Of all the single- and double-digit uniform numbers the Mariners had available at the time, Ken Griffey Jr. chose the one that meant the most to him.
“It wasn’t planned, but when I signed my rookie contract, one of the things I asked for was to be able to wear No. 24,” Griffey recalled Friday afternoon during a media session at Safeco Field. “I hit 24 home runs in high school and summer ball.”
His wish was granted and from then on, and from this day forward, no one in the Mariners organization has or ever will wear that number again. Not at the Major League level. And not at the Minor League level.
Almost two weeks after becoming the first Mariners player to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Junior takes center stage again Saturday evening as a full house (the house he built) will show its love for the best player in franchise history.
“I got to share my story with 50,000 people (in Cooperstown). I get to do it again tomorrow, it’s just that these 50,000 have seen me play up close for years,” he said. “So it’s a big deal for me. I don’t take it lightly and tomorrow is definitely one of those things that is special. It’s pretty neat that I get to enjoy it with the people who have seen me from a teenager to a 40-year-old.”
Junior is to Seattle what Willie Mays was to San Francisco, what Stan Musial was to St. Louis, what Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio — and so many others — were to New York, and what Ted Williams was to Boston. Junior was The Man in Seattle for 13 years of his Hall of Fame career.
He hit 417 of his 630 career home runs, drove in 1,216 of his 1,836 runs, won 10 Gold Gloves, made 13 All-Star appearances and won his only Most Valuable Player Award with No. 24 on the back of his Mariners’ jersey.
Fans all over the country saw that number often as he ran down well-hit baseballs, turning them from almost certain extra-base hits into electrifying outs.
Those moments are etched in memories now, just has his uniform number will forever be a huge part of the franchise’s history. It makes perfect sense that his number if the first one ever retired by the organization.
Griffey paused for several seconds on Friday when I asked him what it meant to have his number retired throughout the entire Mariners organization.
“It’s an unbelievable honor,” he said. “I know there are certain criteria that have to be met. You know, it’s overwhelming and humbling because of the guy my number is going up next to. It is the ultimate sign of respect. I don’t take it lightly that they are doing this.”
The official unveiling of Junior’s number occurs prior to Saturday night’s game against the Angels. It figures to be right next to No. 42 — Jackie Robinson’s number — retired by then-commissioner Bud Selig on April 15, 1997. It was the 50th anniversary of the color barrier being broken.
“It’s overwhelming and humbling because of the guy I’m going next to who basically sacrificed his life for guys to play,” Griffey said. “It’s a weird feeling because what he’s done to allow pretty much everyone to play this game and I’m going to be right next to him.
“If he didn’t do what he did,” Junior said of his fellow Hall of Famer, “maybe none of us would be out here playing. I really don’t have a total grasp of it. Do I think I’m worth it? Nah, just because of what he did and what I’ve done. But I am going to enjoy it.”
What’s in a number? Specifically Griffey’s No. 24:
*At age 24, he led American League in home runs (40) for first time.
*His first apartment in Seattle was numbered 1124.
*The address of his first house was 24606.
*He was married on Oct. 24.
*He and wife Melissa celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary this year.
Other Mariners who have worn No. 24:
1977 – Frank MacCormack
1979-80 – Rob Dressler
1981 – Dave Edler
1983 – Gene Nelson
1984-85-86– Harold Reynolds
1987-88 – Coach Phil Roof
Source: Kelly Munro, Mariners PR Department
Other famous athletes who wore No. 24