Sunday, July 5, 2009

Griffey a boyhood hero of Lester

When Jon Lester was 11 years old, he was watching on television at home in Tacoma, Wash., as Ken Griffey Jr. scored the most important run in the history of the Seattle Mariners. He attended only one game at the Kingdome as a kid -- "We couldn't afford to go up to Seattle, the 45-minute or hour drive to get up there with the parking and tickets and all that stuff," he said -- but was glued to the television to watch his favorite team beat the New York Yankees in extra innings to win the American League Division Series in 1995.

When Lester was 24 years old, he was pitching in the major leagues and still in awe of his hero. He even made arrangements to buy an old Griffey jersey -- his big-league salary made a luxury like that easier to afford -- so he could get it autographed when the Red Sox traveled to Cincinnati to play Griffey's Reds.

Later that year, after the Reds traded Griffey to the White Sox, Lester pitched against the future Hall of Famer in a game in Chicago. He retired him all three times he faced him.

"It was a little weird," he said. "It was a little weird meeting him and shaking his hand and introducing myself -- and then to see him in a Chicago White Sox uniform, it didn't really fit. It was one of those surreal deals, and I'm glad I got to face him."

Lester wasn't one of those 11-year-olds who watched game obsessively or devoured statistics in the newspaper. He didn't follow the Mariners that closely, even. But when a game was on TV, there were two things that could get his attention: Griffey's turn to hit and Randy Johnson's turn to pitch.

"I'd always watch when Randy pitched," Lester said. "If I was outside playing, I'd come watch Griffey hit. We were kind of spoiled, getting to see those two guys -- a lot of those guys -- growing up, seeing them play every day."

And he certainly remembers the memorable 1995 season that saved baseball in Seattle, the season in which Griffey came back from a broken wrist to spark the Mariners to one of the great August and September runs in baseball history. The Mariners trailed the California Angels by 13 games on Aug. 2 but came all the way back to force a one-game playoff the day after the regular season ended.

Lester was in school that day but still remembers it vividly.

"Luis Sojo hit a home run down the right field line underneath a bench," he said. "(I remember) little things about that."

(To be technical about it, it was a double and an error, but the gist is right: Sojo hit a broken-bat ground ball into the Angels' bullpen in right field with the bases loaded -- and pitcher Mark Langston threw wildly in an effort to get the ball to the plate, Sojo came all the way around and scored.)

And when Edgar Martinez laced a double down the left-field line in the 11th inning of Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees, Lester was at home cheering.

"I was as glued to the TV as anyone else in the Northwest that day," he said.

Lester likely won't pitch against Griffey this time around. Griffey went 0-for-5 on Friday as the Mariners' designated hitter, and you have to imagine he'll be out of the lineup on Sunday against perhaps the best lefthanded pitcher in the American League.

Too bad. Lester owns him.

No comments: