In Seattle, The Kid became The Man
Griffey Jr. led Mariners to first AL West title in 1997
By Jim Street / MLB.com
The black BMW pulled into the Tempe Diablo Stadium parking lot and screeched to a halt. A 19-year-old charismatic kid with a big smile stepped out of the sleek car and into a Northwest spotlight that would shine on him for the remainder of the 20th century.
|Ken Griffey Jr., who belted 398 homers for Seattle, was quite popular in the Pacific Northwest. (AP)
Ken Griffey Jr. became the most recognized and popular athlete in the Pacific Northwest during a productive stint with the Mariners, a franchise that needed someone like him to establish credibility.
Junior, also known as The Kid, helped make Seattle a baseball city.
So when Griffey joins Major League Baseball's 500-home run club, it will be easy to picture several thousand of his Seattle-area fans toasting the accomplishment and recalling some of the most memorable moments of the "Junior Era," an 11-year span that ended in early 2000, when he was traded to the Reds.
The first 398 home runs of his great career came while he was the Mariner.
Eight of those home runs came in consecutive games in 1993, tying a MLB record that he still shares. There were the back-to-back jacks he and his father hit off Angels pitcher Kirk McCaskill at Anaheim Stadium in 1990, the first and only time a father and son have hit home runs in the same game, let alone back-to-back.
Who can forget the five homers he hit during the five-game Division Series against the Yankees in 1995 that helped catapult the Mariners into the American League Championship Series for the first time?
Junior's 398 home runs as a Mariner are so far ahead of the next-highest total (91) that he might always be Seattle's home run king.
Oddly, only one of those 398 home runs ended a game.
Griffey's lone walk-off home run came on August 24, 1995, a two-out, two-run blast off Yankees closer John Wetteland that gave Seattle a 9-7 victory at the Kingdome.
That home run ignited a stretch drive that enabled the Mariners to erase a 13 1/2-game deficit to the Angels and capture the franchise's first AL West championship.
It was six years in the making.
A non-roster invitee to Spring Training in 1989, less than two years after being the first player selected in the First-Year Player Draft, Griffey arrived in Tempe, Ariz., with high expectations. Before getting into the BMW and driving west from the family home near Cincinnati, Junior told his father, Ken Sr., that he was going to have a great camp and earn a spot on Seattle's 25-man Opening Day roster.
Then-manager Jim Lefebvre gave Junior a club-record 92 at-bats that spring and the center fielder responded with a 15-game hitting streak. By the end of camp, the teenager proved that he was one of the 25 best players wearing a Mariners uniform.
It didn't take him long to become the best player wearing a Mariners uniform.
Griffey doubled in his first big-league at-bat, a line drive to left-center field off Athletics ace right-hander Dave Stewart. Griffey hit a home run in his first at-bat at the Kingdome, a solo blast to left field in the first inning off White Sox right-hander Eric King.
The Kid's big-league career was off to a fine start.
He would hit 16 home runs during his rookie season and have a candy bar named after him before an injury virtually ruined his chances of becoming the American League's Rookie of the Year. Griffey broke a bone in his hand and was put on the disabled list in mid-July.
The 1990 season marked the beginning of a terrific decade, one that led him to being selected as one of the 50 best players in MLB history.
Junior batted .300 for the first time that season, earned his first Gold Glove, and was selected to his first All-Star Game, building the foundation to becoming the game's best player in the 1990s.
What a decade it was for him and the Seattle franchise.
Though Griffey insisted he wasn't a "home-run hitter," he hit 382 home runs during the 90's, more than Barry Bonds (361) and Sammy Sosa (332). Only future Hall of Fame first baseman Mark McGwire had more (405).
Griffey and Bonds were regarded as the best players in the game. Only the order was debatable.
Despite fracturing his left wrist in a collision with the Kingdome fence in 1995 and breaking a hamate bone in his right hand the following season, Junior was an All-Star every year during the 90's, earning the Midsummer Classic's Most Valuable Player Award in 1992.
He also won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award in the same year seven times (only two players accomplished the feat last season) and became the franchise's first MVP in 1997 after leading the Mariners to the AL West championship with a .304 batting average, 56 home runs and 147 RBIs.
But a relationship that started on a warm day in Cincinnati in 1987, when he signed his first professional contract, ended on a cold, winter day in February 2000 when the Mariners honored his request to be traded to a team that had Spring Training closer to his new offseason home in Orlando, Fla.
The trade came almost four months after general manager Woody Woodward resigned, sticking to his off-the-record and unpublished promise that, "Junior will be not be traded on my watch."
Woodward saw the writing on the wall earlier that season when Griffey rejected an eight-year, $138 million offer. The Kingdome was a lousy place for baseball, but it was a great hitter's park and Junior definitely took advantage, becoming the most likely player to break Hank Aaron's career home run record.
But the team moved into pitcher-friendly Safeco Field midway through the 1999 season and the elements (cold and wind) didn't go over well with the franchise's star player. He wanted the retractable roof closed on the cold, dry nights, but club management kept it open unless it rained.
Safeco, which cost $517 million to build, was designed with Junior in mind -- easier to hit home runs to right field than any other direction. The wind usually blows from left field to right field, making it even more favorable for a left-handed power hitter.
It didn't matter.
Junior already had decided that he wanted to take his wife, two children and 398 home runs somewhere else, preferably Cincinnati, where his dad had played for the Big Red Machine in the 1970's.
Mariners fans were left with memories of watching The Kid become The Man.
It sure was fun while it lasted.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.