Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Welcome Back, Junior

As swirling rumors regarding Ken Griffey Jr.'s return to the Seattle Mariners accelerated into a full-blown media tempest this week, many of you have called, texted, or Facebooked me to get my thoughts on the situation. I am grateful for the interest and proud to know that my love for "The Kid" is renowned enough to generate some interest from my friends.

For those of you who are unsure of what I'm referring to, here is a quick recap:
Ken Griffey Jr, the single biggest reason that Seattle sports ever gained national respectability, has spent the last nine seasons playing for the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox. As recently as a week ago, it seemed certain that Griffey would resign with the Mariners for the upcoming season. Then, the day of his supposed signing, the Atlanta Braves announced that they were moments away from signing Griffey themselves. The last three days have been filled with conflicting reports about Junior's next team.
Until, finally: (!)

Now that Seattle's greatest athlete has returned, let me share my thoughts on the situation with you.

*First of all, the kid in me is ecstatic. I have literally fallen asleep to thoughts of Griffey playing as a Seattle Mariner again. My childhood memories are dotted with flashbacks to Griffey's sweet left-handed home run swing -- the one with the follow-through that lifted your heart like a Whitman poem, of Griffey scaling outfield walls to make highlight-reel catches, of his marquee-bright smile, and of the excited buzz that every M's fan felt when he strutted up to bat.

*As a baseball fan, however, the reaches of my childhood wonderment has its limitations. The Ken Griffey Jr that signed a one-year contract with my favorite team is not the same one that signed with them as the #1 overall draft pick as an 18-year old. Griffey is 39 now, 20+ years into his career, and baseball years are like dog years, making Griffey the hardball equivalent of a 140-year-old Golden Retriever.
If you're expecting to see Number 24 running around making diving catches and hitting 50 home runs, you'll be grievously disappointed. Once considered the premier outfielder in baseball, age and injuries have relegated Junior to a far-below-average defensive player -- one whose presence in a Major League outfield would be an actual detriment to his team's success.
Griffey's offensive abilities have not trailed off to the same extent. His swing looks as fluid as ever, but the bat-speed that used to separate him from mortals has diminished. He still maintains the potential to hit a fastball out of the yard on occasion, but an overall examination of his numbers leave him as an average Major League hitter.
This can be broken down further, so bear with me. When batting against right-handed pitchers, Griffey is still a very dangerous hitter. His offensive output, if we take him at his word to have fully recovered from his most recent knee injury, can be well above average if he only bats against right-handers. His ability to hit left-handers, however, has receded into the realm of atrocity. If he bats against left-handed pitchers this year, he will damage the Mariners' chances to win.
This means that in order for Griffey to help the Mariners win games, he will have to platoon as designated hitter that only plays when the Mariners are going against RH pitchers.

*Finally, there's the redemptive/conciliatory angle to this story. Griffey is like that first girlfriend you ever had -- the one that everyone loved as much as you, but that only you got to call your own. You'd never felt anything like this, couldn't imagine that it could get any better and yet, it did. Life with her just kept getting awesomer as you witnessed her grow into a beautiful, talented, compassionate woman. You just knew you were going to spend the rest of your life with her, grow old and raise a family, get a house and fill it with memories.
That's when Griffey left the Mariners to play for Cincinnati, his hometown team. All of a sudden, the girl of your dreams had run into an old flame and you realize that you weren't her first love. You had worries that she would leave you for someone else, but you had always brushed them off as irrational. After all she had been for you, and you for her, she would never actually leave you. Then she starts to answer phone calls from her ex, begins name-dropping him in conversations. Pretty soon, the writing is on the wall: her ex still has her heart and she sees a better life with him than with you.
You begin arguing with her, pleading with her to come back, giving her lavish gifts. It's no use. She leaves you alone, trying to pick up the pieces. Now your food doesn't taste quite as good, the sun isn't quite as bright, and the girls that you try to replace her with lose 90 games a year.
You fell in love again a few times, shared some great memories, but the highs just weren't as high with the other girls and you both knew it. You spend the next 9 years trudging through your days, the memories of the love of your life dimming with each passing night.
All of a sudden, one day, when things seem their darkest, you see her at a coffee shop, alone. She's aged a bit, doesn't look quite the way you remember her -- until she smiles. Then it all comes flooding back. She's still got that "it factor" that drew you to her in the first place. You begin talking, one thing leads to another, you play all the games and then finally you decide to get back together.

Today is that day. I'm so happy to have Griffey back in my life, and though I still feel a little jilted about the way he left Seattle in 2000, the positive associations I have with Griffey far outweigh the negative. Griffey in a Mariners uniform just seems right. Like it never should have stopped happening.
I know that he won't be the MVP that he once was, but I don't need him to be. All I need from him is that big smile and his best efforts.
Seattle loves you, Ken Griffey Jr, and if you'll just love us again, I think we can be very happy together. The Mariners probably won't win very many games this year, but your presence on the team has the potential to turn an otherwise dreary summer into one filled with excitement, joy, and maybe just one game-winning home run.

Welcome back!