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Originally published June 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 1, 2007 at 9:09 PM

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Steve Kelley

Griffey was Seattle's superstar, savior

Before Junior, baseball in Seattle was little more than a bad reality show. Surviving was more important that winning. Before Ken Griffey Jr....

Seattle Times staff columnist

Before Junior, baseball in Seattle was little more than a bad reality show. Surviving was more important that winning.

Before Ken Griffey Jr., nobody believed in the Mariners' future. This was and always would be a football town.

Before Junior, the Mariners never thought about pennants. This was a franchise that was more worried about moving. Where the Mariners would be in the country was more important than where they were in the standings.

Before Junior, the most telling statistic in every box score wasn't the final score. It was the paid attendance. Could the Mariners draw enough people to convince owner George Argyros to keep the team in town?

This is how tightly the pennies were pinched before Junior:

Before the 1987 amateur draft, when the Mariners had the first pick and Griffey was so clearly the best and the brightest, Argyros argued with his baseball people that they should draft a pitcher, Mike Harkey, not Griffey with that franchise-defining choice.

Argyros knew he could sign Harkey. He wasn't sure he wanted to spend the money on Junior.

That's how close Seattle came to never participating in a pennant race. To never knowing the ecstasy of baseball in October.

Griffey made baseball relevant in this town. Made it relevant to the Northwest.

When the Mariners moved across the street, he may have had his issues with Safeco Field — the glare in center field, the yawning home-run-robbing power alleys — but he built the spectacularly beautiful stadium that houses his former team.

Without Junior there wouldn't be baseball in Seattle. Period.

We would have lost all of those Edgar Martinez line drives. Randy Johnson would have won his first Cy Young Award in another city. We never would have witnessed the magic of Jamie Moyer, the inventiveness of Ichiro, or the impossibility of 2001.

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For the first time since he left Seattle in 2000, Junior is back in his baseball birthplace.

In a Mariners season still giddy with possibilities, this is the biggest baseball weekend of the year. The biggest weekend since the dream season of 2001.

And beginning tonight, despite the few spiteful naysayers who still don't understand why Griffey left or why he couldn't be all things to all people, he will be cheered and loved and welcomed back like a hero.

You see, Junior wasn't just an All-Star in Seattle. He was a phenomenon.

He was the next chapter of a Steinbeck novel, the next lyric of a Paul Simon song, the next scene directed by Scorsese.

Every night, every inning, every at-bat, it seemed, he was brilliance waiting to happen.

Junior did the impossible. He made baseball in the Kingdome beautiful. He lit up that gray, dark mausoleum with his talent and his charisma.

Whether he was risking his career, launching his body against the center-field fence to save an inning, a game, a season. Or running the bases with a surgeon's precision. Or launching another home run into right field's upper deck with that perfect, natural, slightly uppercut stroke, he made it worthwhile to come inside in summer to watch baseball.

His glove, his legs, his bat, Junior wowed us from every angle.

He got to balls that no other center fielder could find. He narrowed the gaps, giving hitters the illusion the Mariners played with four outfielders. And his every trip to the plate became an event.

Fans gave him the ultimate tribute by staying for his last swing, no matter how lopsided the score. With Junior, you never knew from where the next lightning strike would come. But you knew it was coming.

When he was here, he was the best player in the game. And he still is the only player who was the best in the business when he played in Seattle. The Seahawks' Steve Largent was close. The Sonics' Shawn Kemp was emerging, but only Junior arrived.

He's 37 now and has moved to right field, or occasionally in interleague road games, to designated hitter.

But after years of multiple aches and bad breaks, he is healthy and lethal again. He has 19 home runs and is hitting .285.

And don't you just know, that in this long-overdue homecoming, he's going to do something, or some things, we'll never forget.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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