Griffey leaves legacy, marches toward sunset
Peers weigh in as iconic slugger retires to baseball lore
As Ken Griffey Jr. glows into retirement, his going-away gift will not be the gold watch. It will be the bronze plaque that marks one's place in immortality on a wall in the Hall of Fame.
After watching, and sharing, for 21 1/2 years Griffey's march toward an eternal sunset, the rest of baseball on Wednesday watched him cross into it. In fiction, heroes emerge from the cornfield. In real life, they vanish into it.
The baseball community was quick with its heartfelt chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
Among the first to salute Griffey was Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame former manager of the Dodgers who within minutes of the announcement Tweeted, "Junior, congratulations on an outstanding career. We have a locker waiting for you in Cooperstown."
And not to be left out of the equation was Griffey's longtime former manager, Lou Piniella, who guided the 1995 "Refuse to Lose" team, led by Griffey, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, to a dramatic American League Division Series win over the Yankees and into the AL Championship Series.
It's a widely held belief that the 1995 team, and, in many ways, Griffey's presence, saved baseball in the Emerald City and basically built Safeco Field.
"Junior is a great player," said Piniella, now the manager of the Cubs. "I enjoyed managing him, I really did. I had a good relationship with him, I enjoyed watching him play, I enjoyed managing him. He's a good young man and just a tremendous, tremendous baseball player and he's had a Hall of Fame career."
Mark as a Mariner
"I thought that he would retire at the end of the year, but again, he made that decision," Piniella said. "Players know when it's time to do something else, and his time came, and I respect him for it, but I salute his career. It was just a wonderful, wonderful Hall of Fame career."
Another one of the game's great skippers, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, was in the opposing dugout as manager of the Oakland A's during Griffey's big league debut in 1989, and you better believe he remembers it.
"He was in our division, the West, and they were hoping he was not as good [as advertised]," La Russa said. "But he was. Actually better.
"I saw a lot of him those first years. He's had a great career. Hate to see him go."
In Boston, the man who replaced Griffey as Seattle's center fielder when Griffey was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, Mike Cameron, weighed in on his predecessor.
"I knew what kind of impact he had on the city and everything," Cameron said. "Obviously, to get traded for him, you don't really know how a player felt in a city until you saw a guy like Griffey go back and come back.
"I always hoped he would come back to Seattle. Obviously he got a chance to go back and play there. It worked out well. That was just a blessing in disguise. I wish him the best, man. He's been a gift to the game of baseball for a lot of fans for a long time. I'm just proud to say I was part of his history as I am his."
Speaking of history, Griffey's retirement announcement came virtually on the anniversary of a similar midseason farewell 75 years ago.
On May 30, 1935, Babe Ruth played his final game and announced his retirement two days later, on June 1. Griffey played his final game on May 31 and announced his retirement two days later, on June 2.
The Babe and The Kid: Two icons of their eras who never shed their youthful nicknames through manly deeds, and ultimately took them into their sunset.
Another icon also known as "The Express," expressed his thoughts when told of Griffey's retirement.
Hall of Fame pitcher and current Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan said he has fond memories of Junior, although they might not all be so fond considering Ryan was a pitcher and Griffey, while only hitting .240 in 25 career at-bats against Ryan, went deep twice and drove in eight runs.
Griffey at a glance
|His 630 homers rank fifth all-time.|
|Griffey was named to 10 All-Star teams and was named the 1992 All-Star MVP.|
|He was a three-time Home Run Derby winner.|
|Griffey was a 10-time Gold Glove winner.|
|Junior earned seven Silver Slugger Awards.|
|In 1997, he became the 14th player all time to have won the MVP by a unanimous vote.|
|He's a member of the All-Century team, named in 1999.|
|Griffey's eight Opening Day homers ties him with Frank Robinson for first all-time.|
|Junior was one of seven players to hit 40 homers in five consecutive seasons.|
And all around the league, today's great players, many of whom grew up as unabashed Griffey fans, offered their best wishes to one of the game's departing greats.
"He's always going to be an iconic figure in a lot of people's minds," Tampa Bay's All-Star left fielder, Carl Crawford, said.
"Especially me. A lot of guys grew up wanting to be just like him, me included, so it's kind of a sad day. I grew up admiring him, then I got to play against him. He's one of the best players I've ever seen play and he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my mind."
That sentiment was unanimous.
"First-ballot Hall of Famer," said Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher, who played with Griffey briefly as a member of the Chicago White Sox. "He wanted to try and play as long as he could, and I think he just kind of came up on it and said, 'Hey, I'm done.' Now he can go chill in his big house with his big family, driving around his sweet cars. He'll enjoy the rest of his life."
Giants starter Tim Lincecum, who has won the last two National League Cy Young Awards, grew up near Seattle as a rabid Mariners fan and said Griffey was one of his early hardball heroes.
"He was the epitome of Seattle baseball, pretty much, him and Randy," Lincecum said. "He was that new face, they called him 'The Kid,' he was making those spectacular catches and always seemed like he was having fun.
"He had one of the prettiest swings I've ever seen."
One of the players with the prettiest swings in today's game also felt the shockwaves of Griffey's retirement, especially because his Twins were warming up to play the Mariners in Safeco Field when the news came down.
"A great baseball player, a great ambassador for the game," said Minnesota slugger Justin Morneau, who, while growing up in Vancouver, Canada, considered the Mariners his hometown team and Griffey his hometown idol. "It's tough to see somebody that we watched that was so special not be able to play anymore."
Since it came against his Twins, Morneau saw Griffey's last at-bat, a force-play grounder to second as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter.
"That's hard to believe," said Morneau, realizing the significance of that at-bat. "He seems like he's still having fun. He always has a smile on his face when he was out there. I guess whenever you feel like it's time ... from being the best player in the league for so long to not playing every day and not getting a lot of at-bats, not feeling like you're contributing. You can see how that can happen, I guess."
Morneau's teammate. Denard Span, said he was "still shocked" by the news about his "favorite player growing up."
"He's arguably one of the reasons why I play this game," Span said. "I remember being younger and getting the opportunity to watch him in person when I was in middle school. He'll never be forgotten in this game. He'll definitely be missed."
And from the East Coast, more reactions poured in, including one from Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who played against Griffey in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"One of the greatest players I ever played against," Girardi said. "He could do everything: defense, hit for average, hit for power, steal bases, run the bases. Obviously a great player for a long time, Hall of Famer, and the game's going to miss him."