BY Art Thiel 10:00AM 08/10/2013

Thiel: Time for fans to end ‘yes, but’ with Griffey

The legacy of Ken Griffey Jr. is a complicated saga. But controversies are done. Feats transcend his foibles. The night is upon Seattle fans to cheer his brilliance and our luck.

Trey Griffey, joined by his father, Ken, and former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson after his high school career in Orlando concluded. / Wiki Commons

For those of us who benchmark our lives by sports events played or witnessed — a first game, a championship, a heartbreaking loss, a thrilling witness to the unexpected, a career celebrated, a passion shared  –  another milestone with Ken Griffey Jr. occurs Sept. 28, his next trip to Seattle.

From 1989, when he debuted in the Kingdome, through the 1995 breakthrough season, to the 1997 MVP award to the controversial 1999 trade to the second departure in 2009, we first arrive at the moment Saturday when he will be celebrated by a sellout Safeco Field crowd at his induction to the Mariners Hall of Fame.

Next month he will return to watch his son, Trey, play wide receiver for Arizona when the Wildcats play Washington at Husky Stadium in the Pac-12 Conference football opener.

The Kid, who played major league baseball with his father in the Mariners outfield, now has an athletic son as old as he was when Junior became a major leaguer in Seattle. In the acronym-pickled world of Twitter, the awareness is a “smh” moment — shake my head.

The passage of time strikes in ways surprising, saddening and marvelous, all at once. That the 24-year Griffey family arc now includes a Division I footballer is an awkward stretch for an imagination that insists Griffey’s theatrics were mere eyeblinks ago.

The point hit home Friday at the Hall of Fame luncheon at Safeco Field, a fundraiser for Children’s Hospital. Griffey was joined by his wife, Melissa, his father and mother, kids Taryn and Tevin (Trey is in fall camp) and his “brothers” of the glory time, who grow more sepia-toned each year — Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson, along with Alvin Davis, whose career ended as Griffey’s began.

As the Safeco video screen displayed a splendid compilation of Griffey at bat, on the field and bases, and clowning in the dugout, it unlocked memories that seemed nearly fresh. That had the virtue of allowing Mariners fans seated at sun-drenched tables on the field to suspend without guilt the connection to the last decade’s travails and aggravations. That was a rare thing.

The Griffey era and its successes, but absent the ultimate success, creates in Seattle fandom a “yes, but . . .” reaction nearly every time 1995 or Griffey comes up in conversation. It’s a legitimate, justifiable reaction, because fans are so sick of the organization hanging its hat on a freakish six weeks of baseball, with little in the subsequent 18 years to merit any similar community exaltation (speaking of freakish: The 2001 season, take a bow and move on).

The dismay over unrequited success has the effect of diminishing the worthy deeds done at the time, for their own sakes. Yes, the continuum is relevant to fans who pay today’s dollars wanting, without real hope, a similar experience. But connecting the dreary recent outcomes with the glories diminish enjoyment of the time when so much baseball fun was had by so many.

The 1989 team that Griffey joined for the first time also had Martinez, Johnson and shortstop Omar Vizquel, all in my estimation worthy of baseball’s Hall Fame. It had Jay Buhner, whom Griffey Friday said “was the heart and soul” of the mid-90s teams. In 1993, it added the volcanic, shrewd Lou Piniella as manager.

The Mariners didn’t have a winning season until 1991 and didn’t make the playoffs until 1995, but offered compelling sports theater until after 1999, when the theater itself, the glittering, hitter-averse Safeco, helped give Griffey another reason to ask out.

Griffey himself contributed to a growing dismay because his mood would sometimes turn dark. His demands of the franchise became a fixture in the seasonal dramas (“Where’s my pitching?”). Deep down, Griffey was a shy sort, and often used humor to blunt his insecurities, especially when swarmed by adult crowd seeking some sort of piece of him.

As instantly comfortable as he was in a major-league clubhouse, batter’s box or center field, he was equally as uncomfortable with many other aspects of being of the greatest stars in baseball’s history, all the way to his final gesture as a player. Without notice to virtually anyone, Griffey, benched at 40 over a lack of production, simply jumped in his car and drove home to Orlando.

“I told people when the time came, I didn’t want a press conference or a farewell tour,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a distraction.”

For someone usually uncomfortable explaining his successes, he was not about to linger to explain his failures. But the abrupt departure was another reason for a minority of Griffey-bashers to resent him. Tolerance in some people, it seems, is low for those who are not superstars in all aspects of life.

