The End Of An Era (How I Knew I Was Getting Old)
What do you get when you combine the innocence of youth with the love of baseball cards? For one college student in 1989, it was the perfect storm. It was Ken Griffey Jr.!
Before the internet came along, it was difficult to follow baseball players who played outside your local area. Following the major league draft was even tougher. There was little fanfare for even a player drafted overall number one...unless his father was a former major league star.
Ken Griffey Sr. spent 18 years in the big leagues. In 1987, his son, Ken Griffey Jr was selected overall number one by the Seattle Mariners with the tag of a future superstar, and it was exciting.
At the same time, I was graduating high school and going away to college outside Baltimore, Maryland. Would I still collect baseball cards with the same zeal I'd had since I was four years old? New experiences would inevitably lead to new interests that would likely lead me away from my childhood obsession.
Teenager Ken Griffey Jr., aptly nicknamed "Junior," would tear up the minor leagues on his way to Seattle. Meanwhile, I discovered beer and independence while in heavy pursuit of what every teenage boy is looking for...college women. While Junior was hammering the ball all over the country in the minor leagues, I wasn't having the same success with the fairer sex. Still, like Junior, I would give it my all every day.
After my freshman year of college, a friend and I were fortunate enough to attend a Vermont Mariners game in Reading, Pennsylvania. We watched a legend in the making in its infancy...and it was glorious. Before the start of the game, we went down to the field and met Junior. I even traded him two sodas for an autographed baseball that I still have to this day.
Junior would make his major league debut in 1989 and the premier edition of Upper Deck baseball cards would make the number one prospect in all of baseball its card number one. The very first Upper Deck card featured a 19-year-old with no major league experience. If you wanted to try your luck, you would have to pay the $.99 suggested retail price for packs of these cards. Considering the other brands of baseball cards were only $.50 per pack, this was unheard of. How dare they charge a dollar for a pack of baseball cards!
While Junior was making an impact for his new team, I was also having success, having met and starting to date my first college girlfriend. I think I had a tougher time finding a date than Griffey had hitting home runs in the big leagues. My earlier question was answered though as I was able to balance my love for baseball cards with my new found social life.
I would drop my girl off at her house around midnight and then stop at the 7-11 near her house to pick up two or three packs of Upper Deck cards, paying the ridiculous price of $.99 each. It was insanity, and I loved it. That summer, I stayed in Maryland and there was a 7-11 near my apartment. I would stop there from time to time, sometimes after leaving my job at Sizzler, sometimes while on a date. It was indeed the best of both worlds.
Years would pass quickly as Junior went from 19 year-old phenom to the All Star Game MVP to Gold Glove Centerfielder to League MVP. It was a meteoric rise that would eventually lead to a place among the All Time Greats in Cooperstown. While Junior was rising, I was not having the same luck. College graduation led to career uncertainty and relationship failure. It was one job after another that just didn't feel right. I married the girl from college but the marriage failed pretty quickly.
But the one constant was Ken Griffey Jr. He was there from the beginning of my college experience and continued on for two decades. Even after the trade to the Reds and the injuries that started to pile up, I could always count on Junior to bring back the memories of my youth. All I had to do was turn on ESPN or go to the internet. His highlights were at my fingertips.
I didn't have a lot of luck with his Upper Deck card but I had a few. Of all my cards, they were untouchable. Just like the autographed ball from 1988, I would not part with those cards no matter the offer. Through the good times and the bad, the Junior Upper Deck rookie cards remained by my side.
As time passed by, I re-married, continued to collect cards, and followed Junior's career. When he re-signed with the Mariners in 2009, I was ecstatic. The Farewell Tour would begin. I hoped it would be an extended engagement, but age and injuries had taken its toll. He was a shell of his former self, but still a pleasure to watch. Until he was no longer there.
On May 31, 2010, Ken Griffey Jr. played his final game, more than 20 years after his debut. Both of us were 40 years old. He was a future Hall of Famer and I was just a car salesman in Lumberton, New Jersey. But in my mind, we were linked together. No, I never laced up my cleats nor played a major league game, but I had been with him for half my life. Junior represented my youth. He was the last tie to living in my parent's house, attending college, being married to my ex-wife, and the innocence of my youth. I was not naive in 2010 as I had been in 1989. I grew up in those 20-plus years as most people do.
With Junior gone, baseball as I had known it had gone with it. The players of my youth were all gone. Baseball cards that used to be $.50 per pack, then $.99 per pack when Upper Deck came about, could now cost $10, $20, or even $50 per pack. Set building had turned into insert chasing. Collectors turned into investors. Each year, there was a new player who would be hyped so much more than Junior back in 1989. And I wondered, is there someone out there who will think about that hyped player 20 years from now?
What did Junior's retirement really mean to me? Wasn't he just another baseball player? They retire all the time. What it meant quite simply is this...I am officially old. The second to last player to have played in the 1980s, a player I have followed since he was drafted, a player I had met when he was a teenager, had retired. Baseball and life would never be the same again for me.
It's been 10 years since Junior retired. Gray hair is slowly replacing what little brown hair I have left and I find myself saying, "back in my day" a bit too often. I still listen to music from the 1980s and can't understand Emojis and Snapchat. There is one thing that I have that most baseball fans and card collectors of today don't have, and that's the memory of spending more than 20 years following the career of Ken Griffey Jr., and living vicariously through him as he went from phenom to all time great.
Thank you Junior, it was a fun ride that I wouldn't trade for anything, even if your departure signaled the end of the innocence of my youth.
I guess we all need to grow up eventually.