Nick Learns Childhood Heroes Are People Too

Around ManilaForeign Service Life
March 2, 2011

It’s Ken Griffey Jr. In the Philippines!

Nick here. I very rarely post on ‘our’ blog as it’s Sarah’s pet project and I want to keep it that way. As always, my views are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the US government. With that being said…

Today I met my childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr. He’s in town for a week as a “sports ambassador” teaching baseball clinics to Filipinos and promoting the game. I’m unclear whether the State Department or Major league Baseball is paying, but the Embassy’s Public Affairs section is the local organizer.

I found out he would be here a couple weeks ago. I checked with our Public Affairs folks and they said I could come by the local baseball stadium at lunchtime today to say hello and get an autograph. I arranged everything in advance, got the go ahead to skip out on work an hour early in the morning and was all set to go. It’s the most excited I’ve been about anything in years.

My parents were in the Foreign Service and I grew up all over the world. Both my parents are from the Seattle area and baseball was the defining experience of my childhood. I played on the Austrian Little League team in two European tournaments.

Team Austria… we didn’t do very well

My high school days were consumed with baseball practice and camps. When we lived in the US, I spent most weekends at baseball card shows and amassed a collection in the thousands. The jewel of that collection was a 1989 Upper Deck rookie card of Ken Griffey Jr. And while we were living overseas, every summer we would go home to Seattle and see the Seattle Mariners play baseball.

I remember going to the Kingdome (since imploded) with my father and uncle. My uncle was famous for his thriftiness and we would always park a mile away where it was cheaper. One year for my uncle’s birthday I got us box seats for a game that ended up going 17 innings. I thought we got a great deal; extra baseball for the same price! Ken Griffey hit a homerun in that game too.

Nick and Uncle Dan

When we lived in Maryland, every summer my father would put on his Mariners shirt and I would put on my Ken Griffey jersey and we would go see the Mariners play the Orioles at Camden Yards.

Nick and Dad at Camden Yards in Baltimore

When my grandfather was still alive, three generations of Novak boys (grandpa, dad and me) went to the Mariners spring training complex in Arizona. This photo of the three of us there is one of my all-time favorites.

3 Generations of Baseball Lovers (Me, Dad and Grandpa)

The singular happiest sports moment of my entire life occurred in 1995. That year Ken Griffey shattered his wrist diving for a fly ball in July. He was out for most of the season. The Mariners were in big trouble and at one point were a dozen games out of first place, trailing the California Angels. Then they started winning. Game after game, they clawed their way back and forced a one-game playoff with the Angels for the AL West championship. And they won. For the first time ever, the Mariners made the playoffs. A famous slogan in Seattle was coined: “Refuse to Lose.”

Then came a five game series against the NY Yankees. The Mariners promptly lost the first two and looked to be out of it. But they won two in a row and forced a fifth and final game. That game went to extra innings and in the top of the 13th, the Yankees scored a run that seemed to doom the Mariners. In the bottom half of the inning, a scrappy Joey Cora and Ken Griffey got on base. The Kingdome was going insane. Up steps Edgar Martinez who hits a double sending Ken Griffey flying around the bases to score the winning run that won the series. This picture of Griffey at the bottom of the ensuing pileup is one of the most iconic in Seattle history. The singular greatest sports moment I’ve ever witnessed. That play is so famous in Seattle they just call it “The Double.”

Ken Griffey Scores the Winning Run in Game 5

This is a good time for some context so you realize how out of character today was for me. I’ve met Arnold Schwarzenegger, shaken hands with President Bush and have a photo of me and Hilary Clinton in my cubicle. I had the opportunity to meet a bunch of musicians when I worked in radio broadcasting. Some old time baseball players came to Austria while we were living there and I met Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter and a host of other greats. Yogi Berra asked me “where the hell” I got a book that he signed. Whitey Ford yelled at my dad to get his “own damn pen” when my father tried to borrow mine. All great moments, but I don’t remember ever being really geeky about any of them. It was always kind of cool, and I felt lucky to have the opportunities, but no “oh my God, I just met X” moments.

Nick, the Governor and Talk Show Host Ralph Bailey

So, back to today. My plan was to get three things autographed and take a picture with him. I also brought my baseball glove. I’m not sure why, but I brought it. Hey, it was a baseball clinic, so why not. Anyway, the three things I wanted autographed were a Mariners program from 1991 with a very young Ken Griffey on the cover, a playoff edition Mariners program from that famous 1995 season and the scorecard from the 17 inning game I went to with my uncle (yes I was that kid keeping score at the game with a pencil and the little diamond shaped boxes).

