Ken Griffey Jr.’s number 24 is back in center field. On Saturday night, Griffey became the first Mariners player in franchise history to have his number retired as his number 24 was unveiled in a pre-game ceremony at Safeco Field.
“He is, without question, the greatest player to have ever worn a Seattle Mariners uniform,” Mariners president Kevin Mather said.
Mather also announced that the Mariners will unveil a statue of Junior’s majestic swing outside Safeco Field next year.
Junior’s number 24 will now forever live next to Jackie Robinson’s number 42 above The ‘Pen in left-center field. It is a fitting symmetry. Few players in history have transformed the game of baseball the way that Jackie and Junior did, each in their unique ways.
“It’s overwhelming and humbling because of the number of the guy who I’m going up next to,” Griffey said in a news conference Friday. “He [Jackie Robinson] basically sacrificed his life for guys to play. It’s a weird feeling because of what he’s done to allow everyone to play this game and I’m going to be right next to him so I haven’t really had a total grasp on it. I’m going to enjoy it…It’s an unbelievable honor. I don’t take it lightly that they’re doing this.”
Griffey was the first player to request to honor Jackie by donning his number 42 on April 15, 1997 at Cleveland, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. In 2009, then-Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig announced that every player would wear Jackie’s number 42 each April 15 from then on.
“It’s only fitting that from now on, Ken’s number 24 will forever be next to Jackie’s number 42,” Mather said Saturday. “Jackie and Ken will forever be side by side at this great ballpark.”
The pre-game ceremony also included congratulatory videos to Griffey from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, as well as famous 24’s of sports, Kobe Bryant and Jeff Gordon. But perhaps the most memorable tribute came via video from Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who ended his message with a good-natured jab at Junior.
“Pick up the phone,” Mays said. “Call me anytime you have time.”
Junior did just that during the ceremony. What a voicemail that is.
After his number was unveiled – with the help of his daughter, Taryn – Griffey stepped to the podium to address a sell-out crowd at Safeco Field. The House that Griffey Built was filled to capacity to salute the Kid who put Seattle Mariners baseball on the map – and in our hearts.
The names of those in attendance to help celebrate Junior was a who’s who of Mariners legends, Seattle sports icons and famous 24’s of baseball: Alvin Davis, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Jamie Moyer, Cortez Kennedy, Steve Largent, Gary Payton, Spencer Haywood, Tony Perez, Rickey Henderson – and 45,618 who knew him as the fresh-faced 19-year-old in the Kingdome.
“I want to thank you guys for making me feel comfortable and allowing me to go out there and do what I always wanted to do, and that was play baseball,” Griffey said Saturday at Safeco Field.
Few have played the game like Junior did.
Prior to Saturday’s game, the current Mariners all donned number 24 on their batting practice jerseys – many wearing their hats backward – marking the final time a Mariners player would wear number 24.
Junior wore number 24 with the Mariners for 13 season, beginning with his debut in 1989; no Mariners player has worn it since then.