On Wednesday afternoon Ken Griffey, Jr., centerfielder extraordinaire, masher of some 630 home runs and savior of professional baseball in the Pacific Northwest, announced his decision to retire from baseball after a quarter-season's worth of struggles for the Seattle Mariners that saw the erstwhile superstar become a bit player on a losing team. In the days that followed, there has been a lot written about a man who is inarguably one of the greatest baseball players to ever live. There have been stories about what his retirement means for baseball, for the city of Seattle and for the Mariners themselves. But to a certain segment of the population, say males between the ages of 20 and 25, Griffey's retirement signaled something else entirely.
This added significance comes not just because Junior was the most prominent baseball player during the decade in which we fell in love with the game but because he was known as much for his youthful exuberance as he was his picture-perfect swing. Though some sports writers, like ESPN.com's Jim Caple, have asserted that watching The Kid go from precocious teenager to retiree made us all "feel a little older," I can't help but think that Junior's retirement made some of us feel as if we'd gotten older a little bit faster than everyone else had. For those of us in the Tomagotchie generation, Griffey will not be remembered in the same way that we will remember Pujols or Manny, or even Derek Jeter. To us he is not just an extremely good baseball player, but as one of my friends described him, a "cardboard cut-out."
Though Griffey finished third behind Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in the celebrated Home Run Chase of 1998, he remains to this day the most iconic of the group. More affable than McGwire and more marketable than Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. was nothing short of ubiquitous to those of us who started following sports during the 1990s. From him we learned to wear our hats backward and how to properly admire a home run. In our formative years he was everywhere, but now, at least until his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2016, he is nowhere to be found. To be clear, I do not contend that I will be waking up in a cold sweat this evening wondering where Griffey went. Still, it is more than a little weird to think that 15 years have passed since the 1995 ALDS when you consider that in 1995, fifteen years meant two lifespans into the future and was a sort of incomprehensible thing to contemplate (I suspect any sort of imagination of 2010 at the time would have somehow involved flying cars).
What stands out most for me about the career of arguably the greatest centerfielder ever, and this is going to sound extraordinarily stupid and self-indulgent so bear with me, is his sponsorship of "Ken Griffey Junior Presents Major League Baseball" for the Super Nintendo video game console. The game had awful graphics and featured made-up player names with the exception of its eponymous presenter but was pretty much the best thing to ever happen to a six-year-old boy who loved sports but was not much good at playing them. While my one season of Little League yielded exactly one base hit, KGJPMLB allowed me to circumvent these athletic limitations as I led the San Francisco Giants to a 100-win season and a World Championship. Somewhere in the Taube Residence of Port Jefferson, NY, lies a photograph, taken by my mother at my request, of me posing next to a screen congratulating me on what is to date my proudest sports-related accomplishment (aspiring blackmailers: this picture is probably a pretty good place to start). It was during this "championship run" that I took over as play-by-play announcer and color commentator for these video game Giants and constructing storylines about the fictional players on the team. In a way, it was my first attempt at sports journalism.
Once upon a time Ken Griffey, Jr. patrolled centerfield at the Kingdome in Seattle while I sat in my pajamas on Long Island and played his video game. Today, the Kingdome is Qwest Field, Junior is no longer a professional baseball player and I am living alone in Seattle, some 3,000 miles from my parents and the Super Nintendo they bought me for my fifth birthday. A year from now I will graduate college, enter the Real World and wonder what happened to all of the time in the interim. On June 2nd, 2010, Ken Griffey, Jr. retired from baseball and all of us felt a little older. Some of us grew up.