So I brought some old magazines with me to read on the plane to Florida, a couple of Ken Griffey Jr. profiles from way, way back that I’ve kept in my files. This was when it looked like a foregone conclusion Junior was going to sign with the Mariners, before it looked like a foregone conclusion he was going to sign with the Braves. I wanted to do some research on Griffey so I would be ready to write an essay on what his signing meant to the Mariners’ franchise and the city of Seattle.
I read a fine cover story by Tom Verducci from the May 17, 1999 Sport Illustrated, “How Good is Griffey? Good enough to become the greatest slugger of all time,” which speculated on Griffey’s chances of becoming the home-run champion. The jumping-off point for Verducci was that Griffey had just tied Joe DiMaggio’s career total of 361 homers at age 29. Little did anyone realize that Griffey truly peaked in 1999, his last great season, and would begin an inexorable decline, borne mainly of injuries, in 2000 after being traded to Cincinnati.
And I also re-read the April, 1996 GQ, which featured a cover story by Peter Richmond, entitled “Ken Griffey Jr. Saves Baseball.” It was a perfectly fine story by a great writer I have long admired (as I have admired Verducci, for that matter).
Richmond uses the premise that with baseball reeling from the recent strike — this is 1996, don’t forget — he wants to find a way to re-capture the purity of the game. And the conceit he uses to do that is to drive across the country with his 10-year-old son, from New York to California, to play catch with Ken Griffey Jr., who is fresh off the heroics of the 1995 playoffs.
I’ll buy that, I suppose. But here’s the problem. It’s not a huge problem, in the sense that the failing economy or unrest in the Middle East are huge problems. It’s a nit-picky, petty little problem. It’s MY problem, I’ll readily admit. But it gnawed at me, I now recall, the first time I read the GQ artticle more than a decade ago, and it still gnaws at me,. reading it 13 years later, on the plane last Saturday, and re-reading it on the plane today. I’ll go so far as to say it ruined the whole article for me. And if you can’t vent in a blog, where can you vent? Indulge me.
You see, Richmond doesn’t write about playing catch with Griffey at all. He writes, repeatedly, about “having a catch” with Griffey. And that’s just wrong. Here’s the nut graf, as we say in the writing biz:
“I have driven 3,000 miles to have a catch with Ken Griffey because I’d gotten this idea that if I could have a catch with Ken Griffey, just him and a baseball and a glove on some grass, free of all the marketing machinery and big business of sport, then maybe I could get so close to the soul of the game that I would be reminded of why we all liked it in the first place.”
Putting aside the notion of how Griffey himself, from what I’ve learned of him over the years, would absolutely loathe this premise, I found myself on U.S. Airlines rebelling once more against the phrase “have a catch.” Who says “have a catch?” except, as far as I can figure out, effete East Coasters (if I may let all my cultural prejudices come out). Richmond, to prove it’s not a fluke, writes several more times in the article about “having a catch” with Griffey, whose disinterested and pained mien I can clearly envision in my mind’s eye as he humors the author with a couple of perfunctory throws in the minor-league ballpark where he’s filming a Nintendo commercial.
I grew up in California. We “play catch” in California. Everyone I know “plays catch.” Everyone I have ever known “plays catch.” I’ve lived in two other places, Alabama and, of course, Washington, and I’ve never heard anyone in either place ask to “have a catch.” I’ll bet Ken Griffey Jr. has never “had a catch” in his life, either. In 25 years of covering baseball, I’ve never heard a single player, coach or manager utter the phrase “have a catch.” But it’s used a dozen times in this article, which probably wouldn’t have bothered me if I didn’t have a pre-existing prejudice against “having a catch.”
You see, the first time I encountered the phrase “have a catch” was in the movie “Field of Dreams,” and it nearly ruined that gem of a film for me, too. It’s the pivotal scene where Ray’s dad materializes as a young man.
“Is this heaven?” he asks.
“No,it’s Iowa,” Ray replies.
Eventually,in the midst of their poignant conversation, Ray says the magic words: “Hey, Dad. Do you want to have a catch?” It’s the emotional climax of the movie, the moment at which every red-blooded male, projecting from that vignette memories of playing catch with their own dads, breaks into a weeping mass of jello.
Except me. I vividly remember sitting in the theater and thinking, “Have a catch? What does that mean? Why didn’t he ask his dad to play catch? What’s going on here? Say it ain’t so, Ray!”
Ken Griffey Jr. might indeed have saved baseball in 1996, and he might be back to save baseball in Seattle in 2009. But please, please, please don’t ever ask him, or anyone else, to have a catch again.
I’m home from Florida now, by the way. I wrote this screed today on the long plane ride to Seattle (as you might have guessed, I’m running low on sleep). I’ll be laying low for a couple of days. I might even play catch. Have a…nice day