The Mariners, Seattle were lucky to have Ken Griffey Jr.

Aug 10, 2013, 2:55 AM | Updated: Aug 12, 2013, 1:52 pm

By Shannon Drayer

The No. 1 question I am asked about my job is, who have I enjoyed covering the most? There is never any hesitation. Despite the fact that there have been numerous No. 1-As, No. 1 without a doubt was Ken Griffey Jr. How could it not be?

Junior was one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game, and for 13 years we got to watch him on the baseball field up close and personal. A highlight video was played at the Hall of Fame luncheon Friday. Catch after catch, crashes into the wall, jumps at the wall, the perfect swing and balls leaving the yard were all followed by expressions of joy. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “We were so lucky.”

Ken Griffey Jr. is known for being the greatest player in Mariners history, but around baseball he is known for his friendly demeanor and clubhouse antics. (AP)

Not that we took him for granted. I think we all knew what we were watching was special. I think I can say that because for the majority of his first 11 years with the team I was a fan. I was catching the bus and buying 300-level tickets, then sneaking down to the lower levels to get a better look. I was there in ’95 on the first-base side, 16 rows up, as by some miracle when the playoff tickets went on sale I got through to Ticketmaster on the very first dial when the lines opened. Talk about good fortune.

Years later I would have a press pass around my neck and the opportunity to see the man up close. To ask him questions, see how he went about his business, see how others reacted to him, and watch a future Hall of Famer day in and day out. That is when I started to take what he had done on the field for granted. Not because his skills had diminished but because for me, the person eclipsed the baseball player.

In 15 years of covering this team I have never seen a player be more concerned and more tuned into what is going on around him with his team than Griffey. There is a reason so many say he’s the best teammate they’ve ever had.

In his first days back with the Mariners in 2009 he showed support for Ichiro, who at the time was trying to dodge questions about possible conflict with a teammate the previous year. He did this by butting into a group interview with questions that were just loud enough and statements behind the reporters. While this was annoying for some of us, it showed his teammate that he had his back.

There were the hugs and practical jokes that you saw and no doubt heard about. What you didn’t get to see is when Junior went back into the clubhouse after Felix Hernandez gave up six runs to the Angels in 2009 to tell him that he was going to be okay. He then went into the video room with him and talked to him about the hitters’ perspective of what he was doing. Felix has credited this talk with being one of the reasons he turned things around after that.

Griffey had a way of making everyone feel like a part of things. It didn’t matter if you had 10 years service time or 10 days. He was as good with the rookies as he was with the veterans. The youngster might get teased a little more, but I think they appreciated the attention, and ultimately that is what Griffey was doing – giving them a little attention.

It was fun to see young players’ reactions when they first encountered Junior. I remember Matt Tuiasosopo’s eyes getting big when he came around the corner lockers and there was Griffey. I will never forget when Greg Halman first met him. He could barely contain himself. Michael Saunders remembers Griffey being the first person he saw when he got his big-league call-up. He didn’t know what time he was supposed to be at the park so he took no chances and arrived too early – or perhaps just on time. When he walked into the big-league clubhouse for the first time, the only other player in the room was Griffey, who welcomed him.

The next year Saunders was called up three days before Mothers Day, when players are allowed to use pink bats in support of breast cancer awareness. Saunders’ mother was battling breast cancer at the time, but because he was not with the team at the beginning of the year a pink bat was not sent to him. Griffey caught wind of this and immediately called Louisville Slugger and a pink bat was waiting for Saunders when the team arrived home from its next road trip.

His thoughtfulness was not just reserved for teammates. When he heard that a member of the traveling media party had lost his father who was a Mariners fan, he went to great lengths to get one of his jerseys sent to the family out of state.

Junior kept an eye out for anyone who entered the clubhouse. Teammates, coaches, staff, even media. If someone was having a bad day he could tell. Rather than ask what was up, he would tell stories that would put a smile on the face of whoever needed it. If need be he would put on a little show. There was no moping in his clubhouse.

He was generous as well. There were team dinners, golf outings, and whatever teammates needed signed was absolutely no problem. On the night before he made the final drive home to Florida he bought lobsters for the team for dinner.

That, of course, was a tough time – one of the two times Junior left us. The first time was painful. The week leading up to the final split I think we all had the hope that he would change his mind and something would get done. I remember sitting at the radio station the day it finally happened. The press conferences were over and we were coming down from the buzz you get when there is big breaking news. There were sports anchors, hosts and producers in the room, and when everything finally stopped and it was over – really over – the realization sunk in about what we had lost. The joy we took in watching the best player of his generation every day on the field would no longer be ours. Perhaps the best thing to ever happen to Seattle baseball was gone. There was more than one person in that room with a tear in their eye.

Junior was going “home”. He grew up in Cincinnati, but I bet even then he knew that Seattle was truly his home. His father warned him that no organization would ever treat him like his first, but still he felt he had to go. He had to be closer to his family. In spending a large amount of time with him, and a bit of time with members of his family since, I have no doubt that was his true motivation. Family means absolutely everything to him.

Seattle could not be more remote than it is. I have lived the travel and it is difficult. It is hard to see your family even if they are in Seattle, let alone anywhere else. The Mariners are the only team in baseball where you never even have a shot at being home for Sunday dinner after an away day game. Cincinnati was closer to Florida, and true to his word he made countless trips home to see his family during the season while with the Reds.

It is all about family now for Griffey. Away from the game he misses the people, but regarding the clubhouse camaraderie that many talk about being the toughest thing to separate from, he said that there comes a time when that needs to end. For some the transition out of baseball can be rough, but Griffey appears to be as happy now as he was when he played the game. As uncomfortable as it is for him to step out on a field in front of 40,000 people to be honored, he seemed genuinely happy to be in Seattle, back at Safeco Field.

I am thrilled for him that Saturday’s game is a sellout. I am thrilled that fans are excited to see him again and have the chance to honor him. Saturday will be just for us. In 2016 we will have to share him with the rest of baseball when he goes into the Hall of Fame.

What a day that will be.

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