As the Mariners slog through their annual campaign, the best and the worst of Seattle baseball is on display at Safeco Field.
Longtime fans are already well acquainted with what the worst feels like: If you endured the wretched Mariners teams in the 1970s and ’80s, you remember two decades of joyless seasons in a concrete bunker, where the most entertaining aspect of the game was watching the burly, bearded Bill “The Beerman” Scott lead The Wave in a near-empty Kingdome.
The best will be represented by Ken Griffey Jr., now on his way to senior status in his mid-40s, who will be inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame on August 10. It will be a moving event for the returning hero, the man who saved baseball for Seattle in a moment ever etched in local memory. His winning run in the 1995 playoff series with the New York Yankees in the Kingdome solidified baseball in the hearts and minds of Seattle. Talk of moving the team died; a new stadium was built. Griffey carried baseball home on his young legs.
No individual means more to Seattle baseball than Griffey. For 20- and 30-somethings, he is their Babe Ruth, their Mickey Mantle. A few years ago, Slate magazine ran a story declaring that Ken Griffey’s Upper Deck rookie card was the most popular in all of baseball history and that it fueled a boom in baseball card collecting. If you were a parent in the Griffey era, you might remember those cards and others filling shoeboxes. You likely had to buy Griffey T-shirts for your kids; you maybe had Griffey chocolate bars stuffed in the freezer. Everyone wanted a piece of Griffey: He was special, and we knew it.
Griffey in the ’90s brought baseball into Seattle family life. In 1991, his father, famed baseball player Ken Griffey Sr., joined the Mariners, and father and son played some 50 games together. Their pairing became the ultimate model in father-son bonding. We’ve had father-son presidents, but such achievements have always smacked of nepotism or dynasties. But father and son hitting back to back in the batting order, laughing and roughhousing on the field or in the dugout? Pure magic. Ken Griffey Jr. (“The Kid”) was the personification of everything wonderful about the sport. He drew in people who hadn’t cared about baseball before; he offered hope. If Kurt Cobain and grunge celebrated Seattle’s dark side, Griffey was its light.
Go to YouTube and watch Griffey highlights. When you see his spectacular catches as he lopes across center field, when you see his powerful home runs fly into the upper decks or out of stadiums, when you hear Dave Niehaus turn his thankless task of announcing Mariners games into broadcast legend, you will be moved by the memories, stunned that the Mariners ever packed such a punch or evoked such strong emotions. Sports franchises can do that, but not always. When it happens, it can bond a city and influence generations.
August 10 will honor Seattle baseball at its best, but it will also remind some of us of its worst. After Griffey is inducted, the current M’s will play the Milwaukee Brewers. For those of us with elephantine memories, we remember that the first time Seattle had high baseball hopes was in 1969 when we launched our first Major League franchise. But after a single season, the financially troubled Pilots were relocated by the American League and became the Brewers. We’d had a taste of real baseball, then had it snatched from the crib. It took a lawsuit and nearly a decade to get baseball back again.
That is far away and long ago, but baseball is about memory. The ritual of young and old watching games together. The loyalty and investment of time and emotion in young players, watching them come and go in a time-lapse version of the seasons, young in spring, traded or retired in winter. The legacy of Griffey was sweeter for some of us because of the painful memory of losing the Pilots and the agony of nearly two decades without the Mariners in the postseason. It was a drought ended by Griffey’s youthful summer reign.
This column first appeared in Seattle Magazine.