Fans give Griffey collective hug in return

Fans give Griffey collective hug in return

SEATTLE -- When the video clips showing some of his best catches, and the picture-perfect swing that produced club records during his 11 years, had ended -- not to mention the numerous standing ovations -- Ken Griffey Jr. walked to the podium at Safeco Field Friday night and spoke from the heart.

A prepared statement was not necessary.

"Never could I imagine that it would be like this coming back," he told the capacity crowd that jammed into Safeco Field for "Welcome Home Junior" night. "I spent 11 years here, 11 wonderful years. I met my beautiful wife here and two of my three kids were born here. This place [always] will be home."

Griffey, now 37 and in the final years of a Hall of Fame career, kept his composure throughout his few minutes behind the microphone, thanking the fans for their support "and never giving up on us." He reminisced about the unforgettable 1995 season, when the Mariners won the first of their three American League West championships, and basically saved baseball in the Northwest.

Oh, he had to take a few deep breaths to keep his calm demeanor throughout the pregame ceremony that was all it had been billed to be -- a region giving Junior a group hug.

"I was pretty good," Griffey said after the game. "I had to take a couple of deep breaths. I looked around and it was touching. I didn't want to start crying, 'cause I would have to go home, have my kids look at me, and say 'Daddy, you were a punk.' But it was really touching."

It was OK to be a Reds fan this night.

The Mariners organization presented Griffey with a large, framed collage of photos depicting his terrific career in Seattle. And two of his former teammates, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez, emerged during the pregame festivities to deliver a framed picture of Safeco Field with "The House That Griffey Built" spelled across the top.

Junior gave Martinez and Buhner much of the credit for turning a franchise accustomed to losing into champions, beginning in '95. He recalled that it was Buhner who kept telling that team that it should go after the division championship, not the Wild Card playoff berth.

"We were all young and didn't know any better," he said. "Edgar was the motor behind it because he protected me. I owe it all to these guys, these guys right here. They have been my supporting cast since 1989, on and off the field."

For 15 minutes, it was a heartwarming scene unlike any other for returning ex-Mariners, and the ovation reached a crescendo when Junior said, "I didn't realize how much I missed being in Seattle. Flying in from Oakland, coming in over the mountains [seeing] how pretty it is, landing at Boeing Field, driving up I-5, and passing the ballpark brought back so many great memories of being here."

And everyone in the place has a night to remember for a long, long time.

The Safeco Field gates opened at 5 p.m. PT, the same time as any other day the Mariners play a home night game.

But this night was different because the fans received a special treat -- watching Junior take batting practice, the first phase during a the welcome home party for the player that put Seattle on the Major League map almost 20 years ago.

They applauded when Griffey, wearing his baseball cap backwards, stepped into the batting cage for the first round of swings. He looked more like Ichiro Suzuki during a singles-hitting clinic than Home Run Derby, driving low line drives onto the outfield grass.

The noise level increased significantly the second time Junior went into the cage, as he sent back-to-back batting practice pitches deep into the right-field seats. That was more like the old days, when he hit 398 home runs for the Mariners and led the franchise to respectability.

The third go-around was even better. Junior launched balls over the right-field fence, the left-center-field fence and even one over the Bud Light sign in left-center, into the Mariners bullpen. Fans crowding around the visiting dugout gave their verbal stamp of approval, perhaps hoping for a response.

But Junior remained focused on the business at hand, getting prepared for the opener of a three-game Interleague series in front a packed house -- thanks largely to Griffey playing his first game in Seattle since Sept. 27, 1999, his final game as a Mariner.

Until Friday, Griffey had been reluctant to talk about his "homecoming".

But he pontificated during a 27-minute press conference in a packed interview room.

"I'm just going to try to enjoy it and soak as much of it in as I can," he said "I try to stay on an even keel, try not to let it get to me. But it has been exciting coming back.

"It's a little different," he said of the city he called home for 11 years. "Driving downtown, I got a chance to see some of the things that I missed for a while."

One of the first things he noticed was "The football stadium next door," referring to Qwest Field, the Seahawks' new home located in practically the same spot as the Kingdome.

"I tried to recognize as many landmarks as possible in the city," he added.

Griffey spent part of Thursday's off-day with his wife and three children, driving around his old stomping grounds.

"I drove past my first house in Renton, because we were out in Bellevue," he said. "Then we went out to Issaquah just to show the kids where I used to live. And I heard Melissa say, 'That house is so cute,' so it was pretty fun.

"The first thing I thought of is that [the new owners] still have that blue sport court. So I was pretty excited about that, 'Hey they still kept it, that's nice.' Then I thought about my daughter [Taryn] losing her diamond earring there, and seeing if I could take a metal detector to find it. I looked at Melissa, and could tell that she was excited about being here."

Asked how he has changed over the years, Griffey said, "I don't think I've changed a whole lot. I think, for the most part, I don't put up with a lot of nonsense. I'm more direct on certain things. I still try to dodge questions about me, so I don't think that's changed.

"When I came here, I was 19, didn't have really a care in the world. I got married, had two kids, and then I was the totem pole that carries everything. I tried to be a father, a husband. I think the toughest for me was in '99, when they went back and spent eight weeks in Florida and I was here by myself. That probably took a toll on me as far as not having my little partner in crime [son Trey] with me. I don't think that he realizes how much I care about him.

"That was probably the toughest. Now, it's a little easier. The kids are on autopilot, pretty much, but I still have to be a dad. I still have to do the things that dads do."

Griffey said he has always "been comfortable" with the decision to request a trade that would get him closer to his family, which had relocated to Orlando, Fla.

"I think a lot of people weren't comfortable with it, but I was because, No. 1, it was my family," he said. "If you look at my dad's career, he went from Cincinnati to New York, Atlanta, to Cincinnati.

"He stayed around me and my brother until we were old enough to be out of his house, and then he came to Seattle. My brother had already gone to college, and I was in this organization, and that's when he felt that 'I can do what I want now.' But he was always close enough for us to be around him. I think that's one of the things I've learned, is that no matter what, your family comes first."

And that's why he remains so popular in the Northwest. Fans realize he departed for the right reason. And finally given a chance to say "Thanks for the Memories", they came out in force.

"There will never be closure, simply because I started off my career here," Griffey said. "I'm just happy that the people of Seattle, and all over the country who came up here, were that supportive. But there will never be closure until I retire. Then, five years after that, then it will be closure."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.