Throughout my early adolescence, I spent countless summer days whipping my cousin Pete in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo.
With bathing suits wet, fingers pruned and eyes red from the swimming pool’s chlorine, we’d shuffle into a corner of my bedroom and fix our attention to the tiny 13-inch tube television on which our epic battles would unfold.
Fittingly, Griffey’s was the only real name used in the game. Its developers didn’t acquire the licensing rights from the MLB Players Association to use other players’ names, so everyone but Griffey had a fictitious, often silly title. Intentions notwithstanding, the effect was all the same: Griffey was baseball’s — and the video game’s — biggest star.
He was baseball’s final pre-Internet icon, a player who was as cool as he was gifted. With Griffey’s ridiculous hype and marvelous performance, Mariners fans — showing their solidarity with teal-green caps worn backward — were suddenly cropping up across the country.
Buried beneath the rubble of Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game on June 2 was the news of Griffey’s retirement, not a where-were-you moment but perhaps a take-a-step-back moment for a generation of fans.
For all Griffey’s greatness and popularity, the anticlimactic ending seemed fitting for a career marred in its second half by injuries and overshadowed by the homer happiness of the steroids era (the strike of 1994-95 did him no favors, either). The final 10 or so seasons were nearly as unremarkable as the first 10 were celebrated.
Baseball tragedies are often mistakenly compared to their real-life counterparts, and Griffey’s fate is hardly that. He made millions, foolishly forced his way out of a city in which he was nothing short of a god, and frequently was his own worst enemy due to his aloofness and hypersensitivity. All this considered, Junior’s still a surefire Hall of Famer, headed for Cooperstown on on the first ballot barring a PED revelation.
But there is a palpable somberness — morbidity, even — among those who followed baseball closely or worshiped Griffey or played his quaint 16-bit video game, because despite 630 career homers and 10 Gold Gloves at a premium defensive position, we are left with the dull nag of what could have been for a transcendent talent.
It speaks to something larger about us as devourers of baseball, that despite the increased emphasis on stats over the past decade, we still relish stories and memories, and Griffey left us short on both when he promised so many.
Perhaps the feeling is simply indicative of an affection unique to a particular generation of fans, one that some may not understand if they didn’t grow up watching the early SportsCenter before hopping on the school bus (because that was the only way to watch Griffey highlights). More likely, though, it’s rooted in the realization that Griffey’s retirement was the long-overdue death knell for a zeitgeist that met its end in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and later Barry Bonds, rendered Griffey all but an afterthought.
Griffey’s career spanned parts of 22 seasons, peaking three Nintendo consoles ago, to be exact, and it’s sadly and humorously fitting that for a guy who couldn’t keep up with the game — a bit by his own doing, a bit not — the last story of intrigue he provided was an in-game nap.