ARLINGTON, Texas – Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) and a man he called his flight instructor, went by Pat, were on the ground in Texas for three hours Sunday evening, and at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for maybe half of that.
They'd flown in from near Orlando, where Griffey lives as a retired ballplayer, a dad and a part-time employee of the Seattle Mariners. In the single-engine plane Griffey owns, the trip is five hours west, somewhat less back.
In that plane, which comes equipped with a giant parachute, they'd come to receive the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award, here at the site of the World Series.
Griffey, that close again.
At 25, when the 1995 Mariners were picked off by the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series, Griffey was a couple of wins away.
By the turn of the century, the Mariners played again to the brink of the World Series – twice – and Griffey was in Cincinnati, just that far away.
Before that, his father played in two World Series for the Reds of the mid-1970s, Junior just entering grade school. And so a generation away.
Just before game time Sunday, Griffey sat on a white leather-ish couch in a small room stocked with chilled fruit and water, having just narrowly missed his golf cart being sideswiped by President George W. Bush's thundering black motorcade. His three children were video chatting with him on his iPhone, the oldest – Trey – sorting through scholarship offers from the biggest football schools in the nation. His old pals – Harold Reynolds and Mariners president Chuck Armstrong – nearby.
And the World Series was again close, a few hundred feet away.
"No," the 41-year-old Griffey said, dismissing the notion of regret.
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He was there to accept what amounts to a lifetime achievement award, there to celebrate a life 24 years after contemplating suicide, there to say goodbye a year and a half after driving away in that van.
"It was a truck," he corrected.
He came back in a plane with a parachute, to the edge of the World Series.
"I don't go for what-ifs," he said quietly. "It wasn't meant to be. There's a lot of great players who didn't play in a World Series. I got an opportunity to wear a major league uniform and that's not even guaranteed. There's a lot of guys – better than me – who didn't get a chance to put on a major league uniform."
As the game clattered past, spikes across a concrete floor, Griffey changed out of a casual outfit into a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue tie. He'd be the first to be so honored by the commissioner in four years, since Rachel Robinson – Jackie's widow – stood on the edge of a World Series. It's significant because it was Griffey who first asked to wear Robinson's 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, and Griffey who sparked the trend of hundreds of 42s on that day, and because of the men before Jackie whom Griffey considers when he mourns those who never got the chance.
And it's significant, too, because, much as Griffey would have hated it, few were able to mark the retirement of Junior, of that swing, of that way he attacked the baseball in center field.
He was here, and then he wasn't.
Finally, it's significant because as much as Griffey needed a clean break from the game – "I always said, 'When I'm gone, I'm gone,' " he said – the game needed another clean star.
As Bud Selig said before handing over the trophy, he was "grateful" to Griffey "for your contributions to the national pastime. You were a joy to watch and … for a myriad of reasons: staying out of controversy, playing the game the way it was supposed to be played and should be played."
Griffey left with those 630 home runs, each more gorgeous than the last. He left with those 2,781 hits. He was his father's teammate, and an MVP, and the savior of a franchise.
"I just wanted to be me," he'd said in the press conference. "But having the award, yeah, it's some closure. … It's definitely the closure I needed."
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He returned with a suit on a hanger, in a plane with a parachute, and without a regret.
He grinned, perhaps at all the attention, perhaps at the commotion tucked into the moments before a World Series game, perhaps at the career that had rushed past, that was suddenly being called a lifetime.
"It's humbling," he said, back on that white couch. "There's not enough words to describe it."
With that he stood. He and Pat were going to Selig's suite, to watch an inning or two, then get back on the plane.
He held out his hand, said goodbye, and left the World Series. That close again.
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