'Unbelievable ride': Seattle retires Griffey's 24

'Unbelievable ride': Seattle retires Griffey's 24

SEATTLE -- He's already had his place in history cemented forever with his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, his plaque now enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., with the rest of baseball's all-time greats.

But on Saturday night, Ken Griffey Jr. found another permanent home -- his one home indeed among Northwest fans -- as his No. 24 was retired by the Mariners and hung on the center-field façade next to Jackie Robinson's 42 at Safeco Field.

"I've had so many great memories in this city," Griffey told a sellout crowd of 45,618 after watching his number unveiled and being told a statue in his honor would be built outside Safeco Field next year. "It's been an unbelievable ride."

Ken Griffey Jr. tribute

Griffey became the first Mariner ever to have his number retired by the organization, a fitting tribute for the first player to wear a Mariners hat on a Hall of Fame plaque and the man credited with helping save baseball in Seattle for his part in the 1995 season that led to the building of the beautiful outdoor stadium that now houses his familiar 24.

Griffey previously had spoken to Safeco crowds in pregame ceremonies when he returned to Seattle as part of the Reds organization in 2007 and again when he was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in '13. And of course he just made his National Baseball Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown two weeks earlier.

But this one was a light-hearted and joyous celebration as Griffey regaled in the moment, surrounded by former teammates Alvin Davis, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Jamie Moyer and Edgar Martinez, as well as Seahawks Hall of Famers Cortez Kennedy and Steve Largent and former Sonics stars Spencer Haywood and Gary Payton.

The Mariners also brought in two Hall of Famers who also wore No. 24 -- Rickey Henderson and Tony Perez -- which set Griffey up for his mic-drop finish to his eight-minute speech.

"Rickey, you were the greatest," Griffey said with a smile, referring to Henderson's famous quote after he broke Lou Brock's all-time stolen base record. "Today, I am the greatest."

And no one at Safeco Field would argue that point.

"Ken Griffey Jr. elevated baseball to a level this city had never experienced," Mariners president Kevin Mather said. "Perhaps more importantly, Junior put baseball in the hearts of so many people, not just in the Pacific Northwest, but around the globe. Junior changed the game and his influence can still be seen to this very day. He is without question, the greatest player to have ever worn a Seattle Mariners uniform."

Hank Aaron appeared in a video tribute, telling Griffey "You are exactly where you're supposed to be, and that's with the greatest ballplayers in the world in the Hall of Fame."

A similar video tribute from Willie Mays led to another heartwarming moment as Mays ended his message to Griffey by chiding him for not returning his phone call on the day he was inducted into Cooperstown.

Mays congratulates Griffey Jr.

As Mariners radio voice Rick Rizzs, serving as master of ceremonies for the celebration, told Griffey to "call the man," Griffey pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket and began dialing and talking.

"This is not in the script," Rizzs chortled, as Griffey proceeded to animatedly leave a message for Mays. And, yes, Griffey has Mays' number on speed dial.

But no one in a Mariners uniform will ever again have Griffey's number, at least not on their jersey. Mariners players and coaches came out to batting practice before Saturday's game against the Angels all wearing No. 24 jerseys, but that's the last time anyone in the organization -- either at the Major or Minor League levels -- will don those numerals.

Griffey teared up as his daughter, Taryn, helped unveil the No. 24 plaque in center field. But he kept things together as he addressed the Safeco fans.

"I can't really explain what the last two weeks have been like," he said. "It's been unforgettable, the fans, the people. I walk down the street and I'm getting high-fives like I just scored again. And that's a tribute to you guys here that treat baseball, basketball and football players like normal people, like we're part of the community.

"I want to thank you guys for making me feel comfortable and able to just go out there and do what I wanted to do, which was just play baseball."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.