My wife went to Target last week to pick up a few things for Lyla.
"I'd love a package of cards," I called. It was wishful thinking. Sometimes I get a pack, sometimes I don't.
This time I was lucky. I opened the package and only found room for an Andre Ethier in my shiny protective sheets. It's a bittersweet thing, opening a pack of cards without the prospects of pulling a Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card out of the batch.
You see, Griffey's rookie year coincided with the absolute apex of the market for sports cards. When I was living in John Day, Oregon, back in my middle-school years, I spent all my disposable income on cards. When I pulled dandelions or pushed the mower for my folks, I calculated my wages in packages of Topps. Hell, I even ate that gum--it was like pepto bismol hammered flat, into the consistency of hardy drywall.
Those were great years. I had many wonderful friends in John Day. I had daily access to a very trouty river and a couple of trouty streams. I had soccer and swim team.
And I had baseball.
I love baseball. I'm a long-suffering Baltimore Orioles fan, and I love that franchise more than any other. More than the Trail Blazers. More than the Denver Broncos or the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Indiana Pacers.
But they break my heart every year. The only solace I have is to flip through my dozens of pages of Ripkens, Moras, Markakises, Mussinas and Murrays. I've got scads of O's in my pages--even the oldies from the late '80s, when the Birds tanked twenty-one games in a row to start the year and I got teased at school for wearing my Starter jacket with the Oriole stripes over the shoulders.
In that era, Griffey was the most exciting player out there. Cal was my favorite--no doubt--but nobody could equal the sheer excitement he brought to the field every night. The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas) was probably the best pure hitter, but Grif could do it all: run, catch, throw and smoke the ball out of the park.
He had style, that one. Come to think of it, I see a little Griffey in Jason Heyward over in Atlanta.
And we hunted his rookie card like Hemingway going after lions on the veldt. I remember splitting a waxbox of 1989 Donruss packs with Ben Boche, my best friend. We each got a Griffey rookie, thank goodness, but there were some tense moments as we ripped those packs apart. What if one of us had lucked out and got them both?
At any rate, Griffey has been a mainstay in my life. When I had surgery after breaking my kneecap while playing soccer in college, my dad and I had to wait in recovery. We passed the time (1995) by watching the greatest game in Seattle Mariners history: their extra-inning win over the Yankees in the playoffs. It was Griffey who slid across home plate for the win.
I couldn't get out of bed, but my pop and I had our share of high fives nonetheless.
I followed him in Cincinnati and I rejoiced when he returned to Seattle. I hear that he's going to live there full-time in retirement, and that he might join the club in the front office. That would be a good thing. He could be arrogant at times, but he's always cared about baseball. He's good for the game, especially having enjoyed so much success through the steroid era.
I record these disjointed memories here because I just read that Ken hung his spikes up tonight. One of the finest things about sports is aging with your favorite players, and being loyal to them down the line. Sports are monumental because they serve as mileage posts for our lives. The thing with Grif was, he gave me twenty years of those.
Thanks for sharing your gifts with us, Ken, and best of luck in your future with the Mariners.