Seattle Mariners

Yes, major-league ballplayers have childhood heroes, too

Mariners honor Ken Griffey Jr., immortalize his No. 24

Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Kobe Bryant and Jeff Gordon were just some of the people who helped the Mariners pay tribute to recent National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr. on Saturday at Safeco Field. Griffey's No. 24
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Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Kobe Bryant and Jeff Gordon were just some of the people who helped the Mariners pay tribute to recent National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr. on Saturday at Safeco Field. Griffey's No. 24

Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz recalls sharing a flight to St. Louis for the 2009 All-Star Game with Ken Griffey Jr.

At the time, Cruz played for the Texas Rangers and had been selected to his first All-Star Game. He had an entire flight with Griffey – one of his favorite players.

“It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Cruz said.

As Griffey took center stage for his Safeco Field festivities last weekend, the honor added significance for some of the current players who idolized The Kid growing up.

For most Seattle players, though, the Griffey admiration came from afar. Leonys Martin, a fellow center fielder, marveled at Griffey and the standard he set for the position.

For others on the Mariners roster, their major-league success set up opportunities to meet heroes of their own.

It was his major-league success that afforded Mike Zunino an opportunity to play against a childhood hero.

The Florida-bred catcher shared the same field with Derek Jeter in 2014 – Jeter’s final season – when the Mariners faced the Yankees. The Mariners dropped three games to the Yankees and Zunino went hitless, but he remembers it fondly.

“Just to see a guy that you watched on TV and sort of idolized, and then play against him for a few games in a series is sort of surreal,” Zunino said. “It was fun to do that and sort of get to talk to him and meet up. The timing was great with it. Couldn’t have been better timing. To say that I’ve played against him is pretty cool.”

Nick Vincent’s favorite player growing up was the late Padres great Tony Gwynn. Vincent, who grew up in the San Diego area, attended a couple of Padres games every year with his grandmother. He was drafted by the Padres and eventually got promoted to the majors while Gwynn worked as a broadcaster for the club.

One day on the team bus, Vincent introduced himself.

“I just said ‘Hey, it’s Nick Vincent, I’m glad to meet you, I’m a longtime fan,’ ” Vincent said, “and he just said, ‘Nice having you here.’ He was kind of quiet. He’s kind of a quiet, humble guy.

“It was good meeting him and meeting one of the greatest hitters ever. That was pretty cool.”

Right-hander Blake Parker, who was designated for assignment Aug. 4 and claimed by the Yankees, recalls witnessing his favorite player, Mark McGwire, break Roger Maris’ season home run record in 1998.

When McGwire tied the record, Parker and his father bought tickets on a whim and hopped on a flight from Fayetteville, Ark., to St. Louis to catch the next night’s game.

Parker remembers the scene vividly.

“Every time a pitch (to McGwire) would come in, the whole place would light up with camera flashes the whole game,” recalled Parker, who grew up in Fayetteville.

When McGwire belted the record-breaking 62nd homer on the first pitch, Busch Stadium paused for an 11-minute in-game celebration, the longest of its kind in major-league history. As McGwire rounded the bases shaking hands, he was greeted with a hug at the plate by Mariners manager Scott Servais, then a catcher with the Chicago Cubs.

And the 14-year-old Parker was there.

“We always liked the Cardinals,” Parker said. “Everyone in Arkansas is a Cardinals fan; it was fun to go watch them play, and old Busch was a pretty cool place.”

Richland native Shawn O’Malley, who hit the three-run go-ahead homer Saturday, idolized Griffey. So did Indiana native Drew Storen, who watched him play in Chicago’s Comiskey Park and also flew to Seattle – for what he remembers as his ninth or 10th birthday – to see Griffey play in the Kingdome.

O’Malley was entranced by Griffey’s stardom as a kid, and he resembled a little kid recounting those memories. He remembers mimicking Griffey’s swing with a whiffle-ball bat and tee. Half the balls he hit, he reckoned, were lost to tall grass.

What was he supposed to do, break from Griffey’s patented follow through to chase after them?

Grube optioned – The Mariners optioned reliever Jarrett Grube to Triple-A Tacoma, the club announced Thursday. The 34-year-old right-hander was recalled Wednesday to aid Seattle’s worn bullpen, but he did not appear in a game.

A corresponding roster move will be made before Friday’s game at Oakland.

Chasing 40 – Nelson Cruz has 28 homers, which puts him on pace to finish with 40. If he achieves that, it will mark his third straight season with at least 40 homers and place him in a select group.

Only two players have ever hit 40 or more homers in their age 33, 34 and 35 seasons: Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire.

Minor details – High-A Bakersfield left-hander Joe Pistorese had six strikeouts in two innings Wednesday night in leading a dominant Blaze pitching performance that racked up 18 strikeouts in a 1-0 victory at Visalia (Diamondbacks).

Five Bakersfield pitchers contributed to the effort.

Starter Tyler Pike had two in his two innings before Art Warren followed with four in two innings. After Pistorese blew through the Rawhide, Darin Gillies had four in two innings, and Thyago Vieira had two in the ninth.

The victory also lifted the Blaze to 62-54, which topped their 2015 victory total from a 61-79 season.

All four of the Mariners’ full-season affiliates have now topped their 2015 victory totals.

Through Wednesday, Triple-A Tacoma was 69-49 after finishing last year at 68-76. Double-A Jackson was 73-41 after finishing last year at 53-83, and Low-A Clinton was 70-45 after finishing last year at 46-93.

Looking back – It was one year ago Friday – Aug. 12, 2015 – that right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma pitched the fifth no-hitter in Mariners history in a 3-0 victory over Baltimore at Safeco Field.

Tribune staff writer Bob Dutton contributed to this report.