MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Junior's spirit infectious to a generation

Castrovince: Junior's love of baseball infectious

Junior's spirit infectious to a generation
ARLINGTON -- On the other side of the glass partition separating 12-year-old kids like me from Major League royalty stood Ken Griffey Jr.

This was the summer of 1993, and Junior had just finished up a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. He was showered, changed and headed out to the finest steakhouse in town, adoring fans following him along every step of the way.

Or at least that's the kind of thing you assume when you're 12 years old. Maybe he just went back to the team hotel and ate room-service chicken wings. The details aren't really that important.

What is important, in retrospect, is the feeling an All-Star ballplayer could instill in you at that impressionable age.

My stepbrother and I had milled around the ballpark postgame, hoping to snag an autograph. And we crowded against that glass as Griffey -- the biggest name in the game -- stepped out of an elevator and into the real world. Forget the fact that we had just watched him on the field for three hours. Seeing him in this decidedly more natural environment left us nothing short of starstruck.

So it is that I'm still a little starstruck when I see Junior. I covered him for one season as the Cincinnati Reds beat reporter for MLB.com. We've crossed paths many times in the years since. I've talked with him about family, friends, life and death. Long after that day in Kansas City, when he was a hero on the other side of the glass, he became a real person to me. But the 12-year-old inside of me would always slap himself against the head and say, "Can you believe we're talking to Ken Griffey Jr. right now?"

Maybe I'm talking out of turn here, but I think Griffey inspires that childlike love of the game in a lot of people from my generation. We were the kids wearing our hat backward and blowing bubbles with our Big League Chew in the outfield grass. We couldn't accurately simulate his beautiful swing, but we could certainly cop his smile.

On Sunday, Bud Selig celebrated that small but significant influence by presenting Junior with the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award. It was merely a 25-minute news conference held in the bowels of Rangers Ballpark before Game 4 of the World Series, but it was a necessary recognition of a career that went too swiftly into that good night.

Among the many laudatory things Selig said about Griffey, a few simple words stood out.

"He played the game," Selig said, "with a smile and with an enthusiasm that showed how much he loved playing baseball."

Really, isn't that all we ask out of our star athletes? Play the game with conviction, play it with respect for your opponent and for those laying down their hard-earned money.

Play it like you love it.

"I went out there," Griffey said, "and played hard and enjoyed it. I had a smile, and I cared a lot about the game itself."

Griffey has his critics. In Cincinnati, especially. His Hall of Fame career was impaired by injury after injury after injury. And the easy joke is that this award presentation qualified as his first and only World Series appearance.

But to many of us, Junior also represents everything that was right in an era in which so many players did us so wrong. Selig made note of Griffey staying away from controversy and "playing the game the way it was supposed to be played," and those words were pointed. I remember reading an interview with Griffey once where he was asked why he didn't do steroids, and his answer was, "I want to be able to look my kids in the eye." It was the perfect response.

Griffey deserved this honor -- an honor bestowed upon just 11 others since it was created in 1998. And while this wasn't a ceremony of great pomp and circumstance, hopefully it provided Griffey with the kind of closure his career didn't receive when he made his abrupt exit from the Mariners a year and a half ago.

Junior always said he wouldn't do a victory lap, wouldn't make a farewell tour through the Major League season to soak up accolades and affection. And his promise proved true that day in June 2010, when the Mariners announced his retirement with a concise press release. Griffey, hitting poorly, playing sporadically and becoming the subject of controversy over a clubhouse nap, didn't want to become a distraction to his teammates, so he packed his bags and drove across the country to head home to his family in Florida.

In the time since, he's accepted a "special consultant" role with the Mariners, and he's made a few appearances visiting the club's Minor Leaguers and done a stint or two in the radio booth. But there have been no ceremonial first pitches, no "Ken Griffey Jr. Night" at Safeco Field. His has been a quiet retirement.

"When I made up my mind on the retirement ... I think everybody knows, I didn't like a whole lot of press," Griffey said. "I just wanted to be me. I didn't want to have to have my teammates put in a situation, and I think that was the biggest thing. But having the award, yeah, it's some closure to ... not a whole lot of people, 11 other people have gotten this award. So it's definitely the closure that I needed."

Griffey was soft-spoken but thoughtful, poignant and funny during the presser. He reflected on his legacy, his father, his appreciation for the precedent set by Jackie Robinson and the influence provided by Chuck Harmon Sr., Joe Black, Willie Mays and Willie Stargell, among others. And as usual, he talked at length about his kids. His oldest son, Trey, might be the next star Griffey, albeit on the football field. His daughter, Taryn, loves basketball. His youngest son, Tevin, might still be swayed to the diamond. All in all, Griffey seems to enjoy his new role in life as the "assistant head coach for a 9-year-old, high-powered offensive football team."

As he talked, though, the thought occurred to me that the sporting heroes of my youth are no longer dominating on the field of play. They are receiving lifetime achievement awards, talking about their kids or their golf games or their investment portfolios.

I'm fine with that, and I get the sense Griffey is fine with that. But it was good to see him, good to applaud him and good to be starstruck once more.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.