06 April 2009

The Prodigal Kid

It's the first week of April, which means that once again the baseball season is upon us.  Last year at this time I was rhapsodizing over Dave Niehaus' induction into the Hall of Fame and was voicing cautious optimism about the upcoming Mariners season.  Well, as any of you who are Northwest sports fans know, that optimism was dashed quickly and mercilessly, ushering in the worst year in history not just for the Mariners but for Seattle sports in general (capped off, of course, by the Sonics' treacherous defection to Oklahoma City).  In light of all that, you might expect me to be pretty downbeat about the advent of a new season, but once again I am cautiously optimistic.  I'm not predicting that the Mariners will be making the playoffs, mind you, but things are looking up: it's a beautiful spring day, the team is under new and wiser management, and Ken Griffey, Jr. has come home.
This offseason was supposed to be all about stockpiling young talent, and for the most part it was.  However, no move the Mariners made this winter created a bigger splash than the signing of Junior.  There were several legitimate concerns about the team signing a veteran who will likely retire after the season, but I'll admit I was as thrilled as anyone when the news came down the wire that the greatest player in team history was returning to Seattle.  Every team out there has had great players, of course, but in his first tour with the Mariners, Griffey transcended greatness.  It's not that he was always the best player in the league - though there were years when that was the case - but no player has ever meant as much to a team as Junior did to Seattle.  He shared the clubhouse with other greats who deserve all the praise they get and then some - Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson - but in the '90s, Ken Griffey, Jr. was the Seattle Mariners.  He was unique, bursting with almost unbelievable potential (which he sadly never lived up to after leaving for Cincinnati), and always a pleasure to watch.  Some of the best memories from my childhood involve sitting in the Kingdome watching his majestic home runs soar along the right field line and into the upper deck.  It's not a stretch to say that the Seattle Mariners wouldn't exist without Junior: without his drawing power, it's all but certain that the team would have moved to Tampa Bay or some other city with cash and a stadium to spare.  It was a dismal day when he left for a nearly decade-long sojourn in the Midwest, but now he's come home.  He may not - in point of fact will not - treat us to a repeat performance of his glory days, but just seeing him playing in Safeco Field (a stadium designed around him) is going to be a wonderful experience, and one that Seattle has never needed more desperately.