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Ken Griffey Jr. is Seattle

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Growing up in Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. was my childhood. As he goes into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, his mark on a city and a generation remains.

"Give it up for Naughty by Natuuuuuuuuuure"

If you lived in Seattle in the 1990s, you know what those words mean. They're the beginning of Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray", a DJ introducing the group. But to those of us who grew up in the Seattle area while Ken Griffey Jr. was laying the seeds of a Hall of Fame career, they meant it was time to see something special.

To this day, the opening to "Hip Hop Hooray" — the words and sounds of the intro, the beat dropping — immediately brings a flood of memories and makes me feel a certain nostalgia.

As a child of the ‘90s growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, The Kid left an indelible mark on me and an entire generation. I started listening to KUBE 93, recording rap mixtapes by cassette. On every one was "Hip Hop Hooray", the soundtrack to the ‘95 postseason run and a song synonymous with Junior in Seattle.

Ken Griffey Jr. shaped my childhood and me as a person. I'm sure I'm not alone — I'd go so far as to say he shaped a generation of kids in Seattle.

Little league and youth basketball are a good gauge of this. For kids my age, the Mariners hadn't provided a real superstar role model to that point — the Sonics had Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, and since I was short and couldn't dunk I played the role of the ballhawk assist-first point guard growing up. And then Griffey came along.

Right around 1995, you'd see a change. Hats would be bought then immediately turned backwards. Around those Little League baseball diamonds, you'd see a ton of hats turned around and few facing forward. He made the backwards hat look cool, and we all followed his lead.

His swing, so fluid and, I'll contend to this day, perfect, was the swing we all tried to mimic. Lefties, righties, it didn't matter. An entire team of kids would walk up, take the upright stance in the batters' box, waggle the bat and body ever so slightly to stay loose, and try to copy the smooth, yet powerful, Griffey swing. Always imitated, yet never anywhere near the beauty of the original.

Defense became fun. For a time, nobody wanted to play in the outfield — this was low-level baseball and all the action was in the infield. Then center field became the position to play. There were fights over who was in center each game and an entire team of kids would lobby for the coveted 24 jersey.

At least for me, hip hop became the soundtrack to my childhood. It was "Hip Hop Hooray", because that was Junior, then Wreckx-and-Effect, Warren G ("This DJ", not "Regulators", oddly) and on to Tupac, Biggie and so forth. I don't remember exactly when I got into rap, but my endless search to hear Naughty By Nature led me to KUBE 93, where it was probably played more than once an hour, and introduced me to everything else. We used to listen to explicit tapes of Warren G on the playground, rapping along to words we probably shouldn't have been saying in sixth grade.

There wasn't walk up music in Little League, but in my head I'd step to the plate, bobbing along to a thumping beat.

* * *

I’m 31 now, and a lot of the sports memories of my childhood have faded — save for one period marked by moments seared into my brain. I remember sitting in my room, playing basketball on a Nerf hoop along with the Sonics, muting the TV to listen to Kevin Calabro on the radio as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp infected Seattle with basketball fever. Dave Niehaus was my baseball sage, captivating me for hours as the Mariners started to get good.

The winning meant it was a great time to be a sports fan in Seattle, and a better time to be a kid growing up around it. It was also a time that shaped how I view sports and business because as the Mariners were making a magical postseason run in 1995, the team came inches from being moved away. Around the same time, the Seahawks, a mostly sad-sack franchise since its inception also came inches from being moved. The image of people literally standing in front of moving trucks remains burned into my mind.

As time has passed, even some of the Sonics memories have faded. While the Seahawks and Mariners were saved at the last moment, the Sonics weren’t so lucky. It’s a divorce I still resent and that the city will never get over. Seattle spent more than a decade watching as some great things happened on the field, and some greedy, painful things happened off it.

This is why my memories of the Mariners don’t fade. They wrote a storybook in 1995 that held so much more meaning than a championship trophy. The run ended in the ALCS, but it remains one of the more incredible things to watch that I’ve been alive for.* You couldn’t write a script better than what actually happened.

*There have been more transcendent moments that hold more value nationally or globally. But as someone living through the 1995 season, right in the middle of it, the sum of it all can’t be topped for me.

* * *

For those who weren’t as close to the action, let’s recap 1995:

About two months into the season, Junior made one of the best catches you’ll ever see. He also obliterated his wrist crashing into the wall at full speed and missed about half the season.

By the time he returned, the Mariners had played so-so baseball and seemed well out of position to even make the playoffs. At the beginning of August, they trailed the California Angels by 13 games. It was, for all intents and purposes, a wasted season.

