John McGrath

John McGrath: Griffey’s No. 24 closes in on retirement immortality

Ken Griffey Jr. looks out across the Seattle skyline after hoisting a flag with a number 24 in Mariner’s colors on op of the Space Needle on Friday.
Ken Griffey Jr. looks out across the Seattle skyline after hoisting a flag with a number 24 in Mariner’s colors on op of the Space Needle on Friday. The Seattle Times

Because of Ken Griffey Jr.’s reverence for Ken Griffey Sr., it comes as a surprise that the No. 24 jersey Junior wore with the Mariners had no association with his dad.

Griffey chose the number after hitting 24 home runs between his third year of high school and a summer baseball league in Cincinnati. Ballplayers are nothing if not superstitious, and Griffey specifically asked that he be given No. 24 in his first contract.

“Everything in baseball is about numbers,” Griffey said Friday, on the eve of a jersey retirement ceremony scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. “You look at some of the great players who play sports, they wear 24.”

Before Griffey’s induction into the Hall of Fame, the Mariners were the only team in the American League without a retired jersey. Perhaps the 40-season delay gave them a chance to be creative: No. 24 never will be worn again by anybody in the organization.

“For a team to do that is the ultimate sign of respect for what I did on the field,” he said. “It’s overwhelming and humbling, because it’s going next to the number of the guy who basically sacrificed his life for everybody to play baseball.”

The reference, of course, is to Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 was universally retired in 1997, the golden anniversary season of Robinson’s debut with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. As a player, Griffey was not known as an abundant source of baseball lore. But it turns out, like so much else we’ve learned about him over the past months, there was quite more between his ears than he let on.

Griffey recalls the stories the late pitcher Joe Black, a family friend, told on those occasions he stopped by to visit. Black and Robinson were instrumental in setting up a Negro League pension plan before they became teammates and roommates with the Dodgers.

“I’m going to be right next to him,” Griffey said of the replica Robinson jersey that hangs below the left field bleachers in Safeco Field, “and I don’t have a total grasp of it. Do I think I’m worth it? Nah, because what he has done compared to what I have done.

“It’s an unbelievable honor. I don’t take it lightly that they’re doing this.”

Griffey, talking with reporters a few hours before the Mariners opened a weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels, appeared relaxed — almost cavalier — about the challenge of maintaining his composure during what promises to be an emotionally charged moment Saturday.

Then again, he appeared relaxed 24 hours prior to taking the stage two weeks ago at the Hall of Fame, and his voice cracked as soon as he pronounced the words “thank you.”

“I shared my story with 50,000 people, and I get to do that again Saturday,” he said. “But these 50,000 have seen me play up close for years on a regular basis. It’s pretty neat. I get to enjoy it with people who saw me as a teenager and then when I was 40 years old.”

Sports franchises have been following their own policies about retiring jerseys since Ace Bailey’s No. 6 was draped at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in 1934. A life-threatening fractured skull had forced Bailey to quit hockey, and the decision to honor him by taking his jersey out of circulation became something of an annual tradition with some teams (the Yankees have retired 22 numbers, including Robinson) and a milestone event for others.

The Mariners’ jersey-number policy is downright draconian: In order for a player to be eligible to have his jersey retired, he must either have been elected to the Hall of Fame and been in a Seattle uniform for at least five years, or “come close to such election and spent his entire career or a substantial portion of his career with the Mariners.”

This explains why the No. 11 of Edgar Martinez, for instance, has never been officially retired.

It is fitting that No. 24 will be the only Mariners number on display in left field, but there are more to come. Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, whose Hall-of-Fame countdown will begin five years after his final game, wore No. 51 with Seattle, as did 303-game winner Randy Johnson.

Retiring a number once worn by two players wouldn’t be unprecedented — the Cubs did it with the No. 31 of pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux — and can you imagine a dual jersey-retirement ceremony with the placid technician and the larger-than-life lefty? .

But that’s another story, for another time.

The weekend belongs to Griffey, and the fans who watched him grow from a teenager to a 40-year-old.