The most unmistakable part of the ceremony was the roar. When the gate in center field first opened, the roar rose quickly. It was the kind of roar that gives you goose bumps and makes your eyes water, the kind reserved for the most special occasions, the kind that can’t be faked.
And then the last great baseball superstar walked on the field, and the roar grew.
Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame on Saturday night, and a packed crowd at Safeco Field turned out to say thanks.
For any sports fan of a certain age — somewhere between 20 and 35 — Griffey was not just a part of their childhood, he was an iconic part of it. He was the perfect combination of talent, grace and movie-star coolness. It’s a combination baseball hasn’t seen since, because for all the good players and accomplishments since Griffey retired, the game has yet to have another like him.
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Justin Smoak, 26, remembers wearing Griffey’s shoes growing up. He remembers the swing, the backward hat, the home-run derbys.
“He’s Ken Griffey Jr.,” Smoak said. “I mean, come on.”
A few lockers down stands Brad Miller. He was born in 1989, the same year Griffey made his big-league debut.
“Anybody that grew up our age, it’s an easy question,” he said. “Who’s your favorite baseball player? Ken Griffey Jr.”
How many baseball players put out their own shoe and their own video game?
“We grew up on that,” Miller said.
In baseball, statistics are part of the charm. Few other sports hold such entrenched numerical milestones. Five-hundred home runs. Three-thousand hits. A .400 batting average.
And yet the thing with Griffey is that numbers never defined him. They only backed up what we saw. It would be like judging Van Gogh by the volume of paintings he produced. The word that keeps surfacing when people look back on Griffey’s career is beautiful. His spectacular catches climbing the wall, the way his body extended so pencil-like when he dove for a ball in the gap, and, of course, the swing.
Across the country kids flipped their hats backwards, grabbed a bat and wiggled it in quick circles. The trick came once contact was made: The good Griffey imitators could mimic the bat drop and stride out of the batter’s box, a combination that somehow made Griffey’s swing and home runs even more incredible.
Others have hit more home runs. Others have made spectacular catches. But no one has come close to doing it as coolly as Griffey. And in the end isn’t that what we demand of our superstars? That they don’t just produce but also leave us marveling over the way they did it?
Griffey’s speech on Saturday went longer than planned, but the feeling is that he could have gone on all night if he wanted to. At one point, he turned toward his parents seated behind him and thanked them for the way they raised him.
“They wanted me to be a kid,” he said, “and enjoy the things kids do.”
And that’s the way Griffey played, the way most of us fell in love with him. You didn’t need to understand baseball to appreciate Griffey. You just had to watch him blast home runs or crash into the wall or play his video game, and you knew he was different.
Ken Griffey Jr. was the last great baseball superstar, and now he will forever be immortalized as a Mariner.