Farewell to three dominant Seattle athletes

It first started with Seattle Seahawks great Walter ones announcing his retirement and leaving a gaping hole in a Seattle Offensive line that might take a decade to fill what Walter accomplished in his time in Seattle.

Then Ken Griffey Jr. slipped out of Seattle without saying goodbye on Wednesday, retiring, as he had previously expressed a desire to do, quietly, without fanfare or a tear-filled press conference.

Three days later, across the country in Oklahoma City, there were plenty of tears as University of Washington ace Danielle Lawrie’s decorated softball career came to an end when the Huskies were eliminated from the Women’s College World Series.

And after this week, we can now officially dub this the so-long spring in Seattle. Let’s not forget that on April 30, another Seattle sports icon, Seahawks tackle Walter Jones, announced the end of what will no doubt be a hall of fame football career. Three dominant athletes, three different sports, and three different goodbyes.

Of course Lawrie’s farewell is different. She’s not at the end of her playing days, just out of eligibility. However, in a sport that unfortunately offers few options after college, even to the game’s most dominant player, fans in this part of the country will be hard pressed to keep up with Lawrie after Saturday’s loss to Arizona. She will continue to represent Canada in international competitions, but with softball no longer an Olympic sport and with her professional options limited to obscure leagues here and abroad, she likely never will be in the spotlight like the past two years. Lawrie led the Huskies to a national title in 2009 and then back to the Women’s College World Series again this year.

Lawrie was never a household name like Griffey, Jones or any of the area’s other top male athletes, but during a UW career that saw her earn back-to-back national player of the year honors, Lawrie was unmistakably one of the most dominant athletes the UW and the northwest have seen.

As for Griffey and Jones, it is little more than coincidence that two of the best athletes to ever wear Seattle pro uniforms retired five weeks apart. Still, it is somehow fitting that the two icons, who had very little in common on the field, are tied together walking away from their sports.

They were two very different stars, but two who dominated their games, two who will go down considered among the best to ever play their respective positions and among the greatest of their era.

Beyond their dominance, however, Griffey and Jones were opposites in a lot of ways.

Griffey was impossible not to watch. He was worth the price of admission even when the team was lousy and watching him meant spending a beautiful August evening inside a drab, concrete building.

Jones on the other hand was anonymous, a player doing his job better than anyone, but one you never really noticed unless you’re the type to spend a football game watching the offensive line. Griffey was an unforgettable smile, youthful exuberance, while Jones was all business.

Griffey was a human highlight reel with how’d-he-do-that catches and damn-that-was-crushed home runs. Everyone has their favorite Griffey story, be it an iconic moment like his first-to-home sprint on Edgar Martinez’s double in the 1995 playoffs, or an obscure one from another otherwise boring night in the Kingdome in the early 1990s.

“Guys like him don’t come along every day,” said Mariners left fielder/designated hitter Milton Bradley. “Just as magical off the field as on it.”

Yet most football fans would be hard pressed to name their favorite Walter Jones moment. The big man was as good as they come, but he did his All-Pro work in the trenches paving the way for Shaun Alexander’s MVP season and keeping Matt Hasselbeck safe to put up Pro Bowl numbers.

Great center fielders are icons, names synonymous with the game. Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, and now Griffey.

“He could slow the game down and make it look easy, because he would just do it effortlessly,” said Mariners first base coach Lee Tinsley, who played with Griffey in the 90s.

Great left tackles are indispensable and greatly appreciated by their teammates and coaches, but, well, let’s just say Nike never ran a “Walter for President” ad campaign.

But Griffey and Jones did have one, very important thing in common. Their greatness helped propel teams winning seasons, to postseason success and to national relevance. Just as Griffey helped the Mariners make the playoff run that kept the team in Seattle, Jones helped the Seahawks become an offensive power that dominated the NFC West and took the Seahawks to the franchise’s first super Bowl. Both helped make Seattle a better sports city.

And as almost all athletes do, both tried to hang on for one last bit of magic, but both ended up, as is almost always the case, with an imperfect ending. Jones spent 2009 trying to come back from a knee injury, but never played a snap in his final year in the league. He thought about coming back in 2010, but ultimately decided he couldn’t play at the level that made him one of the game’s best players.

“My approach each year was to try to be better than the year before,” the 36-year-old Jones said at the press conference to announce his retirement. “I had to come to the fact that I couldn’t go out and play at a standard that I’d set for myself.”

Griffey returned to Seattle in 2009 to end his career where it started. Many thought he would retire after a 19-home run season last year, a season that ended with him being carried around the field by teammates. Instead, he decided to come back for one more run at the World Series berth that eluded him his entire career. But after two months of diminishing playing time, alleged in-game napping, and no home runs, Griffey decided to call an abrupt end to his Hall of Fame career.

Neither Jones nor Griffey got the perfect sendoff, but very, very few athletes do. Sure we’d love to see Griffey hit a few more bombs, or Jones frustrate defensive ends for one more autumn, but as is always the case, the game outlasted the player. The Mariners and Seahawks go on, but neither franchise will ever been the same.

Throw Lawrie in the mix, and that’s three remarkable careers coming to an end in a five-week span. Summer will be here soon, but so far this year in sports is most notable for the so-long spring.