“It was on-the-job training,” Griffey said Friday. “Sometimes, people misunderstood.”

As nearly the perfect ballplayer, Griffey could never match that standard for his off-field demeanor, at least as far as some adults were concerned. Kids were different. Griffey’s persistent work with Children’s Hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Boys & Girls Clubs testified to a generosity rare for any pro athlete in any market.

He explained a little of it Friday.

“When I came up, I was told to pick a charity,” he said of a decision not usually on the plate of most 19-year-olds. “I said Boys & Girls Clubs. I was one of them.”

In some ways, Griffey was always a kid in his time in Seattle. Immaturity is hardly a trait uncommon for superstars: From Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Wilt Chamberlain to Muhammad Ali to Pete Rose and a hundred other examples, the blessed are cursed with having their shortcomings examined, their indulgences exposed. The fate is neither right nor wrong; just part of the deal in American pop culture.

But all of the Griffey controversies are done being important; they are part of his legacy, sure, and the fan is left to choose.

This weekend he enters the club’s Hall of Fame. Doesn’t matter what the Mariners franchise has done or not done since his departure. Doesn’t matter whether some of his words and gestures weren’t the equal of his talent.

What matters is that Griffey’s incandescence lit up Seattle for a decade as no athlete has, or likely ever will.

“This is where I grew up,” he said. “I became a man here, got married here and had two of my three kids here.”

Time to drop the “yes, but . . .” and embrace the notions that he was brilliant and we were lucky.


YourThoughts

  • SandlotSam

    I agree. The purity of tonight’s celebration should match the purity of Griffey’s talent. Time to embrace transcendence unfiltered.

    • art thiel

      My guess is you enjoyed the embrace.

      • fairmontdave

        Ken will always be remembered as the best professional Seattle athlete. He had his faults, but if you examine them from his point of view, they are a natural extension. He left for Cincinnati, partly because of his dad’s legacy, partly because of Safeco, partly because of Mariner leadership.
        Seattle had the opportunity to boo the Beavis and Butthead leadership during the remembrance, and didn’t, because of who Junior is. Junior meant too much. I cried during the ceremony, and was ashamed of how the Mariner’s played that night!
        Yes Art, I enjoyed the embrace!

  • Ron

    You can’t just give Griffey a pass for the darker moments. The way he left turned what had been a nice potential ending in 2009 into a moment we would like to forget but can’t. Griffey was the greatest player to ever play for the Mariners but he isn’t the greatest Mariner.

    I look forward to the ceremony tonight and I remember him fondly, but even Ichiro with all the issues that come with him, seems to have been a better Mariner. None of these guys are perfect but Griffey did not mature, and did not show respect to the fans of Seattle, from demanding a trade to leaving without a word. Because of who he was, he should have at least had a press conference at the end. Since he didn’t we as fans have every right to think of Griffey as less than the greatest Mariner. Edgar did things with class, even with the rumors of Ichiro, he has been a mostly classy baseball player, Randy Johnson despite his bad last season at least tried to stay with the club.

    Griffey has always been immature, and has not shown signs he has grown from it. We continue to praise him despite how he has treated the fans of Seattle and continue to give unconditional love for the guy. Many people wonder why athletes seem immature and continue to behave as if they can do no wrong. It is because of this unconditional support fans have for players because of how they play. I remember Griffey fondly but not as fondly as Edgar or Ichiro or Dan Wilson.

    • jafabian

      Randy stuck with the Giants to get 300 wins. Junior is the best Mariner player. If you’re going to judge the players for the kind of person they are that’s a different matter. And fans never know that fully. They only know the image the club projects and what the media reports.

      Picture where the M’s would be if they drafted Mark Merchant instead of Junior. They’d be in Tropicana right now.

      • Ron

        Basically my point if I was more articulate is that Griffey earned his “yes, but.” We can praise him and remember him well, however we can’t forget the other stuff as well..

        • Brett

          Or we can simply get over it. This idea that Griffey disrespected the fans with his departures is silly. His reasons for doing so had nothing to do with the fans. Was he a perfect person? No. Could he be petulant at times? Yes. But the positives he brought to this community are so overwhelming that whatever tiny bit of negative there was is rendered moot.

