erik lundegaard

Two Hoots for Junior

So while I was gabbing about the Oscars this week, the Seattle Mariners, a team that has no shot at any kind of post-season, and barely a shot at a season, went and signed favorite son Ken Griffey, Jr. Good. There are sound arguments against the signing, that it's a move made with the heart and not the head, but baseball's always been a game of the heart. You lose that, you lose something fundamental about the game. Sure, I probably wouldn't say this if the M's had a chance in hell this year but they don't. They're not even in a quote-unquote “rebuiliding year” since they don't have much to rebuild with. This is the year, if anything, to test whether Jeff Clement can be a major league catcher, and if he can't whether he can be a major league first baseman, and if he can't whether he can be a major league left fielder, and the Griffey signing, if everyone understands their role, doesn't get in the way of this. My favorite argument in favor of the signing comes from ESPN's Jim Caple, who writes:

I don't understand the criticism that signing Griffey is primarily a move to boost attendance. Yeah, gee, we sure wouldn't want to give loyal fans who have sat through so many miserable seasons something actually worth watching in exchange for their $40 tickets and $8 beers.

Right on. Here's another trip down memory lane. The following was published on the Op-Ed page of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in May 1995 after Ken Griffey, Jr. fractured his wrist catching a fly ball at the Kingdome. We never got to that magical 700 number I hoped for, but 600+ ain't bad.

Two Hoots for Junior

Feel free to tell me to get a life.

I returned to baseball four years ago with what I thought was an adult attitude about the game. No matter if my team won or lost I kept things in perspective. Randy Johnson strikes out fifteen guys, I'm still working the same job. Edgar Martinez injures his ankle, I've still got the same problems, the same goals, the same friends, the same enemies. Nothing about my life has changed except this or that vicarious victory or defeat. 

Ken Griffey Jr. watches it goIt's an attitude I later found summed up in the film, “A Bronx Tale.” A boy is depressed because Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A local mob boss — who has befriended the kid — tells him, Hey, you think Mickey Mantle gives two hoots about you? He doesn't care about you. He doesn't even know you exist!

That's the way I felt. I wanted the Mariners to win, but I knew Lou Pinella didn't give two hoots about me. I knew he didn't know I existed. I was properly, emotionally distant

Until this Griffey thing happened.

I was at the game. My friend Mike and I were sitting in the box seats in right field, past the visitors' bullpen. We had a perfect view. I saw him go for the ball. I saw him crash into the wall. And, contrary to Steve Kelley's subsequent reporting, the stadium did not hush; there was no “sickened silence” from the Kingdome crowd. The people around me were cheering like maniacs. I know because a sickened silence came upon me. I thought, “Nobody  — not even Junior — slams into a wall with such speed, at such an awkward angle, without doing damage to himself.” 

Still, the people around me were going nuts. Of course these were the same kind of people who make the “whup! whooo!” noise when the opposition relievers warm up — the kind of people, in other words, who don't even pay attention to the game — so I didn't pay any attention to them.

Then right fielder Alex Diaz started making a circular motion with his hand as if some big deal was going on. At first I thought he was encouraging the fans in their cheering, and, reluctantly, I went along. Then I realized, no, he was calling for the trainer.

Earlier in the game, Griffey hit a homer off the right field foul pole above our heads. It was his 998th career hit. Since I already had tickets for the next night's game — and since Junior was in a groove — I felt assured of seeing him hit no. 1,000. 

In the eighth inning we got the news. Fractured wrist. Out for three months. It was like a blow to the solar plexus.  A pall was cast over the game. I didn't even want to go to the Kingdome the next evening. It would be like returning to the scene of a crime.

I tried to keep my emotional distance. I repeated my mantra.  My life is the same. Same job, same troubles, same goals. Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't give two hoots about me. He doesn't know I exist. He is a multi-millionaire seven years my junior. We have nothing in common.

Still I cared.

And I think I cared for three reasons.

The first is the way he injured himself. If he had fractured his wrist, say, playing basketball, or slipping in the shower, I would've rolled my eyes. But no. He injured it trying to fly. He injured it for the team. He injured it right in front of me.

The second reason is the effect it will have not so much on the Mariners but on the perception of the Mariners. I know we still have a good line-up. I know we'll still win. But Junior gave us something else. He actually made the Mariners scary. He was the constant roadblock in our lineup. You have to get by this guy in order to beat us.

More, he made us glamorous. Last year, when Mike was at Wrigley Field, two kids in Cubs hats found out he was from Seattle. “You mean you get to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play?” they asked enviously. Mike said it was the first time anyone actually envied him for going to the Kingdome.

Finally, the third reason. A couple of seasons ago I began keeping my ticket stubs and writing on the back not just the final score but any significant events that occurred. Randy Johnson strikes out fifteen Royals. Jay Buhner hits for the cycle. Things like that. The impetus for this  — I can now admit — was to keep track of how many Ken Griffey Jr. homeruns I had seen (14, so far). And the reason this statistic was important was, well, these were historic homeruns. Because he was going to hit a lot of them. 500. 600. 700? The sky seemed the limit.


Now the sky has fallen. Tiles one year and the sky the next.

Now there's a metal plate and six screws holding together his valuable left wrist.

Now I find myself caring a little too much about a guy who hit homeruns too much and caught fly balls too well.

And now if you'll excuse me I'll go get a life.

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Posted at 09:50 AM on Sat. Feb 21, 2009 in category Baseball  
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