Saying Goodbye To My First Sports Hero

I’d always assumed that the first time I’d feel old as a sports fan would be when LeBron James retired.

Made sense, right? After all, The King and I were born just six months apart, and graduated high school the same year. We attended our Senior Proms just two weeks apart (Although, as hard as this might be to believe, mine wasn’t a national news story.). And right as LeBron was getting his first taste of the NBA lifestyle after being drafted in 2003, I was getting my first taste of independence as a college freshman.

I always pictured the day, in 2019 or 2020 or 2021, when a graying, balding LeBron stepped in front of the cameras, and said that he couldn’t do it anymore, that he was retiring from basketball. Somewhere, a graying, balding me would be watching, holding back a tear, realizing, “Man, I’m gettin old.” When LeBron James, the greatest contemporary athlete of my generation couldn’t do it anymore, I always thought a little piece of me as a sports fan would retire with him.

Then Wednesday night happened.

While the nation was transfixed on Armando Galarraga-gate, another, smaller baseball headline scrolled at the bottom of our television screens. Ken Griffey Jr., my first sports hero, announced his retirement.

And man do I feel old.

For anyone under the age of 20, this might be hard to believe, but there was a time in the early and mid-1990’s when there wasn’t a bigger superstar than Ken Griffey Jr. I’m not talking about in baseball. I’m talking in sports. Period.

Sure basketball had Michael Jordan, but when he went from NBA superstar, to minor league baseball afterthought, back to NBA superstar in the blink of an eye, it rubbed a lot of people (Including everyone in my household) the wrong way. The NFL was in the midst of a semi-identity crisis, caught between the John Elway/Dan Marino era and the Peyton Manning era, with its best team- the Dallas Cowboys- making more headlines for doing drugs and hanging with strippers than anything they did on the field. Tennis had Pete Sampras, but believe me when I say that he was about as fun to watch as a Matlock marathon on A&E. And remember too, this was pre Tiger Woods, so I really couldn’t tell you who the best golfer in the world was. If only because nobody cared about golf.

But Griffey had a 100 percent approval rating. It didn’t matter if you were a Mariners fan, Red Sox fan, Yankees fan, whatever, if you were between the ages of 6 and 13 in 1993, Griffey was your favorite player. End of story.

(Random side note: I remember a time, maybe in kindergarten or first grade, some friends and I were talking baseball at recess. We all went around, everyone saying who their favorite player was. The conversation went like this: Griffey…Griffey…Griffey, Griffey…Griffey…until our last friend defiantly said “Frank Thomas.” We all reacted like he’d told us he was going in for a sex change operation. Seriously.)

Everyone wanted to be like “The Kid.” In Little League, we all fought over who got to wear No. 24. Everybody wanted to play centerfield. I dressed up like him one Halloween. One of the happiest days of my childhood was when I coaxed my parents into buying me an $80 Griffey replica jersey (How I remember the price, I have no idea). I wore that jersey the first day of school, and pretty much every day after too, until someone made fun of me for wearing the same shirt everyday. Looking back, it probably was a bit unhygienic, but you know what? I think that little prick was probably jealous he didn’t have a Griffey jersey of his own.

At his peak Griffey was bigger than any baseball player is now, and it wasn’t even close. He was on Wheaties boxes. And was one of the first athletes to have his own video game (Seems minor now. Believe me in 1994 this was a big deal). I even remember re-arranging my schedule on a Monday night so that I could catch an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that he made a minor cameo in. In the episode Hilary went ga-ga over him. No more so than every little kid in America did at the same time.

On the field, Griffey was that transcendent athlete who endeared himself to young and old, black and white, male and female. He always wore his trademark backwards hat accompanied by a huge smile, and carried himself confidently, without ever being cocky. For us young folks, he hit enough home runs to keep us coming back to our TV’s every time he came to bat, and for the baseball purists, played about as flawless a centerfield as you’ll ever see.

