SAN FRANCISCO -- A fair percentage of players on the 2007 National League All-Star roster grew up watching Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle and reveling in his inimitable style, so they were pumped to see some vintage Junior on display in this year's game.
Griffey's list of admirers includes more than just outfielders. Even the left-handed fastball-changeup artists in the group could relate.
"Growing up on the West Coast, he was that big-time hero for all of us out there who thought they could hit 500-foot home runs and leap over fences," said Cole Hamels, Phillies pitcher and California native. "Fortunately, I went in the other direction."
Nostalgia was a prominent theme Tuesday night in the American League's 5-4 victory over the National League at AT&T Park. First on the agenda was 76-year-old Willie Mays, firing a ceremonial pitch to Jose Reyes, then doing a lap around the park in the back of a 1958 Cadillac and tossing balls into the stands like a baseball Santa.
Once the game began, Griffey climbed in the way-back machine and evoked memories of the pre-injury-riddled, dynamic, backward-cap-wearing Junior who made the All-Century team in 1999 and captivated the public with his smile and wondrous skills.
As everybody knows, it's been a rough few years in Cincinnati for Griffey because of all that time on the disabled list. But he's back on his game these days. He ranks third in the National League with 23 homers and eighth with a .568 slugging percentage, and his uppercut stroke is in sync and his bat speed still intact. But it was nevertheless gratifying to see him look so young, so frisky and energetic on a national stage.
"Griffey's always been one of my favorite players," said Dodgers catcher Russell Martin. "Seeing him healthy and having a good year again, I'm happy for him. He looks like he used to, smiling out there and having a good time."
Before Alfonso Soriano's two-run homer off J.J. Putz in the ninth inning, Griffey accounted for both National League runs with an RBI single and a sacrifice fly. With seven All-Star Game RBIs, he's tied for eighth all time with Barry Bonds and Steve Garvey.
Martin showed some quick reactions to avoid being handcuffed on the throw. Hamels, who is accustomed to watching Shane Victorino stifle baserunners with his strong arm in Philadelphia, wasn't the least bit surprised to see Griffey cut down A-Rod.
"I look over and I'm like, 'Gosh, I've got Ken Griffey Jr. out there and he's going to make this play,'" Hamels said. "He did, and he saved my butt."
Griffey ultimately played the role of victim on the most memorable play of the evening, zigging when he should have zagged on Ichiro Suzuki's line drive off the wall in the fifth inning. Ichiro, who doesn't need much help, circled the bases in a flash for the first inside-the-park homer in All-Star Game history.
Griffey returned to the dugout and sought out Bonds, the hometown hero, who told him he'd never seen that particular bounce off the wall at AT&T Park.
After the game, Griffey sat at his locker and answered wave after wave of questions about the play. The inquisition went on long enough that he finally unwrapped a Tootsie pop and indulged himself. He knew immediately that Ichiro's speed made the play a lost cause.
Griffey's always been one of my favorite players. Seeing him healthy and having a good year again, I'm happy for him. He looks like he used to, smiling out there and having a good time.
-- NL catcher Russell Martin
"I've been there," Griffey said. "I've got three [inside-the-parkers], so I sort of know."
The mishap was just a minor smudge on a gratifying picture. Griffey picked up his first All-Star Game hit since 1998, when he singled off Tom Glavine and Ugueth Urbina, and now has a .440 career average (11-for-25) in the event. Judging from his performance this season, there might be another All-Star Game appearance or two in his future.
Now that the break has passed, Griffey returns to a last-place team in Cincinnati and the inevitable trade rumors approaching the July 31 deadline. But the chances of a deal are remote. Griffey will make $12.5 million in 2008, with a $16.5 million club option for 2009, and he has the right to veto any trade because of his 10-and-5 service time in the majors. If he goes anywhere, it'll be a complete stunner.
As Griffey heads to New York for a series with the Mets, he'll bring along some nice, warm memories on the flight. Tuesday night's Willie Mays tribute, in particular, struck a chord with him, just as Boston's tribute to Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game made an indelible impression.
"It was awesome," Griffey said, "just to be there when cities celebrate two of the greatest players ever to play this game. It was like Kevin Costner and the whole 'If you build it, they will come.' It seemed like that."
Baseball history was a winner Tuesday night in San Francisco. And Ken Griffey Jr. gave as good as he got.