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Hall Of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. Earned Love Of Mariners Fans Through Play, Personality

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Former Mariner Ken Griffey Jr. speaks at a news conference Jan. 8, 2016, in Seattle. Griffey's Hall of Fame whirlwind came back to where it all started, when he spoke at Safeco Field, the stadium built in part because of him.

Ken Griffey Jr. will be the first player to be inducted as a Mariner into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, on Sunday.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says Griffey had a huge impact on and off the field in Seattle.

Until Griffey: 'Unsurpassed Buffoonery'

"The joke in the '70s and '80s with the Mariners was that a guy could leave two tickets [to the Mariners] on the dashboard of his unlocked car and when he gets back there will be four tickets," Thiel said.

"That's how it was from 1977, their origins, until Griffey got here in '89 - just unsurpassed losing and buffoonery.

"And, of course, it was in an indoor park, the Kingdome. And going indoors in the Seattle summer is just not a good idea.

"So it had to be compelling baseball to get people here. And once Junior arrived, as the first-round pick, things changed very dramatically."

'Electric Personality'

"He was an electric personality and this market was desperate for that sort of character, that sort of dramatic play in the field," Thiel continued.

"Junior was this huge phenomenon that bonded with a generation of people that had been used to skepticism and despair when it came to the Mariners.

"It was both personality and performance like you've never seen.

"He was gregarious, had the great smile, and a great popular engagement - he wore his hat backward. He always made his new teammates feel welcome, which is a very unusual thing in the superstar environment of professional sports.

"That was a part of the charm, that was a part of the endearment that developed around Griffey. Because we had not seen that and because baseball is daily, he stitched himself into the Seattle summer.

"He made people come from outdoors to indoors to see something special."

Griffey Trade 'Painful'

Thiel said because Griffey was so special to Seattle, it was very hard for fans to see him go in 2000 ( he would return to play the last two years of his career with the Mariners).

"It was a very painful, poignant moment in Seattle sports history," he said. "He'd been here for 10 years. But things had changed with him.

"He came here a teenager and single. He married, he had two kids. He was building a home in Orlando, Florida.

"Florida was a special place for Griffey because his dad was a star baseball player for the Cincinnati Reds and they trained every spring in Florida. So he really wanted to be in Florida and he wanted to join a team that trained in spring in Florida."

Griffey About Safeco: 'This Isn't Going to Work'

"He didn't like Safeco Field because it was going to hurt his career hitting numbers," Thiel continued. "The Kingdome was a hitter's park. Safeco is a pitcher's park. Griffey said 'This isn't going to work.'

"The irony, of course, is that the park was literally the House that Griffey Built. This team would not be here without his magnetic personality but he only played there half a season.

"That was another part of the heartbreak. But I understood why he left. In fact, it wasn't about money because he left money on the table in Seattle to play for less with the Cincinnati Reds.

"Nevertheless, the president of the club at the time, Chuck Armstrong, said 'We just traded Babe Ruth.' And it was true. And it was sad.

"But now, Sunday, Seattle gets to celebrate one of their own."


You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest and Crosscut. com.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.