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Monday, June 28, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Kingdome 1977-1999 -- Kiss It Goodbye -- Griffey Takes Center Stage As Curtain Drops On Dome

Times Staff Columnist

This day belonged to him. This stage was his. The game was as uniquely Ken Griffey Jr.'s as a pair of fingerprints or a strand of DNA.

Make no mistake, this farewell to the Kingdome was Junior's day.

And he turned it into the perfect farewell.

"He's storybook stuff," Mariner pitcher Frankie Rodriguez said.

The Kingdome has been his stage. Inside this house of concrete he claimed his place among the best in the game.

Claimed it with his glove, with his bat, with his instincts, with his incandescence.

"This place was his personal theater," outfielder Charles Gipson said.

Griffey owned the Kingdome, the way Larry Bird owned Boston Garden, Magic Johnson owned The Forum and Michael Jordan owned Chicago Stadium.

For those moments when he came to the plate, or when he tracked down a line drive, he turned a drab slab of concrete into a palace.

Yesterday was his last baseball game inside the Kingdome. The place was sold out. Flash attachments fairly strobed every time Griffey came to bat.

It felt like the postseason had arrived early. This was the New York Yankees in town in 1995, or the Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs of '97.

"He's a big-game player. What can I tell you?" Mariner Manager Lou Piniella said. "And today he just stole the show.

"He's created a lot of magical moments in this place and it's fitting that he ends this chapter, this way. The great players rise up."

This 5-2 Mariner victory over Texas was Griffey making a big game feel even bigger. It was Griffey turning another day at the ballpark into snapshots that could fill a scrapbook.

In his first at-bat, Griffey hit the Kingdome's last home run, a line drive into the right-field seats that practically left a vapor trail.

But it wasn't just a home run. It was a three-run home run, one that erased Texas' 2-0 first-inning lead.

It was his play in the fourth inning, however, we'll remember long after the Kingdome has been imploded into rubble. In that inning he made another one of those catches nobody else can make.

"He knows center field better than anybody in the game today," Gipson said.

Juan Gonzalez scorched a Freddy Garcia changeup into the left-center-field gap.

No other center fielder could have gotten the jump on the ball Griffey got. No other center fielder could have caught up to the ball. No other center fielder could have timed his leap as perfectly as Griffey.

"Once he lines it up, his instincts are incredible," left fielder Brian Hunter said.

No other center fielder could have cleared the fence, found the ball as it screamed toward the bleachers and made the catch.

Griffey did.

"It's the jump he gets off the bat," Gipson said. "It's not his speed. It's his footwork. Ball's off the bat and - boom - he's going back on the ball, reading the ball, getting to the fence, finding where the fence is. Making the play."

Griffey caught the ball, then cradled his glove with his right hand, making sure the ball wouldn't pop from the glove when he hit the wall.

"He has a sense for the dramatic," first baseman David Segui said. "The home run was great, but the catch put life into us. It saved the game."

It wasn't just a miraculous catch. It saved three runs and preserved a tenuous 4-2 Mariner lead.

It was a catch that kept the Mariners in the pennant race, four games - instead of six games - behind Texas, the American League West leaders.

"It just seems like with Junior everything happens for him at a good time," Gipson said. "If that ball goes over the wall, it's a totally different outcome. If he doesn't hit that home run, it's a totally different outcome.

"On a day when the score's 12-7 somebody might do that, but it doesn't really factor into the game. But to do it in the final game in here, to clutch up and come to the plate and do what he did, to play defense the way he did, it was his day."

It was one last reminder of what this city would have missed if the Kingdome hadn't been built and baseball never had returned.

Stadiums are constructed so cities can experience this kind of greatness. Barry Bonds at Candlestick. Mark McGwire at Busch. Larry Walker at Coors.

"When people ask me what it's like to play next to him, the only answer I can think of is, `What would it be like for you to play next to him?' " Hunter said. "I'm watching him like a fan. Every day.

"I feel like I'm an above-average outfielder and I see the catches he makes and I just shake my head. And you see him do it so often it's almost like you take them for granted, and that's crazy."

Griffey was intentionally walked in the seventh inning and the sold-out Dome booed as if the Mariner ownership was taking a victory lap.

And he came up, one last time, in the eighth, with the bases loaded and two out and the Dome shuddering with anticipation.

One last long ball for the archives? One last line drive lasered down the right-field line?

Griffey struck out, becoming the last Mariner to strike out in the Dome.

"I expected him to do something big," Gipson said. "That's just the way he is. You expect greatness all the time from him."

Griffey was Spartacus in the Roman Colosseum. He was Olivier at Stratford.

The Kingdome was his stage.

And his final performance was so good, you almost hated to leave.

You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 206-464-2176.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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