I walked into the little room where they were having lunch and there he was. I introduced myself and shook hand with him and the other two guys he was with. Not a smile in the room. Something was wrong. Maybe they were annoyed that I had interrupted their lunch. I started out by saying I was from Seattle and was probably the biggest Mariners fan in the Philippines. Griffey told me with total seriousness that he had met a bigger fan earlier in the day, someone with a full uniform apparently. This wasn’t going well. I then pulled out my trump card, the 1991 program with him on the cover! “Got a pen?” he asked. He then signed it silently. At this point I realized that the mood in the room was not good and I was somehow the cause. Still, I persevered and pulled out the program from the 17 inning game at the Kingdome. As I asked him to sign it, the Public Affairs person asked me, “last thing to sign, right?” I meekly said yes, watched Griffey sign it and then wished them all a good time in the Philippines. Then I exited, my 1995 playoff program unsigned, the camera unused. I had been a nuisance and felt really embarrassed by it. I got in the car and headed back to work.

1991 Mariners Magazine… Ken Griffey not impressed

Now, I don’t want to imply he was a jerk. He was good enough to sign the two things I gave him. He was also good enough to come all this way to teach baseball to some Filipino kids. And our Public Affairs team was very gracious to let me go snag an autograph. But I somehow came away from the whole experience a little… well… heartbroken. What I wanted was a smile, a “thanks for being a fan” and a photo with an arm around me. I wanted him to sign the program “To Nick” and write “Refuse to Lose.” Perhaps we could chat about “The Double” and what a great moment that was. And I wanted to play catch! Silly I know, but childhood memories are powerful things. And childhood heroes are always made out to be more than they ever could be. It’s not his fault. On a more macro level, I think what I wanted was to be transported back to being a kid and feeling the joy and passion I felt for baseball.

So it turns out Ken Griffey is just another guy who isn’t always smiling or wearing his hat backwards. It turns out he doesn’t like being interrupted during lunch (even if I set it up in advance) nor does he think I’m the biggest Mariners fan in the Philippines. And I guess that’s OK. Seeing a hero humanized is probably healthy and helps put things in perspective. In one way, a big chapter of my childhood was closed today and now new chapters will start with my own child due in October. I hope he or she will like baseball.

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  1. elise says:

    A million hugs to you today my one and only cousin and most passionate baseball fan I’ve ever known. I love you and so does most everyone else that meets you. Some guys are better left unmet. You can be proud to say you are not one of them.

  2. nomadsbynature says:

    I’m sorry, but that stinks. I know everyone has an off day, but what a jerk.

  3. Allie says:

    Man, that stinks. Royally. I can only imagine how heartbroken I would be if I got the same response from Kent Hrbek (my own childhood sports hero, if a little more portly and a little less talented). But I really appreciate your perspective on it–we’re all human, and you did the best you could to respect his time and space. So, good on you for taking the high road.

    And if your kid isn’t a baseball fan, well, there are always more kids in the future. ;)

  4. sarahlynn60 says:

    Thanks cuz! I love you too. It was actually really fun going through some of the old pictures. Spooky how many have me in a jersey of some sort :) -Nick

  5. Joyce says:

    Elise and I are going to kick some butt cause we love you. How rude and let’s just hope he was having a bad hair day. Miss you.

  6. Sintea says:

    Oh, I’m really sorry to hear about that.:-( I hope you’ll still continue to share your passion for baseball with your little one in the future.

  7. Loucou says:

    I came across your post only because I was looking to see if anyone else has had the same reaction with Ken Griffey Jr. My son who is now 20, was such a fan of his. I remember buying him a t-shirt thats said Griffey and he would have worn it everyday if I let him. Well point being is that he was a big fan. He passed his love of baseball and the Mariners to his brother who is 10 years younger. I could never afford to take him to a game in Seattle but a few years back I took the boys to a Spring training game in Arizona. My son was just as excited as you were. We got there early to see the players and there he was his hero just a 3 feet away. There were fans calling his name (mostly kids) wanting to get at least a glance, a smile or something!!! But No, nothing, it was like no one was there. My boys thought well maybe it was before a game, well no same thing after the game, he passed went to the locker room and that was it. I saw the reaction on my sons face, he seemed to be disappointed but looked at his little brother and said, “when you play baseball and get famous always remember this day that once you were that kid behind the fence and do the right thing”. Well my son still has his beat up Ken Griffey Jr. T-shirt and still doesnt let me throw it away (which is what I wanted to do that day). On a better noted we just saw the Mariner yesterday in Peoria and Casper Wells took the time to sign and give his broken bat to my niece and sign my sons baseball. My boys still love the Mariners so I at least take them to see Spring training.

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