Ten years ago this week, one of Seattle’s biggest sports heroes captured the attention of the entire sports world for eight-straight days. Quick, think, mid-July of 1993. Remember what I’m talking about?
It was the week of the streak, or more specifically, Ken Griffey Jr.’s string of eight-straight games with a homerun.
Griffey, then 23, was atop the baseball universe. Playing in his fifth season with the big-league Mariners, he was already being compared to Willie Mays. Cameras flocked to him. Kids loved his flare and ability to hit the long-ball. No. 24 was all the rage.
In Seattle, he already had a chocolate candy bar to his name and an Upperdeck rookie card that was the trendiest possession in town. Dubbed “The Kid,” George Kenneth Griffey Jr. could do no wrong.
I remember that July day when he tied the record, belting a homer in his eighth-straight game. I was 13 at the time, a recent graduate of seventh grade, in Tacoma’s hilltop neighborhood watching a friend’s basketball game. That day, I sat in the upper bleachers with a Walkman - headphones over both ears - relaying pitch-by-pitch accounts of the game to those around me.
When Junior belted the historic homer, we all went nuts.
Even at that age, I remember the excitement Griffey’s streak generated in a region otherwise dominated by football and basketball. At a time when the NBA’s SuperSonics advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals and the NFL’s lowly Seahawks selected Rick Mirer with the No. 2 pick of the draft, Griffey was the only reason to care about the Mariners.
And nobody cared more than I did.
That’s just the way it always was with Junior. He was Mariners baseball long before the days of Lou Piniella, Safeco Field and Ichiro. Griffey was the sole reason people came to the ballpark (if you could call the Kingdome that). He was the only draw.
And summer after summer, that’s the way it was. Junior Griffey, as ESPN’s Chris Berman nicknamed him, would do his thing, putting the team on his shoulders. Undoubtedly, the Mariners would suffer another losing season, but with Griffey aboard the ship it almost didn’t even matter.
No other player in the game could compare. While his grace and fearless defensive style in centerfield drew praise and admiration, it was his power and beautiful left-handed swing at the plate that attracted the fans.
For a decade Junior gave Seattle sports fans enough memories to last a lifetime. Then, in February of 2000, he left us for Cincinnati, a place he’d wanted to go since walking around the Reds’ clubhouse while his father, Ken Sr, played for the Big Red Machine in the 1970’s.
That’s when it all went bad for Griffey. One by one, the different media outlets in Seattle bashed the longtime Mariner for leaving the team he’d grown up playing for. They questioned his character, pointed to his moodiness, dug up all the dirt on him they could find.
All this negative attention to a guy that never once made his way into the police blotter, a ballplayer that donated his time to charities and put smiles on the faces of dying children.
When Griffey demanded to be traded to Cincinnati, Seattle turned its back on the person who put its Major League Baseball franchise on the map. They felt betrayed, abandoned, misled.
All I felt, though, was pain. I remember sitting on Montlake Boulevard in my car waiting for the Montlake Bridge to lower when the news came across the radio, “Ken Griffey Jr. has been traded to the Cincinnati Reds.” It was as if someone had slugged me in the chest.
Opening Day the next season, the Mariners played host to the Boston Red Sox and a homemade sign over the left-center power alley read “Thanks Junior.” I made that sign. It was shown on SportsCenter that night (as the M’s were shutout by Pedro Martinez) and I felt my message had been conveyed.
I held on to the small hope that maybe Griffey himself had seen that sign, and got the message that there were still those in the Northwest who remembered what he’d done for the city, for baseball and for young kids looking for someone to idolize.
Then, realizing there was nothing more that could be done, I held on to the hope that Griffey’s sweet swing would translate into big-time production in the National League, that he’d find success and happiness in Cincinnati.
Over three years have passed since that first Opening Day without No. 24 in center, and life in Cincinnati has proven to be anything but happy for Griffey. Thursday, he tore a tendon in his ankle, yet another in a long list of injuries since joining the Reds. It was determined that he will miss the remainder of the season.
For the third year in a row, Griffey’s season has ended prematurely. Now wearing No. 30 on the back of his jersey, his swing is still the prettiest thing in baseball but his body isn’t what it used to be. In recent years he’s struggled with knee problems, tight hamstrings, a separated shoulder, and now this, the ankle.
I grew up hearing about this. I read about how Willie Mays could barely run in his final over-weight years in a New York Mets uniform. And today, I see Rickey Henderson, at age 44, back in the Majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a shadow of his former self. He’ll be lucky to bat .220.
But these guys were old. Griffey, after all he’s been through, is still in his early 30’s.
What I’d give to go back 10 years, to relive the streak, to watch No. 24 fly around the bases and score from first to beat the Yankees in ’95. That’s the Griffey I’ll remember.
On this day, July 17, 2003, when the future of Junior’s career is more in doubt than ever, here’s to hoping for more days huddled around a Walkman.
Joe Kaiser is the publisher of InsidethePark.com. He graduated from the University of Washington in 2002, lives in Bellevue, Wash., and welcomes your feedback at email@example.com.