The triumphant return of Ken Griffey Jr. more than lived up to the hype. He descended on Seattle, ascended on the home run list, and transcended the field in the Emerald City.
The return of Griffey was glorious, perhaps made sweeter thanks to the long wait. The standing ovation that Randy Johnson received when he came back as a D'Back was nice, and the ovations for Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez on their farewell nights were quite memorable too, but none of those were like the ones that Griffey received this weekend. Even now, in the midst of his eighth year since playing for the Mariners, he remains a Seattle icon. It was more than an applause out of appreciation; there was a sense that the prodigal son had returned.
Though the exuberant reaction from the masses was touching, what particularly struck me was Griffey's speech in the pre-game ceremony Friday night. He stepped up to that mic completely blown away. It was obvious in his face. When he finally did speak, the words came straight from the heart, and what became apparent is that not only is Seattle still in love with Griffey, but that Griffey is still in love with Seattle. He talked about how pretty the mountains were, and how great it was to drive past the ballpark (even with the roof open!). Then, Griffey poignantly called Seattle home. After that pre-game ceremony, all that was left was to play ball. Unfortunately, the Mariners didn't show up on Friday, losing 16-1, and the Reds didn't show up on Saturday, with the M's beating them 9-1. Even more unfortunately, the man of the weekend, Ken Griffey Jr, was yet to hit a home run.
There was just no way Junior wouldn't go through the weekend without a home run. This is the guy that homered in his first Kingdome at-bat, homered in the final Kingdome game, stole a home run in the final Kingdome game, is credited by his teammates for kick-starting the miracle September 1995 pennant chase, and of course scored the biggest run in franchise history on "the double." In classic Griffey fashion, he didn't disappoint this weekend either. He started today by homering to left center, just out of Willie Bloomquist's reach. It wasn't a classic Griffey blast, but age is catching up with him.
However, he was just saving his best for last. The home run was the only blemish for Miguel Batista, until Griffey stepped to the plate for the third time. Batista served up a pitch belt high on the inner third of the plate, and Griffey didn't miss it. His sweet little uppercut swing connected with the pitch squarely, sending the ball soaring deep into the right field bleachers. Even Griffey couldn't help but drop the bat and admire it for a second, as the prodigious blast put him past Mark McGwire on the all-time home run list. He had put the M's in a 2-0 hole late in the game, but that didn't stop the crowd, over 45,000 strong, from once again rising to their feet and cheering on their displaced hero. This weekend was truly all about Ken Griffey Jr. The M's weren't done though, and ended up coming back and winning in dramatic fashion with a suicide squeeze by Willie Bloomquist, and another clutch performance from J.J. Putz. Given that the Mariners have become more synonymous with pitching and small ball than home runs since Griffey's exodus, the game's outcome seemed almost poetic.
For seven and a half years I have stayed off the bring Griffey back bandwagon, but after this weekend I have to join it. As a left-handed hitter with an OPS over .900, he clearly has value to the team. However, Griffey's return would mean so much more. There's a really special connection between him and the city that has not died one bit despite seven and a half years separated. At the time Griffey needed to go, but now it looks like a window of opportunity for his return is beginning to open up. Griffey just has to finish his career as a Mariner. It would be best for the Mariners, and best for Ken Griffey Jr.