          • art thiel

            Part of the Griffey history is that he re-upped with the Mariners twice before demanding a trade. He had his reasons for leaving — the new ballpark, the divorce of his parents, living so far away in Florida — that had nothing to do with fans. And the second departure was his reluctance to hold a press conference to say he’s old and failing. I wish he had the courage to explain his decision publicly, but I’m also not him and can’t know what it is like to have such splendid skills betray him.

        • art thiel

          Ron, you make a good point, and I don’t think any of us should forget Griffey’s flaws, because they offer object lessons for ourselves and others.

          Forgiveness? That’s what I was talking about.

      • art thiel

        Fans can never know fully, J, and neither can media. Sally Jenkins wrote a book on Lance Armstrong and didn’t get what a pathological liar he was. Joe Posnanski was halfway through a book on Paterno when the Sandusky story broke. He had no idea Joe Pa was so oblivious or self-absorbed that he couldn’t see beyond his legacy.

        And if your claim is that they are lousy journalists, I would ask you or anyone if you have ever come across anyone among family, friends, co-workers that you cared about who did something out of character, dumbfounding and otherwise unpredictable. If you say it has never happened to you, you’re lying.

    • art thiel

      A reasoned argument, Ron. My intent wasn’t to rank or compare Griffey to others, except to say in my brief list of other superstar athletes, that all were objects of controversy for some aspects of their behavior/performance. But the passage of time tends to diminish their shortcomings and enhance their achievements. That doesn’t mean that you have to forgive any for something that truly offends you. Griffey did that for some.

      Some who remember Ali in his heyday still will neither accept or forgive. But time has revealed to most of us what a significant, breakthrough, entertaining figure he was, well beyond sports. But he was vilified by many in his time.

      To many in his day, Ted Williams was a world-class jerk. Same with DiMaggio. Now we have Lance Armstrong. Some would say what happened under Joe Paterno’s watch, even though he did not commit foul deeds, diminishes him greatly.

      Our relationships with the truly great sports figures is complicated. We want them to be paragons of virtue, rectitude and humility. As with Edgar — far as we know. But their humanity is just as flawed as the rest of us. It’s almost as if we can’t forgive them their humanity because they thrilled us with sports.

      If the worst thing, Ron, that you can say about Griffey is that he is immature, well, I would agree. I can live with that. He was a jerk to a number of people. But the combination of his athletic achievements combined with the giving of time/money/passion to kids and others of less fortune outweighs his flaws.

      We all have lines we draw. I understand yours. All I ask is to consider the bigger picture of human nature.

  • jafabian

    I remember when Junior was playing at Bellingham and both scouts and players of opposing teams were saying he would become the Jordan of baseball and he became just that. It’s amazing he won only 1 MVP award. If he was with the Yankees or Braves instead of the M’s I believe he would have matched Randy’s Cy Young total. Credit Junior for staying with the organization as long as he did instead of bolting the first chance he got a la ARod.

    I’m looking forward to seeing where his career path takes him. I don’t think he has the patience to be a manager and I think he knows that. Maybe as a coach. Not sure if he’s cut out to be a GM either. However I do think he’d be great as a recruiter of some sort. He understands and appreciates Mariner history and the Seattle area.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think Junior has a future in baseball except as an occasional spring-training instructor. He’s such a natural that the hard work it takes to do other jobs just isn’t in him. He truly likes being a dad, and when the kids are grown, I have no idea what he’ll do, and I think I know him a little.

      • jafabian

        Agree with you hear Art. I’ve noticed in the past few years Jurior has developed a penchant for storytelling. I imagine he got that from Dave and Lou. I could see him being an occasional in studio analyst but not full time. As you said he’s such a natural as a player I don’t think he’d break things down the way Bill, Val and Hendu can. And his personality wouldn’t allow him to give the constructive criticism the job would demand. I can see him being brought in to talk to prospective free agents and draftees on the pros on being a Mariner. Heck, he enjoys Seattle so much and can talk so much about it he might as well go work for Seattle tourism!

  • Joe Fan

    Can’t do it Art. As far as I’m concerned, Junior is the greatest Mariners baseball player and one of the greatest players of all time, but his sometimes surly attitude and the fact that he burned the team twice, really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Congrats to Junior on the hall of fame, but he gets no “pass” from me, and I’ll be watching the Sounders tonight.

    • art thiel

      Read my responses above, Joe, and let me know how you feel.

