This will be more difficult than hitting a 96 mph fastball on the inside corner from a left-handed pitcher. This will be much harder than sprinting backward, climbing the wall at the Kingdome and robbing someone of a home run.
For a man who will be remembered as perpetually playing the game with an electric smile, the mere mention of Saturday’s festivities brings a contorted look to his face. It’s part pressure and part pain.
For Ken Griffey Jr., being inducted into the Seattle Mariners’ hall of fame on Saturday is an honor, a pleasure and a precursor for his eventual induction in the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown when he’s eligible in 2016.
He joins the late Dave Niehaus and former teammates Alvin Davis, Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Dan Wilson in the Mariners hall of fame.
It’s a deserved and expected honor.
But the chilling thought of standing in front of a packed Safeco Field, while he’s being lauded by teammates, contemporaries and friends, makes him squirm with discomfort. And the idea of having to make a speech to all those people with his emotions in his throat and tears building in his eyes fills his abdomen with baseball-sized butterflies.
It’s maybe the one thing that could make him uncomfortable on a baseball field.
“Having this, I understand the honor that it brings,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to be in center field and stand at home plate than it is to talk in front of thousands of people.”
Wait, Ken Griffey Jr., who was considered the coolest player in baseball, is nervous?
“Am I nervous?” he said. “Yes. I was nervous three weeks ago. I was nervous a month ago. I was nervous two months ago when they told me. I grew up in a household where it was a lot easier to talk about somebody else than talk about yourself.”
It was often that way when he played for the Mariners. After his biggest games, when he did talk, he only wanted to praise teammates.
Even now on the brink of receiving the team’s highest honor, he won’t take the credit alone.
“It’s tough to put into words what this award means,” Griffey said. “The best way I could describe it is that I couldn’t do it without a whole lot of people here. There are a whole lot of people that did wonderful things for me to be here.”
Many of those people were at Safeco Field on Friday afternoon for Griffey’s hall of fame luncheon. Both of his parents, his wife, Melissa, and the five living members of the Mariners’ hall of fame – all former teammates - were there to celebrate.
He thanked them all and everyone else he could remember. It wasn’t his day. It was their day.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” he said.
Griffey was basically a child when he made his debut at 19 years old. Brash, energetic and different, Griffey became a baseball phenomenon in Seattle and around the country.
Year after year, he racked up awards, accolades and accomplishments.
He was a 13-time all-star, who won seven Silver Slugger awards, 10 gold gloves, led the American League in home runs four times, voted to baseball’s all-century team at age 29 and scored one of the most important and memorable runs in franchise history. With his hat on backward during batting practice, his diamond-studded earring, he made baseball cool.
“He’s a superstar, and not just because of his numbers and his stats, but because of his personality,” Ichiro Suzuki said in a statement.
With rumors of a possible move to TampaBay in mid 90s, people often say that Griffey saved baseball in Seattle. But he scoffs at such a notion. The oft-remembered playoff run in 1995 was more than just him.
“It took 25 guys and six coaches and we were all part of it,” Griffey said. “People ask me that all the time, but I tell them Jay and Edgar were the heart and soul of that team, and I was just the pretty face. Everybody did their part. Randy was 18-2. Jay had 121 RBIs. Everybody did something. It wasn’t just one person.”
And yet, those people still revere him.
“He’s the greatest Mariners of all time, and he was a great teammate,” Buhner said. “Ken was always a team first guy.”
His former manager knows his importance.
“Junior was one of the finest young men I’ve ever had the opportunity to manage,” Lou Piniella said. “When we were in Seattle together, I believe he was the best player in baseball and it was truly an honor to be his manager.”
Said Wilson: “I considered it an honor to take the field every day wearing a Mariners uniform with one of the greatest players of all time. He is undoubtedly the most influential player in Mariner history.”
It wasn’t all gumdrops and rainbows with Griffey. He could be moody and petulant. He engineered a trade to Cincinnati in 2000, which still stings many Mariners fans. He returned in 2009 with much fanfare and helped the Mariners to their only winning season in the last six years. But his 2010 season and his baseball career ended abruptly on June 2 amid allegations of sleeping in the clubhouse and decreased playing time. He simply decided it was time and started driving east, stopping in Montana to answer a phone call Mariners president Chuck Armstrong and telling him he was done.
“Like I told everyone from day one, I didn’t want to have a press conference, I didn’t want to be a distraction,” Griffey said. “When you tell the truth and then it happens, but people believe it’s supposed to happen a certain way, they get upset. I’ve always said that I didn’t want the farewell tour. That wasn’t me. I did it the best way I thought and easiest for everybody, which is get in the car and drive off.”
But to the Mariners organization and many of its fans, those endings are overshadowed by all that he accomplished in a Seattle uniform. It’s what made him an automatic Mariners’ hall of fame inductee. And it’s what will make him an automatic inductee into the baseball hall of fame.
“It is a true honor,” he said. “I never thought something like this would happen. I played baseball because I loved it. It wasn’t to get an award. It’s because I wanted to go out there each and every day and play as hard as I can. It’s something I loved to do.”