PEORIA, Ariz. – On his first day in a New York Mets uniform, Willie Mays hit a game-winning home run against the San Francisco Giants. For the previous 20 years he had played for the Giants, first as a kid in New York, so as bizarre as this registered – Willie Mays, age tethering him to first base that day, and in Mets togs no less – it somehow seemed right.
Of course, the instinct to return home is powerful enough to trump good sense. And as if to follow script, Mays, over the next year and a half, swung his bat like it was made of lead and bungled plays in the center field he had patrolled with such grace. He retired at 42 years old in 1973 after hitting .211.
"Growing old," Mays said, "is just a helpless hurt."
This week, a man nearing the end of his career sought Mays' advice. It is safe to say Mays did not repeat the aphorism that 36 years later still rings true.
I hope Ken Griffey Jr. isn't Willie Mays.
Earlier this week, Griffey agreed to return to the Seattle Mariners, with whom he spent the first – and best – 11 years of his career. Never mind the messy divorce that sent Griffey to Cincinnati in 2000, and the jumble of injuries thereafter that kept him from breaking the all-time home run record before Barry Bonds could. Seattle, still unsure how, exactly, it lost its NBA team to Oklahoma City, celebrated by buying tickets and jerseys and engaging in the sort of sentimentality only Griffey could foster.
For the generation that grew up watching baseball players who shot themselves full of steroids as the sport passively accepted it, Griffey represents one of the remaining slivers of innocence. Never has steroid speculation attached itself to Griffey, nor legal trouble – nothing bad but an occasional pouty attitude borne of time spent on the disabled list and losing teams.
History will look on the last 20 years as the time of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez and Jose Canseco, spoiled and greedy narcissists all. And while it won't forget Griffey, it will render him and his accomplishments an addendum to the carnage.
So if the future holds for him a footnote, the present should gift Griffey a proper send-off, the sort not seen by Mays or Babe Ruth or Pete Rose or Hank Aaron. Each returned to the city of his formative years, and it ended up more a baseball hospice. The game had taken all it needed.
Such is the danger Griffey runs by choosing Seattle over Atlanta, which also offered him $2 million to platoon in left field and play clubhouse ambassador. Gone are any ill memories of his time with the Mariners, of the playoff failures and his complaining that Safeco Field wasn't nearing the launching pad of the Kingdome.
"They remember a young 19-year-old," Griffey said Saturday at his welcome-back news conference. "No facial hair. High-top fade."
Hat backward. Smile beaming. Swing like God intended. The Kid, a left-handed, '90s version of Mays' Say Hey Kid.
"I look a little different now," Griffey said. "Got a little gray. Don't know where that came from."
Though some pop remains in Griffey's bat and some spring in his step, he's 39, and human bodies don't weather mileage like a Honda, even when well-maintained. Nagging pains bother him. He had one knee drained of fluid three times last year. To temper expectations would be prudent, not only to match reality but to leave open the possibility that he may actually be one of the lucky few that exceeds them.
"I may not hit 50 [home runs]. May not hit 40. May not hit 30," Griffey said. "But I can do the little things that baseball's about. Getting a guy over. Getting him in."
I hope age has not reduced Ken Griffey Jr. to getting a guy over and in.
This week, Griffey called Mays and Aaron and asked them for advice. He was weighing Seattle against Atlanta, his first home in baseball versus the place closest to his family in Orlando. The two greatest living players told him to have fun, and the magnetism of Seattle – of finishing where he started – fulfilled that.
"You only have one shot at a career, of doing something you love," Griffey said. "You play as long as you can and enjoy it as long as you can."
On April 14, Griffey will return to Safeco in a Mariners uniform for the first time since 1999. He was 29 then and already had 398 home runs. He has hit 213 since.
He will start in left field, or maybe as the designated hitter, and he will wear No. 24, and the ovation will overwhelm him. Toward the end of the season, the syrupy tributes will commence, because this is, in all likelihood, Griffey's final season, and the good-byes go accordingly.
"There are special people, athletes in our society," said Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' new general manager, a scouting savant charged with taking baseball's first hundred-and-hundred team – 100-plus losses with a $100 million-plus payroll – and reimagining it. Ultimately, he signed off on bringing an aging star to his team at the expense of at-bats for young players, and if things don't go well, a piece of Griffey's legacy, too.
"We all sit back and look at the Walter Paytons, look at the Michael Jordans," Zduriencik said, "and Ken falls into those categories. You just don't deny a superstar. There's something special they have. They rise to the occasion.
"And we're hoping that happens here."
Griffey won't allow himself to imagine the alternative, not yet at least. He is, in a way, like the fans so enthralled with his return: remembering the good, embracing the fond and subverting anything otherwise.
"I've got an opportunity to do something that is important to me," Griffey said. "And that's what counts. Not everybody gets to wear a glass slipper."
So as midnight approaches, may Ken Griffey Jr. walk swiftly before the clock strikes. For to see his final ball turn into a pumpkin would truly be a helpless hurt.