat, a feeble ground ball that almost turned into a double play.
It was of the graying legend, the oldest Kid in baseball, sitting in the clubhouse before a game, joking about Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims' attire and pondering the most pressing question on his mind.
"You seen the previews for that movie 'Get Him to the Greek?' " he wondered. "Diddy's (rapper Sean Combs) in it. That's comedy, whether it's funny or not."
Not exactly Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, huh?
The strange moment came just last week, when Griffey had to be contemplating this abrupt retirement. He wasn't in the lineup that day, again. Though he has always been a clubhouse cutup, this felt different. His humor felt forced. He needed attention more than attention needed him. For a change, I wondered if he was having fun.
And now, he's an ex-ballplayer.
The game Griffey mastered has finished humbling him. Long ago, baseball took away his legs. Over the past two years, it claimed his bat speed. Then came the death knell: It conquered his joy.
Nobody had more fun than The Kid. The halogen-light smile. The backward cap. The cow in Lou Piniella's office. To baseball in Seattle, he brought recognition, prestige, greatness, expectations, awe, miracles. But most of all, he brought joy, soul-filling joy, smile-wider-than-you-ever-have joy — unabashed, unrelenting joy.
As long as Junior had joy, he was prepared to stick around, even if it was painful for us to watch, even if it was so far from the standard he'd established in the 1990s. He loved being around the game that much.
He stayed too long, but that's not the point. Babe Ruth, who also retired on this June 2 date 75 years earlier, was hitting .181 at age 40 when he quit. The 40-year-old Griffey: .184.
You don't rule this game. You keep its seat warm until it shoos you away. You need it more than it needs you. That's why many great players, in all sports, stay too long. Their improper exits shouldn't be discouraging. They're just proof that the game is the true immortal.
The only unfortunate part is that the struggles obstructed that Griffey smile at the end. Two teammates accused him of falling asleep during a game, and, boy, that awakened the critics. The man with 630 career home runs, fifth all-time, failed to go yard this season. And then he lost a starting job for the first time in his career, rendering him unable to silence his detractors, quieting his voice in the clubhouse, leaving him with awkward jokes and inner conflict over whether to walk away.
In spring training, Griffey watched Nomar Garciaparra weep through a retirement news conference and quipped that his goodbye announcement would be a simple, unceremonious one. He wanted a two-word fax.
"He gone!" Griffey yelled.
That's it? He gone?
No celebration? No news conference? No attempt at grammar?
"He gone!" Griffey exclaimed, louder. "That's all you need to know. He gone! You're gonna see a scroll across the television — 'Griffey says: He gone!' People will be like, 'He gone?' And I won't be around to explain it."
On Wednesday, "He gone!" actually became a 270-word statement. But Griffey did walk away without fanfare, without a farewell address.
For as fun-loving as Griffey is, he reveled in the fact that the public, especially the media, didn't really know him. Sometimes, he hid behind his lightheartedness. Sometimes, he turned cold and refused to talk. Never has a superstar flipped between down-to-earth and mercurial so naturally.
The most meaningful paragraph of Griffey's statement: "While I feel I am still able to make a contribution on the field, and nobody in the Mariners front office has asked me to retire, I told the Mariners when I met with them prior to the 2009 season and was invited back, that I will never allow myself to become a distraction. I feel that without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my teammates, and their success as team is what the ultimate goal should be."
In other words, he couldn't stand performing like a nobody and having somebody pressure. He had been reduced to such a bit player that he couldn't enjoy the game anymore. So he had to leave.
No joke. No joy. No more.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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