  • Tian Biao

    I completely agree with Art. Griffey was a joy to watch, especially in his first few years, a magnetic attention-getting transcendent ballplayer who always, every time i went to the park, did something remarkable. He had more fun on a baseball field than anyone I’ve ever seen. I was there in the 1980s, and we never had anyone you could point to and say, he’s a superstar. That changed the day Junior arrived in Seattle, and it lasted for 11 years. He represents the best era in Mariner history, and a really good era for me as well, and I have a head full of great memories and a heart full of fondness for the man. Was he perfect? Of course not. He was a flawed superstar, but aren’t they all? Aren’t we all? Here’s to you, Junior. Thanks for everything. ps I highly recommend the Wayback Machine article on Griffey a few days ago – excellent.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Tian. Absolute conformity to our expectations for someone else is a rare thing. Best to try to understand human nature before passing judgment.

  • just passing thru

    Everyone has their warts. Junior spurned and was immature to a city and fan base, twice. I’m pleased to seem him recognized for his baseball accomplishments and charity work. He was fantastic to watch play ball, and that’s what this is about.

    • art thiel

      Fans always want the sports hero to love them as much as they love the hero. Not gonna happen in a high-stakes business.

      • just passing thru

        Agreed. Sports worship is full of wishful thinking.

  • RadioGuy

    I’m with Ron. Griffey deserves this, just as he’ll deserve first-ballot entry to Cooperstown. As a player, he was nonpareil.

    On the other hand, I’m not going to develop selective amnesia about the way he forced his way out of Seattle the first time by demanding he ONLY be traded to Cincinnati (kudos to Gillick for getting the players he did, considering how Bowden had him over a barrel), then walked out on his teammates ten years later without so much as a goodbye…they deserved better.

    Get back to me when the Mariners induct Jamie Moyer into their HOF. Tonight? I’ll watch the Spokane-Arizona AFL playoff game instead.

    • Brett

      And as a 10/5 player, Junior had the right to choose who he wanted to be traded to. So he wanted to play where he grew up. What a jerk. Ironic you bring up Moyer, whose public image doesn’t exactly align with the person he is.

      • art thiel

        So in the future we will have this same discussion about Moyer?

    • jafabian

      Not to put down Jamie, he was a solid contributor for the M’s and his foundation has been wonderful in helping others, but a few months ago KJR was having a roundtable discussion and one topic was local athletes who could be difficult to interview and Jamie was in the top five. All involved described him as “surly” in media interviews and I can’t say I recall him ever having the kind of relationship where he’d pie a reporter and then good naturedly wipe them off like Junior did with Paul Silvi. I was surprised that none of the participants involved could say anything good about Moyer in regards to interviews.

      • art thiel

        I know that side of Jamie. In his case, he had an intolerance for stupid questions. I can appreciate that, because he’s heard a lot of them in 25 years in baseball.

        I tried to do the minimum requirement for my job: Ask a good question. Failed miserably many times. But I made a point of approaching Jamie with something other than, “Whudja throw on the home run?” Every time I did, I received an answer so thorough that I occasionally had to cut him off because I was on deadline.

        Without saying it directly, his attitude seemed to be: I’m a professional trying to do my job right, and if you do the same in your job, we’ll be fine.

        • jafabian

          Certainly says something about the line of questioning KJR does!

    • art thiel

      Radio, I wasn’t saying you or any of us should forget. Forgiveness is another matter, and that’s a personal judgment. All I’m saying is that if you consider the two career judgments that he made were selfish because he didn’t consider the consequences to you, me or teammates, well, I ask that you apply the same rigidity to career moves made by you, and anyone, when control was in your hands.

      Remember, he took less money to go to Cincinnati than Seattle offered to stay.

  • Will

    Fans have only two sources for information concerning pro athletes: watching the games and what sports reporters choose to say. Meaning, one is objective and the other is subjective so I say, don’t judge Griffey …he’s now an old timer, let him have his turn in the fading spotlight and simply remember him as a great player.

    • art thiel

      As I responded above, rarely do any of us get to another person so completely that we can never be surprised by an action or a feeling. Good, honest reporters try to learn, but they can’t know either.

      If a sports hero needs to be flawless to earn a fan’s respect and admiration . . . ain’t gonna happen.

  • cal

    Ken was my son’s#24. Willie was my #24. Griffey was a family man like me.His greatest act was showing up late to a playoff news conference with reporters muttering that he was going to stand them up. He apologized for being late because his daughter made him stay and watch cartoons with her.
    .