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Junior And What Baseball Is All About

 I made it to the Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners Hall of Fame Ceremony (and "game" afterwards), courtesy a spare ticket from a good friend. The picture to the right is from my seat. The oft-desolate upper deck in the outfield was filled, I promise. I know because I was there. The game was the first sellout of the season for the M's - opening day included.

So Seattle really loves Ken Griffey Jr. That's not news. Still, the atmosphere was even more electric than the explosive front that blew through Puget Sound the night before. Griffey jerseys of all vintages littered the ballpark. I was amazed that, not only so many people had Griffey jerseys, but that so many people knew where they were. There were some serious blasts from the past in the stands. You'd think some of those shirts and jerseys would have been in storage, and maybe they were. However, apparently, if Mariners fans know one thing, it's where they last put their Ken Griffey Jr. jersey.

Fans made it clear why they showed up at the game too. Safeco was steadily vacated once the Brewers erupted in the seventh inning. I even turned to my good friend and asked him how he thought Lucas Luetge felt, considering it looked like about 25,000 people had left since he took the mound. My friend's response? "He's probably used to it, since he always comes in when the Mariners are down big."

Lucas Luetge, it turns out, is no Ken Griffey Jr. In a backwards way, the 10-0 drubbing the M's took made it clear just how much Seattle loves the Kid, even in retirement. The empty stadium in the ninth inning made it so obvious that the vast majority of folks came to the game just for Junior.

The most interesting, and by interesting I really mean awkward, part of Griffey's speech was when he defended the M's leadership. He let the fans know that he hears the criticism that they don't want to win, and he assured us that they absolutely want to win. Nobody booed him, and several gave a nice golf clap, but it was a surprising twist in his meandering, surprisingly long speech.

Lincoln and Armstrong are often criticized, and I think it's silly to say they don't want to win, but I've often wondered how much winning matters in balance to other factors. In their defense though, winning isn't all that matters.

Honest question: would you rather be a Mariners fan or a Marlins fan? The Marlins have won TWO World Series, and both within relatively recent memory (1997 and 2003). Put it this way: any Mariners fan who reveres Griffey should easily be able to remember both Marlins titles, which is why this "would you rather?" works so well. The Mariners haven't won any titles, obviously, but we got Ken Griffey Jr. And Randy Johnson. And Edgar Martinez. Buhner and Wilson too. Even A-Rod before he became insufferable.

The Marlins have titles, but how can their fans have any sort of connections to any of their players? They've had some terrific ones. The 1997 title was mostly built through free agency, but in 2003 they had some homegrown talents like Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera. However, both title teams got gutted immediately after they hoisted the trophy, and in general the shelf life of any Marlins player is short. Three or four years tops. Pretty much once a player is about ready to earn their fair share, they play elsewhere.

My point is that the Marlins, despite their championships, will never have a Ken Griffey Jr. with the way they operate - even when transcendent talents play for them. They'll never have a night like Saturday in Seattle, where a stadium sells out and showers love on one of their own. That's a shame, because Saturday was cool.

Personally, I'll take Griffey over the Marlins titles. Winning isn't everything. It gives the game a purpose, and the World Series gives the whole season meaning, so winning is critical. Don't get me wrong about that. However, winning is something like the engine that powers a car, but there's still the paint job, interior, rims...everything else. Things that don't mean much if the car doesn't go anywhere, but once the car is moving, the things that we ultimately notice on a daily basis.

I think there are hidden assumptions with championships. There is supposed to be something special about your team winning a championship that no other team does for you but your team. Championships become special with a connection.

Winning might get people to show up, but it doesn't connect them to a team. Players do. Young phenoms, elder statesmen, guys with funky quirks - players of all sorts of shapes and sizes can become fan favorites. The only constant is that they need to be around for a little bit, and there needs to be some reason to believe they will be around for a while longer. Winning helps too. It accelerates the connecting process, but as Griffey showed on Saturday, it's not necessarily a pre-requisite.

There's a reason Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr. way, way more than Cincinnati. He went from young phenom to superstar in front of our eyes, and even came back as an elder statesmen. Cincinnati never had a chance to connect with him like we did, even though he went there in the heart of his prime. Even if Junior hadn't gotten injured so often with the Reds they wouldn't have loved him more. They never had a chance. We had way too many chances to connect that they never had.

I'm convinced half of the Emerald City tore up their garages grabbing their Griffey gear just for Saturday. That's special, and it's not the product of winning, or at least championships. I can't imagine a rent-a-championship, ala the Marlins twice over, creates the same kind of craze. There's just no connection.

Maybe my mind will change when the Mariners win a championship, or perhaps it could have been swayed by anything better than the 10-0 rout on Saturday night. Face it, I've sunk the better part of the last decade watching them lose, so I've had plenty of time to wonder what besides winning could matter. However, a championship is so short-lived. The World Series only goes on for a few weeks. The deciding game takes 3 hours or so. It's the memories of getting there and re-living the chase that last. Those are the things that make a championship timeless.

Let me put it this way: If the Mariners found a way to acquire Clayton Kershaw, I'd feel good if he is on the mound for game 7 of the World Series. He's an amazing pitcher, and if the M's won, he would be part of a very special moment in franchise history. However, it would be more special with King Felix on the mound. It just would be, and that's my whole point. We could appreciate Kershaw as a player, and appreciate the moment, but we wave K cards and eat turkey legs for King Felix. No contest.

Maybe this whole championship chase is really about memories. Ken Griffey Jr., even without a championship, brought Mariners fans a generation worth of memories. Why else would 46,000 fans show up to scream, laugh, and cry along with a dude at a podium as he stares back at a ring of folks behind him? Why would that matter so much more than the actual game that followed? Maybe because the following game was so terrible, but I doubt it. There's more to it than that.