As a matter of fact, that’s probably the part of his game that never gets enough credit: The guy won 10 straight Gold Gloves from 1990-1999. Remember in Field of Dreams when Ray Kinsella said that Shoeless Joe Jackson’s glove was “Where triples went to die?” That was Ken Griffey Jr. manning centerfield, where triples went to die. And doubles and some singles too.

Offensively, Griffey was having 40 home run seasons before it was fashionable for sluggers to look like WWE wrestlers. 45 in 1993. 40 in a 111 game, strike shortened 1994 season. 49, 56, 56, 48 and 40 from 1996-2000. Truthfully, it took him retiring this week for me personally to remember just how good he was in his prime, and when healthy.

Of course he couldn’t stay healthy, especially after a 2000 trade to Cincinnati. He’d get a pulled hamstring here. A quad problem there. The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break.

The injuries ended up being the saddest part of his career. Griffey wasn’t one of these guys whose career started peaking at 34, hitting more home runs at 38 than 28. His playing days ascended and descended like so many greats before him, his skills eroding slowly but steadily, to the point that these last few years it seemed like he couldn’t go from first to third without pulling up lame. It’s for this reason alone that he’s considered the only “clean,” slugger of his generation. If Ken Griffey Jr. used performance enhancing drugs, they were the most defective batch ever produced.

As the years went on, and the injuries continued to wear him down, we all lost track of Griffey for awhile. The kids who grew up worshipping him went off to high school and college, more concerned with girls and cars than reading the back of baseball cards. Time really does stop for no man. Of course every once in awhile Griffey would make a headline, maybe after his 500th home run, then his 600th, and the memories would all come flooding back.

Not that any of this made his retirement announcement on Wednesday any easier on us.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d always assumed that Griffey would go out like Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith, an all-time great receiving the congratulations he deserved. It’d be a long, drawn out good-bye and a city-to-city lovefest, filled with balloons, 10 minute standing ovations, teary eyes, and “Ken Griffey Jr.,” night at a ballpark near you. I know I’d have attended. After that I figured he’d end up with some cushy front office gig, show up to every home game, and get a cheer from the crowd whenever his face showed up on the big screen.

Unfortunately, that’s not how Griffey went out. Instead, there was a hastily thrown together public statement, and secret escape out of the side door. My boyhood hero deserved better than that.

But as Griffey eases into his first weekend of retirement, rather than remembering him for his injury plagued later years, I chose two remember him for two moments from his cheerful, younger days.

The first came during the 1993 All-Star festivities. Any baseball fan between the ages of 25-35 already knows what I’m going to say, but I’ll repeat it for the younger readers anyway. During that weekend, Griffey added to his ever growing legend by hitting bomb after bomb, first in batting practice, then in the Home Run Derby, off the famous warehouse behind the right field fence at Camden Yards. History will tell you that Juan Gonzalez won the Derby that year, but as my grandma would say, “Foo-ey.” Ask any baseball fan about it, and they’ll talk your ear off about Griffey. He was a literal backwards hat wearing Superman that weekend.

The second came from the 1995 Division series against the Yankees. Everyone remembers Game 5 as one of the greatest games ever, and I’m no exception. Randy Johnson saving the day out of the bullpen, Joey Cora’s drag bunt, and Griffey coming around from first to score the winning run on another clutch Edgar Martinez hit.

What I remember most wasn’t the game itself but where I was: At a Hartford Whalers game with my uncle. I also remember that I made my mom tape Game 5, so I wouldn’t miss a thing. Keep in mind that this was before cell phones, texting and internet access in every corner of the world, so I literally had no idea what was going on as the baseball game played out.

When I finally got home, my mom met me at the door, her mouth running a mile a minute, explaining to me in detail everything that happened. We ended up staying up late and watching the tape, the broadcast ending with Griffey at the bottom of a pile of his teammates, a  young superstar unable to hold back his happiness.

That game was 15 years ago this October. Man I’m getting old.

Thanks for the memories Ken.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.