Of all the imagined conclusions to Ken Griffey Jr.’s baseball career, the least satisfying was an abrupt goodbye.
We suspected Griffey would quit after hitting a final home run, perhaps, or playing a symbolic inning in center field one last time. We suspected he’d appear in his Mariners uniform in front of a sold-out Safeco Field crowd, doffing his cap, giving thanks to teammates and fans and the organization before walking down a red-carpet path toward the rest of his life.
But there was no chance to acknowledge a Hall-of-Fame career with the future Hall-of-Famer on hand. At some point, between the moment he left the clubhouse Tuesday night and the moment he was supposed to show up Wednesday afternoon, Griffey decided his time as a ballplayer had expired.
The ending turned out to be a 180-degree twist from the storybook scene we envisioned, and yet there was something admirable, even noble, about riding off into the sunset on a day without a sunset. No longer capable of making magic, Griffey renounced a moment in which the magic would’ve been prearranged, packaged as a can’t-miss souvenir item.
Griffey’s gifts as a power-hitting, thrill-seeking center fielder were almost without peer, but he had another gift that made him unique: Spontaneity. The most familiar play on a Griffey highlight video, for instance, was not the result of his smooth swing or his golden glove. The most familiar play was the extra gear he got during his first-to-home sprint that scored the winning run in the 1995 playoff clincher against the Yankees.
“Where did that come from?” Mariners fans asked themselves that night in the Kingdome.
“Where did he go?” Mariners fans asked themselves Wednesday.
Griffey’s knack for keeping ‘em guessing outlasted his knack for launching majestic home runs, and running with the grace of a cheetah.
A perfect ending for an all-time great athlete requires synchronicity, a place where both the player and the rest of the world are on the same page. Endings rarely happen like that, which is why we equate the best of them – Ted Williams retiring after hitting a home run in his last at-bat – with perfection .
In retrospect, the perfect opportunity for Griffey to announce his retirement was minutes after the 2009 season finale, when he was carried off the field upon the shoulders of teammates flattered to be in the snapshot. That’s where the credits of the movie would roll, with a slow motion cut of Junior bobbing like Seabiscuit’s jockey down the home stretch.
Only problem is that Griffey wasn’t ready to retire minutes after he was carried off the field. And really, what rationally thinking human being would consider quitting a job that continued to bring him such innocent jubilation?
Nor was Griffey ready to retire a few weeks ago, when he stepped up to the plate against the Blue Jays, with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, and pulled a ball down the right-field line for a game-winning hit – the last hit, the last RBI, and the last bench-clearing hugfest of his 22-year career.
Afterward, because of a curious delay in opening the clubhouse to the media, some reporters speculated Griffey, weighing the impact of his contribution against the odds he’d be able to duplicate it in his role as a seldom-used pinch hitter, had decided to retire.
Again, what rationally thinking human being would consider quitting a job that inspired the visible admiration of his coworkers?
Elite athletes are often used as examples of the difficulty of rejecting the limelight and lingering on the stage long past their prime. But elite athletes have plenty of company. Frank Sinatra exulted in a seemingly glorious retirement in 1971, concluding his nationally televised exit from show business with “Angel Eyes.” The song’s last line: “Excuse me, while I disappear.”
More than two decades later, Sinatra was a headline act at the Puyallup Fair, singing in the rain.
Some time this season, or maybe next, there will be a celebration of Griffey before a Mariners game. His No. 24 jersey will be retired, a Griffey outfield banner will be unveiled, and plans for a Griffey statue, outside the ballpark that wouldn’t have been constructed without the impact his stardom had on struggling franchise, will be revealed.
In the meantime? Excuse him while he disappears, but admire his spontaneity. During this spring of the perpetual cloud cover, Ken Griffey Jr. chose a gloomy Wednesday to achieve the impossible.
He found a sunset.