Ken Griffey Jr. is nervous.
He’s done hitting home runs, 630 of them. He’s finished defying the body’s limitations to make amazing catch after amazing catch. He’s no longer carrying a baseball team, or a city, or a thrill-fiend sports world. After all these years, after all that excellence, his only task is to bask in celebration. And that scares the swagger out of him.
As he prepares to be inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame on Saturday, Griffey says he’s more nervous than excited. It’s about more than just the natural fear of speaking to more than 40,000 fans. For all Griffey accomplished in baseball, for all the confidence greatness requires, his complex personality includes a fascinating strand of humility when it comes to others recognizing his success. He doesn’t consider it a given, perhaps because his 22-year major-league career came with spurts of difficulty, controversy and polarity.
It’s hard to fathom, but there’s a significant part of Griffey that cringes and ducks at the notion of what we think about him.
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“You never know what somebody might say,” Griffey said Friday.
The legend formerly known as The Kid still possesses that boyish shyness. Gray is invading his goatee, and you notice some thinning near his hairline, but just as he played with child-like enthusiasm, he approaches this honor with innocence.
“I was nervous three weeks ago,” Griffey said. “I was nervous a month ago. I was nervous two months ago.”
Stepping into the batter’s box with the pressure to captivate every time? No nerves. Putting his health at risk to snag a fly ball? No nerves.
Reveling in his iconic career?
Hand-trembling, stomach-turning, voice-softening nerves.
Throw a party for Griffey, and of course, he’d be worried that no one will show.
And that’s why Saturday will be a special, heart-tugging ceremony. That’s why it will be cathartic, too.
It’s time for the biggest superstar in Seattle sports history to receive an everlasting applause, one so powerful that it washes away the conflict and allows both the player and his admirers to be at peace.
It’s time to celebrate the transcendent player and accept that he didn’t play all 22 years here. Accept that he left without saying goodbye. Accept that he went home to Cincinnati after the 1999 season. Accept that he returned as a diminished player, played 150 farewell games and retired abruptly in June 2010, calling from Montana to deliver the news on his cross-country drive from Seattle to Orlando.
Understand that Seattle saw the best of Griffey, and that experience elevated the standard for a sports superstar in this city forever.
For once, fans have a chance to provide Griffey with a jaw-dropping moment. When he hears the echoing applause Saturday, Junior’s insecurity about this day — and maybe his insecurity about a lot of things — will evaporate. He will be touched beyond words. And his genuine emotion will carry the moment into unforgettable status.
“I never thought that something like this would ever happen,” Griffey said.
He was too busy excelling to stop and ponder the fruits of his greatness. Now, three years removed from his playing days, Griffey had better get used to being celebrated. First, the Mariners Hall of Fame. Next, Cooperstown in 2016.
Even Willie Mays — “the godfather of center fielders,” Griffey said — talked openly about attending The Kid’s inevitable Hall of Fame induction in a few years. During a Safeco Field luncheon Friday, the Mariners played a video tribute that included everyone from Bo Jackson to Mike Trout. Mays closed his remarks by saying, “I think you’re a cinch (to get to Cooperstown). I’ll be there. You can bet on that.”
“I just want to come sip Crown (Royal) and shut down Cooperstown with you,” said longtime friend and teammate Jay Buhner, who attended the luncheon and fought back tears.
Former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson called Griffey “one of the most generous guys I had the privilege to play with.” Pitcher Randy Johnson marveled over Griffey’s sweet swing and the many homers Junior erased for him with his stellar outfield defense. Alvin Davis says that when he tells people he helped mentor a young Griffey, they don’t ask the customary “Who’s the best player you ever played with?” question because that answer is obvious to them.
“Son, I appreciate everything you’ve done,” Ken Griffey Sr. told his child Friday afternoon.
Now, everyone can appreciate the legend formerly known as The Kid one more time.
Griffey joked that he got credit because “I just happened to be that cute face.”
He was more than a cute face, for sure. But Saturday is all about that face, which once represented this town with extraordinary joy.
Let’s see the smile again. Let’s make him grin until the wrinkles come.
Let’s make that smile the lasting image of an icon who might finally come to understand his impact.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer