Cover Major League basball for 28 years and there are two questions asked by family, friends and fans – who was the best player you ever covered, and which one was your favorite.
For me, the answers go both are the same: Ken Griffey Jr.
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There wasn't much he couldn't do on a baseball field, and what he couldn't do he figured out and did that, too. Junior was as athletic an outfielder as anyone who ever played, and absolutely fearless.
Watching him grow up was a joy, and his passion on the field was matched by a personality that could charm anyone – and drive them crazy – at the same time.
Behind the front he often threw up, Ken was compassionate. Although he and Patrick Lennon clashed the first time they met, when Lennon later ran into off-field problems and wound up briefly in jail, Griffey was the only player who contacted him.
A high school graduate, Junior was a quick study. When Nike wanted to put out his signature shoes, Griffey did his homework.
One day in spring training, he walked over to the three beat writers in camp and began looking at their feet. We asked what he was doing, and he said he'd done so much research on shoes that he bet he could tell each of us – within five dollars – how much our shoes cost.
Bob Finnigan of the Times wore Nikes, so he was easy. Junior nailed it. Jim Street of the PI was wearing another popular brand, and Griffey got the price right on those, too.
Then he got to me, and I was wearing – I swear – a pair of athletic shoes made by Voit. Even I didn't know they made shoes.
Junior looked down and laughed, then not only told me exactly what they cost but what national chain store sold them.
Over his years in Seattle, we watched Junior go from a talent to a superstar, saw him marry and have children, smiled as he tormented good friends like Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. There weren't many days he couldn't stun you on the field or make you laugh in the clubhouse.
In the years since his departure, he's run into life – injuries on the field, cancer to both parents off. He's handled both with grace and class.
Now, he's a free agent, coming off a season in which he batted .249 with 17 home runs and 71 RBI. He's a left-handed hitter, and the Mariners need an outfielder/DH.
Is it time for Junior to come back?
My worry is that playing again for a team that figures to be mediocre at best in 2009 would wear on him, as would any role that didn't involve playing fulltime.
My fear is that Seattle fans might expect the young Junior, not the Griffey of today.
Scouts say his bat speed has declined and that Griffey must now cheat to catch up to good fastballs. In the outfield, he looks like what he is – a soon-to-be 39-year-old, not the young Griffey Mariners fans remember.
Is Junior a match for a young, rebuilding team?
When we talked in Chicago in September, Griffey said he was going to play beyond 2008 for the purest of reasons. He still loved the game. Whatever concerns any of us has about his declining abilities, Junior has earned the right as a Hall of Fame player to decide how he wants to go out.
The Mariners are in Seattle in large part because of Griffey, who won hearts and minds here through his play and by being, well, Junior.
So, kid, I look forward to seeing you again in 2009. I don't expect it to be as a Mariner, but worse things could and have happened to this franchise.
And when I wear athletic shoes in spring training these days, they're from Costco …