By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — During a fundraiser luncheon the day before his induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey, Jr. often looked a bit uncomfortable.
And not just because he was afraid of what stories Jay Buhner might tell.
No, this afternoon of having former teammates fawn over him, and tonight’s 5:30 p.m. pregame ceremony are a little awkward for Griffey because, as great as he was in his baseball career, he was never the type of person comfortable talking about himself.
Griffey was The Natural at the plate and in the outfield, and he’ll talk your ear off about a teammate or his three kids, but when his greatness is the topic, well that’s when The Natural is out of his element.
“Am I nervous? Yes. I was nervous three weeks ago, I was nervous a month ago, I was nervous two months ago when they told me,” Griffey said. “I grew up in a household where it was a lot easier to talk about somebody else than talk about you. My dad came home he’d always say ‘hey, how did the team do?’ ‘What did you do?’ would always be the last question. … Saying this, I understand the honor that it brings. Am I nervous? Yes. It’s a lot easier to be in center field and stand at home plate than to talk in front of thousands of people.”
And maybe this is the perfect way to celebrate Griffey’s Mariners career. Tonight’s festivities are sure to be a hit with the fans, even if a bit awkward for Griffey. But what better way to celebrate a career that, while unquestionably great, had a few awkward moments, from Griffey forcing asking for a trade before 2000 season, to his abrupt midseason retirement in 2010 that saw him hop in his car to start the drive back to Florida. There was no press conference, no chance for fans to give a proper sendoff, just a press release and thousands of miles of interstate.
“I told everybody from Day 1, I didn’t want to have a press conference, I didn’t want to be a distraction,” Griffey said. “I told Chuck and Howard that from Day 1, I was not going to be a distraction to this ballclub. People when you tell the truth and then it happens but people believe it’s supposed to happen a certain way, they get upset. I’ve always said I didn’t want a press conference, I didn’t want a farewell tour. It wasn’t me. I did it the best way I thought was easier for everybody, which was to get in the car and drive off.”
Yet awkward moments or not, Griffey is still one of the most beloved athletes this region has ever known. He wasn’t just a Seattle sports star, he was a superstar in every sense of the word, and we all got to watch him grow up with a team that had before him known nothing but losing. Losing him in 2000 was for sports fans like losing a first love, and much like with a first love, fans never got over him. So, it’s easy to let bygones be bygones and forget two departures that could have gone better. And the feeling is mutual for Griffey, who despite living in Florida and being from Cincinnati, in a lot of ways feels most at home in the Northwest.
“I basically grew up here, became a man here, got married here, had two out of three kids here,” he said. “It’s pretty much home.”
With all due respect to the likes of Steve Largent, Walter Jones, Gary Payton, and Edgar Martinez, Griffey is hands down the greatest athlete to ever call Seattle home. So, he’ll get the attention he deserves tonight, even if it makes him squirm a little bit. Even if he doesn’t love the attention, he very much appreciates it. He wasn’t sure how fans would react when he first returned with the Reds, and it turned into a three-day love fest.
“Those three days, wow, it was pretty impressive,” he said.
And Griffey, despite being a lock for a much bigger hall of fame as soon as he’s eligible — “I just want to sip some Crown and shut down Cooperstown with you, brother,” Buhner said — Griffey seemed to be genuinely touched and honored that the Mariners would make him the seventh member of their hall of fame.
“It’s disbelief of somebody doing something for you, thinking that highly of you to present you with an award. It took a couple of minutes to sink in,” Griffey said of joining the Mariners Hall of Fame.
This after Willie Mays, arguably the greatest player in the game’s history, congratulated Griffey in a video message that ended with a promise to be in Cooperstown when Griffey goes in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Griffey’s greatness will be celebrated tonight with one induction, then again in 2016 when he’s eligible for Cooperstown. It’s hardly what he imagined when the Mariners made him the No. 1 pick in 1987, or when he made the big league club as a 19-year-old, but nervous or not, Griffey had better get used to it.
“I never thought something like would happen,” he said. “I played baseball because I loved it. It wasn’t to get an award, it’s because I wanted to go out there each and every day and play as hard as I can.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.