Sidelines: Ken Griffey Jr’s last days with the Mariners shouldn’t diminish his legacy

The Kid has officially hung ‘em up.

Although I knew the day would eventually come, I was still a little nostalgic when I heard the news Wednesday afternoon that Ken Griffey Jr. was retiring.

Like everybody who grew up during the 1990s in the Puget Sound region, Griffey was “my guy.” He was sports in Seattle.

There has never been another athlete in the history of professional sports in the city that could be called the best in the world. During the 1990s, he was, hands-down, the best all-around player in Major League Baseball.

Griffey is the most significant athlete in the history of Seattle sports. He will be the first player to don a Mariners’ hat when he’s inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

So it was tough to see the way Griffey went out. Obviously, there aren’t too many perfect endings in sports. Not everyone can retire after winning the Super Bowl, a la John Elway.

But Griffey had the perfect opportunity to say goodbye — the right way. The way the best baseball player of an era should exit the game. After the final game of the 2009 season, the entire Mariners’ roster carried Griffey around Safeco Field on their shoulders in front of his adoring fans.

However, the perfect “walk-into-the-sunset” moment blew by Griffey like so many mediocre fastballs did this season. Like so many elite athletes, Griffey didn’t know when to call it quits.

It was the same pride that made him a 10-time All Star and a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner that also made Griffey return this season. He thought he still had “it.”

But it became very obvious to everyone that “it” was long gone. His flawless swing was still there. However, the effortless, natural motion was noticeably slower. The bat speed that produced 630 home runs was gone and Griffey was relegated to riding Don Wakamatsu’s bench, much to his chagrin.

“I feel that without enough occasional starts to be sharper coming off the bench, my continued presence as a player would be an unfair distraction to my teammates, and their success as a team is what the ultimate goal should be,” Griffey said in a statement released by the Mariners Wednesday.

So he chose June 2 as his day to step away from a baseball clubhouse, where he has spent his entire life. It was 75 years after Babe Ruth retired while, as a 40-year-old, he was hitting .181. The 40-year-old Griffey was hitting just .184 when he called it quits.

“This has been on my mind recently, but it’s not an easy decision to come by,” Griffey said in his statement. “While I feel I am still able to make a contribution on the field, and nobody in the Mariners front office has asked me to retire, I told the Mariners when I met with them before the 2009 season and was invited back, that I will never allow myself to become a distraction.”

The Mariners honored Griffey before Wednesday night’s game with video highlights of his career in Seattle and drawing his number 24 into the infield dirt. I’m sure something bigger is planned for later in the season.

Despite the awkward ending to Griffey’s career, there’s no arguing his place in history. This is the guy that saved Major League Baseball in Seattle — no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Remember 1995? The entire drama that went into the construction of Safeco Field was something out of the movies. You just can’t write stuff that good and it wouldn’t have come to fruition without Griffey. It was only fitting that he scored the game-winning run in the franchise’s first playoff series win over the hated New York Yankees.

“They say in New York that Yankee Stadium is the house that Ruth built,” longtime Mariner president Chuck Armstrong said. “In Seattle, Washington, we say that Safeco Field is the house that Ken Griffey Jr. built.”

So even with his unceremonious exit earlier this week, I will still remember the joy that Griffey brought to me and the countless other Seattle Mariner baseball fans he helped mold.

In time, the memory of his final two months with the Mariners, including the zero home runs and the highly-publicized “Sleep-gate” incident, will fade. And when it’s all said and done, Ken Griffey Jr. will be remembered as the best athlete in the history of Seattle.

Thanks for the memories, Kenny.

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