I scanned my face in the mirror last night a little more stringently than usual.
Nothing really changed, mind you, since the day before. But those crow’s feet are becoming a bit more pronounced, that forehead’s annexed some new territory further to the north, and that waistline has a bit more wobble than it once did.
But last night. I got real old. A lot of folks my age did, too. Ken Griffey, Jr., forever the kid, got too damn old for baseball.
Oh, sure, he still looks young and vibrant. That same winning smile and long and limber body. No way he could be mistaken for 40, except between the white lines. That milk chocolate swing, still as smooth as Marvin Gaye’s voice, lost some speed and some pop along with it. The hands had begun to belie the bat. It was time to put it down.
However he’s remembered in baseball annals, and it’s a legacy that will no doubt shift and shape for years to come as it already has several times over, Griffey will be remembered and revered most by that first wave of the iGeneration as simply ‘baseball.’
When writers gush nostalgically about cracking a belt-high fastball into the upper deck, climbing the fence to commit Grand Theft Flyout, and baseball being – at it’s core – just a kid’s game, they often talk about days gone by and halcyon green fields, recording each memory as if to preserve it from ever fading away. Griffey is that memory for us.
Griffey was more than just a great baseball player. Not in the sense of being a commercial icon like Michael Jordan, or a cross-cultural primadonna like Terrell Owens, or a golden boy and part-time runway model like Tom Brady. Though, it could be argued, at various points in his career, he was all these things to a degree.
Griffey embodied eternal youth at a time when our generation was young, and thought youth could last forever.
The semi-tragic injury parade that robbed him first of foot speed, then of bat speed, and finally of raw power, synchronously paralleled the time during which we aged and gained awareness that youth comes standard with an expiration date, and potential really isn’t all that limitless after all.
Griffey was the athlete to grow up and grow old with. The neighborhood kids argued over who could be KGJ during fantasy pickup games. We stared adoringly at tennis balls as they arched deep into – well, ok, about as far as an adult can throw – the twilight sky after school.
My baseball caps compassed backwards as often as I could get away with. His rookie card (along with several others) sit in a dusty binder in a flimsy cardboard box in the basement. Along with my drum set and other random artifacts from my childhood.
And that was Griffey. A piece of youth that lived on and grew seemingly more legendary as time passed, despite his legend fading farther away with each passing year and ACL tear. To baseball, he was the original NES in the dusty box, which, although you had to blow into the cartridges sometimes and hit reset more than once, at times played as good as ever and better than anything since. Though, less and less frequently as time went on.
My NES currently sits in my desk, well past the point of being consistently, or even occasionally functional. Griffey sat on the Seattle bench doing the same. Youth may have seemed forever ago, but it was still there, reminding us there was still time.
Until yesterday, when time ran out.
It was a good run, for both the kids and the kid. But the kids are all grown, and we’ll have kids of their own, and those kids will have their own star upon which to hitch their dreams.
Hopefully, they’ll be treated to one as bright as Griffey.