My son Jason's birthday was this week, and every time the event rolls around I think about Ken Griffey, Jr.
Of course I don't know a whole lot about Ken Griffey Jr. myself, except that he played center field for the Seattle Mariners and is some kind of a baseball superstar. But I do know one thing: that man has done something far more remarkable than all his home runs and stolen bases and miraculous outfield catches combined. Ken Griffey, Jr. has played a vital part in the bonding of a friendship that will last a lifetime. And the odd thing is he doesn't even know it.
It all started years ago, when Jason, was 8 years old. One of the true boys of summer, Jason's heart belonged to baseball. No longer a babyish T-ball player, he now proudly wore real baseball pants, spit in the dugout, and warmed up with two bats when he came up "on deck”.
He also collected baseball cards. Lots and lots of them, purchased in great big packages of 50 for five dollars. But what his collection lacked in investment value, it made up for in sheer numbers, which is terribly important to an 8-year-old. Besides, nobody else had any valuable cards anyway. Except Jason's buddy Michael.
Michael collected the real stuff. The good stuff. And here's where Ken Griffey, Jr. comes into the picture. Michael had a real live, honest to goodness Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. He kept it in a shoebox with the rest of his cards, and whenever Jason came over, they looked at it together. Every time Jason held that card, he longed to have it for himself – longed for it so much that sometimes he could hardly stand it. And then one day it happened. Michael left Jason alone with the shoebox. The card screamed, "Go ahead – take me! You know you want to. Come on – I'm a Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card!” In an instant, the awful deed was done.
Later that night, our doorbell rang. It was Michael's mom. "I think we have a problem”, she said softly. And then she told my husband and me about the missing card. Naturally, our hearts sank. Calling Jason before the grand jury, we questioned him about the charge, and to no one's surprise he denied it – vehemently. So what could we do? What could anyone do? We had to believe our son.
Week after week went by. The days grew shorter and memories of baseball games faded. But not the memory of an unresolved question. Did he take it, or didn't he? Over and over Jason denied it.
Then one day, just after New Years, Jason got sick. I figured it was just a stomach virus, and didn't think too much of it until he came into the den, and climbed up in his dad's lap. Suddenly the tears started to flow. "I t-t-took that stupid baseball card”, he wailed. "Daddy, I'm so sorry. I didn't even keep it. I threw it away the very same day!” For four long months the kid had lived with that secret, until the guilt literally made him puke – and when he finally confessed it, the emotion burst out of him like a water balloon hurled against the sidewalk.
Well obviously there was just one thing do to. The very next day, Jason took every cent of his Christmas money, went to the card shop, and bought a coveted Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. Then he took it over and handed it to his friend, along with a painful apology.
Two days later Jason got a letter from Michael in the mail. In big, 8-year-old print it said, "Thank you for the card. I think you were very honest and brave. Now let's put this whole Ken Griffey thing behind us. Your friend, Michael.”
End of story? Not on your life. Ten years later my son celebrated his 18th birthday at Chili's with a whole bunch of his pals. The birthday cards were silly and the room rocked with teenaged boys' laughter. But when Jason read the card from Michael, the two of them snickered, and then embraced. Sure, it was one of those awkward, half-embarrassed, half-goofy embraces, but there was something genuine about it, too. Later on at home, Jason showed me his cards. The one from Michael simply said, "To our best friend, Jason. From Michael and Ken Griffey, Jr.”
This year both boys turned thirty-two and they are still terrific buddies. Man, that Ken Griffey, Jr. – is he a great guy, or what?!?