It was the people on the field and the video board who seemed to have the most profound effect on Griffey.
So here was the task: The Mariners had to pay homage to a man who was not only the greatest player to come through their organization, but the most talented, most revered athlete in Seattle sports history. And on top of that, they had to do it after every gushing testimonial had been penned, after every glowing tribute had been aired.
It’s hard to think that baseball fans in this city could ever get enough Ken Griffey Jr., but after his Hall of Fame induction and all the fawning that went with it, it was even harder to think the M’s could provide something that packed that same emotional punch. But I’ll be damned – they managed to pull it off.
The Mariners retired Griffey’s jersey throughout the organization Saturday, meaning no player on any level can wear No. 24 again. It was a fitting gesture for an icon who represented an entire generation of Major League Baseball players.
The capacity crowd repeatedly expressed its admiration for “The Kid,” giving the 13-time All-Star one standing ovation after another. But it was the people on the field and the video board who seemed to have the most profound effect on Griffey.
It started with a montage of memories from some of the usual suspects: Felix Hernandez, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson — Mariner legends who witnessed Griffey’s wizardry first-hand.
Spliced in were tributes from present-day greats such as Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and David Ortiz, the last of which confessed how “embarrassing” it was for him to watch Griffey make the game look so easy.
Lou Piniella, Harold Reynolds and Jamie Moyer, added their salutes, then public address announcer Tom Hutyler introduced Griffey, which caused the fans to explode as he walked toward the diamond from the center field. Touching moment, but he hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.
Alvin Davis, Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner and Moyer joined Griffey on the field soon after. Rick Rizzs, the ceremony’s emcee, summoned Martinez from the dugout a minute later. Then, the first big surprise of the night — Hank Aaron popping up on the video screen.
“You are where you’re supposed to be,” said Aaron, referencing to Griffey’s Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Griffey was visibly emotional after the shoutout, raising his eyebrows while exhaling in awe. But Hammerin’ Hank’s appearance was much more a prelude than it was a grand finale.
Rizzs went on to introduce other Seattle sports Hall of Famers, starting with Cortez Kennedy and Steve Largent of the Seahawks, and continuing with Spencer Haywood and Gary Payton of the Sonics. Then, other great No. 24s — Kobe Bryant and NASCAR star Jeff Gordon — paid their respects to Griffey on the video screen.
The thing is, nobody — not even Bryant — seemed too big for the occasion. Griffey was among legends, yes, but he was also among equals.
Rickey Henderson and Tony Perez, who also wore 24, joined Griffey on the field soon after, but the highlight of the evening came minutes later, when Willie Mays appeared on the big screen and told Griffey to call him anytime he wanted.
Griffey didn’t hesitate. He called him right then.
One day earlier, Griffey was asked if he was going to cry like he did in Cooperstown, but he offered no response. But when his daughter unveiled his retired number, which now sits next to Jackie Robinson’s 42 in left-center field, he couldn’t hold back.
Tough to blame him. The Mariners outdid themselves on this one.
When Griffey took the mic, he thanked the influential figures of his life as well as the crowd. He then implored the current Mariners to keep fighting and for the fans to keep supporting them.
His best line, though, came at the end, when he ribbed Henderson, who once said “I’m the greatest of all time” after breaking Lou Brock’s stolen-base record.
“Rickey,” Griffey said, “you used to be the greatest, but today I’m the greatest.”
After that ceremony, it would be tough for him to think anything else.