SEATTLE — Once Ken Griffey Jr. got the phone call about the honor the Seattle Mariners wanted to bestow upon him he started getting nervous about having to be the center of attention.
Standing before a large audience and getting lauded is not a circumstance where Griffey feels comfortable.
“I grew up in a household where it was a lot easier to talk about somebody else than talk about you,” Griffey said. “My dad came home he’d always say ‘How did the team do?’ ‘What did you do?’ would always be the last question.
“Having this, I understand the honor that it brings. Am I nervous? Yes. It’s a lot easier to be in center field and stand at home plate than to talk in front of thousands of people.”
The greatest player ever to wear a Seattle Mariners uniform is back this weekend to become the seventh inductee into the Mariners Hall of Fame on Saturday night. It’ll be an emotional night for Griffey, but also for many fans and former teammates who were witness to arguably the best all-around player of his day.
Jay Buhner choked up on Friday when talking about his close friend and outfield mate for most of the 1990s.
“Every time he came to the plate we were expecting a human highlight reel,” Buhner said.
The two-day celebration began on Friday when Griffey was lauded by former teammates and opponents during a luncheon on the field Friday. During the 90 minute luncheon, Griffey looked uncomfortable at times receiving all the focus. But when he finally spoke, Griffey was calm and relaxed, cracking jokes about times in the clubhouse and his former teammates. Of the previous six inductees to the team’s Hall of Fame, five are players, all of which played with Griffey and showed up to support their former teammate.
Griffey was even razzed by his father, who sat next to his son on the stage, and reminisced about the two playing together in 1990 in Seattle.
“It was tough. The biggest thing was he was the boss and I didn’t like that at all,” Ken Griffey said.
If there ever was an induction to Seattle’s Hall of Fame that goes without debate, it’s Griffey.
Griffey spent 13 of his 22 seasons in the majors with the Mariners and was the face of the franchise for most of the 1990s. He was drafted by Seattle in 1987 with the No. 1 overall pick, made his debut at the major league level two years later and went on to have one of the finest careers in baseball history. Griffey finished with 630 home runs — sixth all-time — and was a 13-time All-Star and the 1997 American League MVP.
Griffey’s arrival in Seattle immediately brought relevance to a franchise that earned little in its first decade of existence. He was a marketing magnet, known for his glowing smile and backward hat — which Griffey says was a product of having to wear his dad’s hat that way as a kid and not a fashion statement. He won legions of fans with his style of play and the obvious fun he was having while being among the best in the game.
Among those paying tribute to Griffey via video on Friday were one-time Seattle teammate Ichiro Suzuki — who greeted Griffey with “What up George?” — and Willie Mays.
“He was just a good player, a player young people should emulate a little bit and make sure their kids look up to him,” Mays said. “Name another center fielder who can do the things that he did when he was playing. He did a lot of things that I did and it’s very hard to do. He’ll get into the Hall of Fame with no problem.”
Most Seattle fans have put aside any resentment from Griffey strong-arming his way into a trade to Cincinnati before the 2000 season. There also seems to be little bitterness from Griffey’s abrupt retirement in 2010 after a story leaked about Griffey sleeping in the clubhouse during a game and eventually announcing his departure from the club by driving off in the middle of the night.
“When I got the phone call asking me where I was, I was in Montana. But like I told everybody from Day 1, I didn’t want to have a press conference, I didn’t want to be a distraction,” Griffey said. “I told Chuck (Armstrong) and Howard (Lincoln) that from Day 1, I was not going to be a distraction to this ballclub. People when you tell the truth and then it happen and then people believe it’s supposed to happen a certain way they get upset. I’ve always said I didn’t want a press conference, I didn’t want a farewell tour. It wasn’t me. I did the best way I thought was easier for everybody, was to get in the car and drive off.”
Despite the way his career ended, Griffey remains thankful that he got to end his career playing for the Mariners and not just honored for what he did in Seattle.
”People didn’t ask me who the best player was I ever played with. The question assumes the answer,” former Seattle first baseman Alvin Davis said. “By far the most talented, best player I ever played with is Ken Griffey Jr.”