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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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"The Kid" returns — and oh, the memories

Tonight it all comes washing back on us, and on Ken Griffey Jr., the echoes of an old love affair that touched both parties to their souls...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tonight it all comes washing back on us, and on Ken Griffey Jr., the echoes of an old love affair that touched both parties to their souls.

It's likely to be emotional, perhaps the greatest outpouring of sporting emotion in the city since that golden 1995 season that saved baseball in Seattle.

The occasion is a three-game series starting tonight between the Mariners and Griffey's Cincinnati Reds — the first time Griffey has been at Safeco Field since 1999. After that season, he asked to be traded to be closer to his family, ending his 11-year run in Seattle.

"I hope he doesn't have his guard up," said Harold Reynolds, Griffey's teammate here in the early years of his long career. "If we get a chance to see the real him, it'd be great."

Griffey left town as a center fielder and returns as a right fielder, having surrendered a bit to age (37). But he's having one of his best post-Seattle years, with 19 homers and 44 runs batted in. He will be honored tonight in a 6:45 pre-game ceremony.

As of late Thursday afternoon, only a few scattered single tickets were available.

Those closest to "Junior" — as he became known through years of wall-scaling catches, long home runs and an uncanny flair for the dramatic — are like many other baseball fans here, crackling with anticipation.

"I would suspect he'd get a standing ovation, and it might last for a while," said former relief pitcher Norm Charlton. "The only question in my mind is, how long is the game going to be delayed before they finally stop clapping?"

"I hope he's in the outfield," said Dave Niehaus, the longtime Mariners broadcaster. "I hope he's not the designated hitter. I want to see him out there galloping around, even though it may not be the same guy."

It was Griffey, front and center in that stretch drive of '95, igniting it with an Aug. 24 homer that beat the Yankees at the Kingdome, helping sway public support to keep the franchise in Seattle. He had sat out much of that season with a broken wrist.

"Without Junior, there would be no Safeco Field," Niehaus says, "no doubt about it."

"He saved the franchise," Reynolds says. "We were a team that was headed to Tampa Bay, and then Junior showed up."

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As long a shadow as Griffey cast in Seattle, it's easy to forget that his impact was immense elsewhere, too.

"I mean, he was Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, he was Ted Williams," Reynolds says. "He meant as much to baseball as any of those guys did. He was big. He hits at a time when cable TV was taking off, and representing one of the biggest shoe companies [Nike] in the world.

"I know when we went on the road, we were constantly sold out, and people wanted to see Junior. The other thing I found out later when I started working at ESPN, the most popular logo was the Mariners logo, the team that drew the best on the road was Seattle. It was no coincidence."

The images will flood back this weekend: Griffey and his dad, Ken Sr., hitting homers in the same inning in 1990; Griffey going deep in eight straight games in 1993, tying a major-league record; Griffey, ecstatic under a dog pile in '95, having scored the run that ousted the Yankees from the playoffs.

Seemingly, nobody ever had more fun doing it. There was the time in spring training when Griffey, having lost a steak-dinner bet to manager Lou Piniella, arranged to have a cow delivered to Piniella's office. And the day that Piniella engaged in one of his signature dirt-kicking, spit-flying rages at an umpire, while a TV camera caught Griffey on the bench, breaking up.

Then there are the memories of those around Griffey regularly. Charlton remembers how they'd get to the clubhouse early, 1 p.m. or so for a night game, order pizza or takeout from Benihana and play cards.

"That's when you got to see the real 'Kid,' " Charlton says.

Similarly, Reynolds says, Griffey learned he could find privacy in public by going out with teammates after games, when most of the city slept.

"We used to go to midnight movies, or go bowling after games," Reynolds says. "It'd be, 'What's playing at Factoria Mall? See you there at midnight.' "

For a superstar, Griffey was inclusive with his teammates. One of his best friends, ex-outfielder Jay Buhner, remembers an off day in Oakland when Griffey organized a couple of vans to take a large group of Mariners to play 36 holes at the famed Pebble Beach golf course.

"He paid for the whole thing," Buhner says, "but he didn't want anybody to know that."

Niehaus calls Griffey "the greatest athlete I've ever had a chance to describe." He also remembers a side of Griffey that he says engendered a "love-hate relationship" between them.

Niehaus recalls a night at old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, with its spacious center field, when Griffey, running all out, had a ball glance off his glove.

"Junior usually makes that catch," Niehaus said over the air.

The next night, outside the clubhouse in New York, Niehaus heard Griffey's voice.

"Hey, Niehaus," Griffey called out. "My people tell me you said I should have caught that ball last night."

"First of all," Niehaus said, "your people don't have very good ears. I said, 'You usually make that catch.' "

Griffey responded sheepishly: "Yeah, I usually do, don't I?"

The parting came early in 2000 when Griffey was dealt to the Reds, who sent back Mike Cameron and others.

"It happens," said ex-Mariners manager Piniella last week in Chicago, where he now manages the Cubs. "It happens in sports; it doesn't happen only in Seattle. He's a kid the city should welcome back with open arms."

The thought may go unspoken this weekend but it will be entertained nonetheless: Could Griffey have remained a Mariner and retired as one?

"I don't think he's ever fully recovered from leaving Seattle," Reynolds says. "I think his heart has always been there."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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