Then the Angels collapsed, surrendering their lead in the AL West by mid-September as the Mariners got hot. Because things are never simple in Seattle, the Mariners blew that lead, setting up a one-game playoff against the Angels.

I can tell you where I was for this, too. We listened to about half the game in my sixth grade class before I hustled home to catch the end on TV — Sony Walkman in hand, earphones in, listening on the bus ride home. I made it home and dove in front of the TV in time to watch Luis Sojo bring everyone in, and score himself, on an inside-the-park home run.

Suddenly, Seattle had baseball fever. Refuse to Lose was printed on hats and t-shirts. The Mariners were the darlings of the city.

Except while all this was happening, the team was moving closer to ... moving. In mid-September, while the Mariners were run on the field, a measure to publicly fund a new stadium failed. It did so narrowly, but the team’s owners dug in and demanded a shiny new park with an October 30 deadline for financing. I was too young to understand this grown-up business fully, but I knew it meant something bad was probably about to happen.

Ken Griffey Jr. saved baseball in Seattle. It’d diminish the contributions of everyone else to not caveat that: Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Joey Cora, Lou Piniella, and many others made huge contributions on the field and in the community during that incredible and tumultuous period. But Junior was the face, the superstar, the man with incredible talent and a seemingly carefree attitude that could do no wrong in our eyes.

* * *

"The stretch and the 0–1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martinez; swung on and lined down the left field line for a base hit!** Here comes Joey! Here is Junior to third base, they're going to wave him in! The throw to the plate will be...LATE! The Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don't believe it! It just continues! My, oh My!"

**This is where we note that Niehaus almost passed out during the call. The timing of when he took a beat to breathe was off, and it was almost as though the hit caught him off guard. As he begins to yell, nothing is there, his voice straining along before he quickly recovers with a deep, bellowing "HERE COMES JOEY!" There's no doubt Dave will be smiling down from the heavens as Griffey joins him in the Hall of Fame, watching over The Kid as he always did.

If there was a moment that saved baseball in Seattle from the bullshit politics off the field, it was this. I can’t watch the clip, or listen to Dave Niehaus’ call, without getting emotional all over again, even 20 years later. I can recite the call from memory, picturing where everyone was on the field and their role in the most iconic Seattle sports moment.

There was Edgar Martinez doing what he does best: roping a double into the corner***. Joey Cora, on base because of his patented drag bunt, tying the game. The camera cuts to Junior, running like he had rockets in his shoes, a determined look on his face as Niehaus built to a crescendo. There wasn’t a chance in the world they were gonna throw him out.

***It’s an absolute shame that Edgar Martinez won’t be on stage in Cooperstown, welcoming Griffey into the fraternity of Hall of Famers. Martinez was a master of his craft, and the damn award for the best designated hitter in the league is named in his honor.

If you could transport yourself into living rooms around Seattle, I bet you’d see a similar reaction to mine: screaming, jumping up off the floor so high it felt like I’d hit the ceiling, complete and utter jubilation. The Mariners were dead, down 0-2 to open the series, forced to win three straight in the Kingdome and facing a one-run deficit in the bottom of the 11th after clawing back to even the series. Baseball in Seattle was nearly as dead, too. And then it wasn’t.

* * *

What Ken Griffey Jr. did for Seattle was far more than home runs, highlight-reel catches and incredible moments. He shaped a generation, all trying to be him even though it was an impossible standard. He saved baseball, staying just long enough to see the House That Griffey Built, Safeco Field, open. And then he left. But even that didn’t feel terrible: He did so saying he wanted to be closer to family, and at the time I nodded and thought, "That’s OK."

There have been better Seattle sports seasons, including a record-setting Mariners season just a year after Griffey left (which also ended with Seattle coming up short). Almost 20 years later, the Seahawks won a Super Bowl. And still, nothing has left a mark on the city like The Kid.

Junior goes into the Hall on Sunday, and even 20 years ago it was obvious we were watching a historic career and player develop in front of our eyes. As he grew up on the field, a generation of kids grew up with him. We watched him transform from a smiling young man playing with his dad to The Kid. We followed, observed, and tried to live up to what he was.

More than two decades later, Junior’s mark on the city remains. Baseball still exists in Seattle, with Safeco Field being the living reminder of ‘95, Junior and, yes, what politics can do to sport. But there’s about a decade of children, now adults, who molded themselves after Griffey that remains, his influence from afar present in style and his mark left in the form of memories and nostalgia.

Ken Griffey Jr. was, and is, Seattle. One more time, in Cooperstown, where it was always destined to end, a city will rise, raise its arms, and wave them side to side.

"Give it up for Ken Griffey Jr."