Junior puts smiles back on our faces
Leave it to Ken Griffey Jr. to give Seattle something to celebrate. In this dreary, going-nowhere season, he has given baseball fans here...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Leave it to Ken Griffey Jr. to give Seattle something to celebrate. In this dreary, going-nowhere season, he has given baseball fans here a reason to smile.
It seems Junior always has been able to do that for this city.
Even before 1995, he kept fans in their seats until his final at bat. He brought anticipation to every fly ball he chased, every pitch he saw. He was a star. Seattle's first, true major-league star.
And equally important, he knew how to have fun. He brought joy to the ballpark. He played the game. He never worked it.
Monday night, in the first inning, in the South Florida swelter against Marlins left-hander Mark Hendrickson, Griffey hit the 600th home run of his remarkable big-league career. He is the sixth player in baseball history to reach that milestone.
That sweet, sweeping longball swing that is so familiar to Mariners' fans delivered one more time. And, though Griffey hit it for the Cincinnati Reds, this is a moment that Seattle can share. After all, the first 398 homers of his career were hit for the Mariners.
And, unlike all of the other sluggers of his generation, Griffey's home-run march was free of controversy. There was no mention of possible federal court appearances, or IRS investigations.
In the era of juice, Griffey hits his long balls juice-free.
For Junior, playing baseball always has been about joy, not juice. And that joy was contagious. Even before the winning began, baseball in Seattle always was fun when he was here.
Now the Mariners clubhouse has all the excitement of a detention hall. There is no joy at Safeco Field.
It was so different when Junior was here. He was The Kid. and he played like one.
"Sometimes he would strike out and come back to the dugout with a smile on his face, kind of making fun of himself," Mariners' manager John McLaren said recently. "He'd say something like, "How about that for a great swing?' And the guys would laugh.
"And then, the next time up, Junior would hit a ball 600 feet. Sometimes you don't need a guy yelling and screaming at you. Sometimes you just need a guy who makes the players laugh. Lightens the mood."
Imagine what Griffey would think of today's Mariners clubhouse. This team of stuffed shirts could use a guy like him lightening the mood.
"He was a youngster having a blast," former teammate and friend Harold Reynolds said last night, riding a train into Manhattan. "I watched him grow from a little boy into a man, but throughout the journey he made everybody around him have fun.
"It didn't matter if you were 0 for 20, or he was 0 for 20. It didn't matter if you were on a seven-game winning streak, or a seven-game losing streak. He just made it fun to play the game."
Griffey always has been a little bit of Peter Pan and a lot of Willie Mays. He has matured, but he has never stopped being playful. He's 38 going on 19, and I mean that as a compliment.
He was the best player on his team and the best kind of player to have in the clubhouse. He could blow the gloom out of the room with one infectious giggle.
"If you have a talent like he does, it just permeates throughout the whole team," Reynolds said. "And it's one thing to have a class clown, but when the class clown's the best player, that's a good combination."
Griffey always has been a class clown with class.
Looking back, it's hard to believe that former Yankees manager Buck Showalter got offended at the sight of Griffey, in Seattle, taking batting practice with his cap turned backward. A stodgy traditionalist, Showalter thought Junior was disrespecting the game.
Showalter should have understood that Griffey was honoring the game, not disrespecting it.
Who knows if or when Griffey will return to Seattle? Who knows how much he has left in that sweet, sweeping home-run swing? But we all should know that he's still having fun. He's still The Kid.
"It is the perfect nickname for him," Reynolds said.
The Kid delivered again last night. Another vintage long ball that should have put a grin on the face of even the most sour Mariners fan.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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