WATCH: Former Mariners teammates recall the greatness of Ken Griffey Jr.
Calling Ken Griffey Jr. a five-tool player seemed almost an insult.
He had way more than that — six or seven, at least, in addition to the conventional assessment of gifted baseball players.
The sixth, perhaps, being an effortless and immeasurable grace. Not a tool as much as a gift of genetics applied with a generous amount of personal style.
And the seventh was even rarer: Star power.
Luminous and streaking across the outfield, Griffey brought light to the gray catacomb that was the Kingdome, infusing life into what had been a grim, soulless space.
He was unique. Sublime. A talent unto himself, with a powerful magnetism to match.
And in a time of inflated statistics, ballooning biceps and all the other external evidence of cheating, Griffey seemed to be the last untainted star. One-hundred percent natural, Griffey was so good that he didn’t need to cheat.
It was the rest of the Major League players who had to use performance-enhancers just to try to get a glimpse of his shadow.
Outside of war and courageous public service — to as great an extent as a ballplayer can be in his community — Ken Griffey Jr. was our hero.
Griffey didn’t have the tragic flaws of the mythical Greeks of that status, but in the place of flaws, he certainly carried a few contradictions.
He was known as the “The Kid,” but it seems as if he never had the chance to be one, not in the conventional sense. He was someone of whom so much was expected at such a young age. And he was always being watched in the process.
After a while, the Griffey who was so conspicuously joyful could seem so grumpy at times. Not with kids, he was always great with them.
But maybe after 11 seasons in Seattle, he got tired of being “The Kid” to all of us. He was 30. A man with kids of his own. Sometimes an image can seem like a tedious job.
It’s possible, too, we didn’t let him grow up; it’s hard to let go when you’ve for so long viewed somebody as Peter Pan.
To us, he would be forever Junior. Maybe he needed a place where he could just be “Ken.”
When Griffey demanded to be traded, it felt like a personal rejection to the fans. Can heroes do that?
The fans had invested emotional equity in him, and suddenly he was somebody else’s. Now, he would break the all-time home-run record for somebody else.
Seattle fans not only would lose that moment, but that moment’s delicious aftermath, the decades of sweet nostalgia.
But all journeys turn into an allegory for something given enough time to figure it out. And Griffey’s leaving for Cincinnati created time for fans to heal from the abandonment.
When he came back with the Reds in 2007, Mariners fans welcomed him unreservedly. And when he re-signed with the M’s in 2009, it was a joyful reunion with the fans — largely disconnected to whatever he still could do on the field.
Time had slowed Griffey by then, as it most vengefully seeks those who defy it early. He carried some extra weight, as you’d expect of man nearing 40. He couldn’t be asked to be a free-range center fielder, or a silky slugger ever again.
But every time he came to the plate, fans waited for that one moment when he might turn back time.
Maybe, if even just another time or two, he would unleash that swing. Maybe they’d see that dramatic hip twist and fluid rotation, and that perfect contact with the fat of the bat, as if that were exactly the place the ball was aimed.
It was rare, of course. His baseball tool-belt was largely empty, by then.
But the fans didn’t mind. He was still Griffey. Their Griffey, once again.