My favorite athlete of all-time: George Kenneth Griffey Jr. It’s safe to say his place will never change. I’ve never had an emotional attachment to any athlete before, during, and after his time playing, the way I did for Junior. He made an impact on my life.
I was born in 1983. I don’t remember the day Kenny was drafted in 1987, but I remember his debut in 1989. I was a few months shy of turning six when it happened. Having a brother four years older always helped in those late 80’s/early 90’s historical events. (Watching “Smells Like Teen Spirit” debut on MTV, the “Up Up, Down Down” Konami code for Nintendo, how to record a radio station onto a cassette to create mix tapes, etc.) My brother liked Kenny and so I followed suit. My brother guided me well.
My dad did his best to take my brother and I to as many games in The Kingdome as possible. We lived in North Seattle (now called Shoreline) so the commute wasn’t bad at all. My dad was a Union Carpenter and worked long hard hours but he’d get home around 5, boil some hot dogs and wrap them in foil, pack up his blue and yellow Mariners gym bag (giveaway) and off we went! We’d go to see the Mariners because they were our team, our love. We also went to see a booming young stud play center field. (P.S. – Thanks to The Kingdome for graciously providing condiments for our hot dogs over the years!)
The Mariners were pretty awful. If you’re reading this, you most likely already knew that. In those early Griffey days, 5,000 people would head to The Kingdome for their love of the game (and probably because of free company seats). I loved The Kingdome. It was a place of excitement, bonding, and love. It was my home away from home.
I gravitated towards Ken Griffey Jr. because of his amazing promise, youth, and love for the game. I can close my eyes and see his ear-to-ear infectious smile. I hope that image never fades from my memory bank. I also gravitated towards him because his jersey number matched my birthday. “24”. It was as if it was meant to be. My favorite player and I shared a common bond at all times.
We all know the superstar Kenny turned into. He was the talk of the town (and at times the country). He was so cool that he turned a generation of youth into backwards cap wearing, home run trotting, backyard sluggers. Hell, I even tried to bat left-handed a few times just to pretend I was hitting bombs into the 3rd deck at The Kingdome. I miss those days immensely.
I was a huge baseball card collector. Yes, I still have 6 or 7 full binders in my closet of the stars of yesteryear. Some people will say they’re worthless nowadays, but to me, they’re a piece of my youth. As some of you may recall from my blog post about surviving cancer, baseball was a key contributor. Those cards that sit in their 3×3 plastic pages are a reminder of that time in my life. So is Ken Griffey Jr.
I remember hoping that in every pack of Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck, and so on, that each time I’d reveal #24. And when I did? I’m sure I had an infectious smile just like his. I remember running to show my mom or dad the newest treasure and lifting it towards the sky as if I was Link from The Legend of Zelda. It was gold to me.
I still have unopened wax packs of his chocolate candy bar. An unopened box of Frosted Flakes with Kenny and Tony the Tiger on the front. I have Ken Griffey Jr. pogs. I have many Sports Illustrateds and Becketts (card pricing mags) with him gracing the cover. He was everything to me.
He kept the Seattle Mariners from moving to Florida. He made Seattle “cool”. He made the Mariners relevant on a national level. The ’95 Slide will likely be the greatest moment in club history. Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” will always have a place on my phone as a ringtone (along with the imagery of The Kingdome’s video screen “person” swaying their arms from side to side when Junior came to bat.)
The day Junior was sent to the Reds… my heart hurt. It was like my girlfriend cheated on me. It was like the one person I put all support, love and happiness into, wanted out… and I couldn’t figure out why. What happened? Things were going so good. I’ve never done well with post-rejection/fallout. I became bitter towards Junior. When the Mariners played Cincy in 2002, I rooted against him; I stood up and cheered when he got out. It was wrong, but it’s how I decided to deal with the anger.
For my 20th birthday, I finally got an authentic Mariners jersey. After being spurned by players like Shawn Kemp and other athletes leaving, my jerseys becoming worthless (this was before wearing a “throwback” was considered cool. You didn’t wear jerseys of players on old teams. You’d get razzed.) So I wanted the one number that meant the most to me. #24. But I didn’t want a Griffey jersey. I was still hurt by him leaving but I knew it was the only number I could ever wear.
The solution: a Seattle Mariners jersey with the number 24 but with the last name of Boyd. I wear it to every game. It was never a knock towards Junior. It was our number; kinda like joint-custody if ya will.
The city of Seattle fell back in love with Junior when he came back with Cincinnati in 2007. It was emotional, it was memorable, it was unforgettable. It left me with the feeling of “he should have never left” and deep down, I believe he feels that way too. My friend knew how much Junior meant to me so she bought tickets for me on my birthday to see Junior play the Mariners. June 24th, 2007. Old #24 on the 24th on my 24th birthday. Crazy, right? Kenny hit two home runs, passed McGwire for seventh on the all-time homer list, and the Mariners still won. I’ll never forget it.
I’m glad he came back in 2009. It was exciting to say the least. The day he signed, I may or may not have gotten a tear in my eye. I really wish things could have ended on a much better note. I was present at Safeco Field the day he announced his retirement. The tribute video on the center field video screen may or may not have stirred up another tear in my eye. It hit me like a ton of bricks that my favorite player of all-time was never to return to the diamond.
Thank you Ken for filling my life with so many positive memories.