Ken Griffey Sr. smiles and lets out a laugh. He shifts from simply remembering the past to living it for a few moments – it can be felt in his voice and his smile and that laugh. The old ballplayer becomes proud father in a single moment.
Griffey Sr. had plenty to be proud of as a three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, but all of those accomplishments can’t compare to the final two seasons of his career in Seattle.
The Mariners finished fifth in the division in 1990 and 1991 – a far cry from Griffey Sr.’s Big Red Machine days when the Reds won the World Series in 1975 and 1976 and solidified their place as one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
But he never got more joy from the game than he did on those fifth-place clubs. The nostalgic laugh says it all.
There’s nothing like being a dad and sharing your love of baseball with your son. When your son is Ken Griffey Jr. and your teammate in the major leagues, it’s hard not to beam with pride.
It was also hard to focus on playing at times.
“I had to pretend that Junior was 12 years old in order to play in Seattle. I mean – playing in the backyard, having a good time just tossing back and forth, I think that was the only way I could (get myself to even attempt to play),” Griffey Sr. said Tuesday. “It was a situation where I just didn’t think he was going to get there at 19. I thought maybe 20, 21, (but he made it) at 19. Now I’m looking at playing with him, which was a totally different aspect of the game.”
He laughs again as he digs deeper into his memory. He’s at the plate ready to hit when a few words from a teammate threw off his concentration.
“I was at the plate and it was against Kansas City and I heard somebody on the on-deck circle say, ‘Come on dad,’” he said. “And that shocked me right there, so I had to get out of the batter’s box and rethink everything and then think and say, ‘Well, I’m in the backyard playing with him, having a good time, he’s only 12.’”
While the Griffeys shared a unique and special experience as major leaguers, Griffey Sr. found his focus remembering his son at 12 years old playing catch with him in the backyard.
It’s a powerful scene, father and son playing catch in the backyard. Baseball has a mystical hold on many generations. It bonds fathers and sons for lifetimes for reasons that don’t need a complex explanation. Really, there’s only one: love.
The unconditional love shared by father and son and the love of the game.
This love is nurtured with every game of catch between father and son around the world.
Every story is different. Every relationship is special for its own reasons.
Ken Griffey Sr. actually got to play with his son. He cited hitting back-to-back home runs with his son as his best memory in baseball. He also got to watch his son blossom into one of the greatest players of all-time. The experience he’s shared with his son in this game is unforgettable.
After listening to Mr. Griffey talk about baseball and his relationship with his son, I immediately thought about my story – my relationship with my dad in this beautiful game.
My dad passed his love of the game onto my brother and me and taught us everything he knew. I took everything my dad said to heart. I just wanted to be as good as him one day and to make him proud.
He was a great player in his day from high school to the local adult leagues. He played shortstop and was the player-manager of his team. Old friends say he rarely made an error and he was a top hitter too.
I just wanted to be like him.
His stories of his playing days are always entertaining. The rivalries and old teammates come to life as he remembers them. And I just listen and laugh with every anecdote.
But like Mr. Griffey, my best memories are from the simplest moments.
Like the countless games of pepper that my dad, my brother and I played in the backyard. My dad controlled the bat with ease, alternating ground balls to my brother and me. We’d field balls straight on and to the side, we’d work on our backhand, and we’d switch sides. And every now and then, dad would sneak a ball in between us for a base hit and smile.
Sometimes, the three of us would just play catch. We’d work on getting rid of the ball quick for double plays and he’d give us pointers to get better.
Other times, he’d soft toss us tennis balls in front of the shed before a game. We’d keep our swing level and he was always there watching every detail of our swings.
During the spring and summer, we always went out to hit just the three of us. Dad would throw perfect pitch after perfect pitch as we got into a rhythm stroking line drive after line drive into center field. It helped our confidence and made us both better players. After hitting, we’d go to second base and shortstop and he’s hit us buckets of ground balls. Every trip to the field made us better and prepared us for the next level of ball. Even if we weren’t the strongest or fastest, we knew how to play and we had good instincts because dad taught us. And in baseball, a good feel for the game can take you farther than physical ability.
By high school, I earned the starting spot at shortstop – just like dad. I learned so much over the years from him. He was the only coach I ever truly had. I listened to my other coaches and blended with the team, but it was my dad’s words and advice that I used on the field. I played up the middle on nearly every batter. I got rid of the ball quickly and every time, I beat the runner by half a step. At the plate, I could hear him saying, “Don’t get cheated.” And every inning, I sprinted onto the field just like he taught me.
And in high school, we would go for extra batting practice after team practice. It was always a better workout. And it always reassured me and gave me confidence going into a game. I just hit well and fielded every ground ball, I’m ready. My dad was always there ready to throw after a hard day of work. He was always there to listen as the season went on. He was always there to fight for me.
I just wanted to make him proud because I was so proud and grateful for him.
And now, I miss it all – the summer nights of pepper, the batting practice, and the games. Baseball is hard to keep up with, but I still love it and I still love to share it with my dad.
Love bonds it all together.
The relationship between the game and me may change, but it will always be special. And my relationship with my dad will always be a big part of it. We still go hit every now and then. We talk about it all the time. We watched games together all season. When we go to the ballpark, he points out the subtleties of the game. We watch the shortstop prepare in between pitches. We watch the players work out before the game.
He taught me the history of the game so I know as much about Ken Griffey Sr. as I do about Ken Griffey Jr. and I’m as fascinated with Dick Allen as I am with Chipper Jones.
And now, every time I write about this game, I’m writing for my dad and I’m remembering everything he taught me. I’m writing because I love this game. And I love this game because of him.
I could remember my greatest accomplishment in the game when I think about baseball from a personal perspective. But when I think of baseball, I think about my dad and my brother and the love we share.
You don’t ever have to reach the major leagues to have that special feeling and relationship with the game.
That’s why this game is so beloved in our culture.