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Ken Griffey Jr.: The Kid Stays In The Picture

Ken Griffey Jr. sit in the dugout (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Ken Griffey Jr. has taken his backwards hat, 1000-megawatt smile and effortless left-handed stroke to that sweet by and by. The oldest Kid in the game has retired from baseball after 22 mostly magical seasons and innumerable moments on the baseball diamond where he simply made the game more fun to watch.

From running up outfield walls to his line of chocolate bars to his home run derby heroics, Griffey left an indelible stamp on the game that went criminally ignored in the 2000s as each phony of the steroid era lined up to surpass him.

From the mega-hyped teen that could do it all to the old man that fell asleep in the dugout, Griffey was in many ways a contradiction. He lilted around the baseball field like a grasshopper then could barely move at all.  He played with the joy of a child but could turn cold and withdrawn at the drop of a hat.

Junior was simply the best non-steroid hitter of the steroid era.  Perhaps I am naïve here.  Maybe Griffey did steroids, maybe he didn’t, but comparing his career arc and lack of significant body change to that of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, et al, I feel confident in my belief that he was clean.

Career Chronology

Griffey first burst into the consciousness of America in 1987 when he was the first overall pick in the amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners. The son of former Big Red Machine stalwart Ken Griffey, he was hailed as the next Willie Mays. He was going to shatter Hank Aaron’s record of 755 home runs and he did nothing to disprove these theories as he eviscerated pitching in each of his three minor league way stations.

Griffey was too good to be held down, and over the protests of those who felt he needed more seasoning the Mariners named the 19-year-old their starting center fielder in 1989 and never looked back.

After finishing third in the 1989 Rookie of the Year race behind luminaries Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon, Griffey made history in 1990 by becoming the first son to play on the same team as his father. The pair also hit back to back homers on Sept. 14 of that year, another first. That, my friends, is one moment I don’t ever see being matched.

The year also saw Griffey pick up the first of 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards as well as his first of 13 All Star appearances. He was on his way to super-stardom and would improve steadily over the course of the next three years, driving in 100 runs twice.

The Mariners would register their first winning season in team history, at 83-79, with Griffey as catalyst but fell to a dismal 64-98 the following year. Change was in the air.

Enter Lou Pinella.  In 1993 the Mariners hired Pinella as their manager and under his sage guidance, Griffey’s potential came into full blossom. Their first year together, Griffey’s OPS rose to 1.025, not that anybody knew that back then, though, as the statistic did not exist yet.

Teaming with Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, the Mariners were only two games back in the division when, on Aug. 12, the Player’s Association strike resulted in a Major League Baseball work stoppage.

Baseball was already fledgling in Seattle, with the team routinely playing to a half-filled Kingdome, and the labor dispute threatened to kill baseball in the Queen City.

When baseball resumed in late April of 1995, the game desperately needed someone to remind fans why it was special. Some took solace in Cal Ripken and his unyielding work ethic.  For myself, and for all baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest, it was Ken Griffey Jr.

As Griffey and the Mariners played better and better, the Kingdome got fuller and fuller and it was quite a stomach punch when, at midseason, a ballot proposal for a new stadium was voted down.  The future of baseball in Seattle had never looked more grim.

Enter The Kid. The M’s found themselves tied atop the AL West with the California Angles, and a one-game playoff ensued. The Mariners easily dispatched the Angels 9-1, setting up a Division Series against the New York Yankees.

Griffey Sr. played four years with the Yankees in the 80’s and made no secret of the fact that he felt he had been mistreated. Junior also held contempt for the Bronx Bombers as he harbored memories of Billy Martin shooing him from the clubhouse, which was a sea change from the congeniality of the Cincinnati Reds.

A team and city teetering on the brink?  A hated familial rival standing in your way? There was a lot riding on this series for Griffey.

As the Yankees took the first two games, all seemed lost but the Mariners forced a deciding Game 5, which took place in a feverish Kingdome. Heading into the bottom of the 11th inning trailing by a run, Griffey stood on first with Joey Cora on third as Martinez stroked a double down the left field line.

Griffey raced all the way around to score and as his teammates jubilantly piled on him at home plate, all that could be seen of Griffey was a huge smile. This was the play that saved baseball in Seattle and led to the construction of Safeco Field.

After 1995, Griffey went on a personal tear and established himself as the best player of the 1990s. From 1996 through 1999, which would be his last year in Seattle, Griffey averaged 52 homers a year and led the league in that category from 97-99. He unanimously won the 1997 AL MVP and in 1999, along with Ripken, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens, was one of four active players named to MLB All-Century team.

Feeling the pangs of being away from loved ones, especially in the wake of the untimely death of his good friend Payne Stewart, Griffey, at age 30 and in the prime of his career, signed a below-market, long-term deal with the team of his childhood, the Cincinnati Reds.

Although Griffey had a fine first year in Cincinnati, belting 40 homers, driving in 118 runs and leading the Reds to 85 wins and a second place finish, he seemed to leave his pixy dust in Seattle. It was all downhill for Griffey and the Reds, as the following year was the first of many injury plagued campaigns. From 2002 through 2005, Griffey only appeared in 70, 53 and 83 games respectively, suffering season-ending, leg-related injuries in each season.

He also had to watch as the 2001 Mariners, still under the hand of Pinella, went on to set a modern day record with 116 wins.

With the steroid era in full bloom and a new cast of baseball stars, Griffey fell out of the public’s consciousness and, though it is hard to imagine for one of the greatest players of all time, faded into obscurity. He was no longer a pitchman for Nike or Nintendo or any other of the myriad products he endorsed.

Still, for those with an eye for baseball history, Junior was still forging his place. Before his 2004 season ended prematurely, with his father in the crowd, he launched his 500th homer on Father’s Day, becoming the 20th player to reach the milestone.

While the game had seemed to pass him by, Junior had a small resurgence in his mid 30’s. Finally able to get himself to the plate over 500 times for the first time with the Reds in 2005, he launched 35 homers. This was in not small part due to an experimental procedure, dubbed “Junior Surgery,” in which his balky right hamstring was reattached using three titanium screws.

Griffey would hit 57 homers over the next two years with the Reds, and 2007 would be his last full year in Cincinnati. After being moved out of center field, Griffey was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the 11th hour of the trading deadline in 2008.

Griffey’s time in Chicago was a disaster and with the team having no interest in re-signing him, Griffey returned to the Seattle Mariners.

For a 39-year-old, 2009 was somewhat productive. He slugged .411 with 19 homers, included his 630th and last.  However, with a startling lack of production, naps in the clubhouse and whispers that the dedication wasn’t there, Griffey pulled the plug on June 2 of this year.

Griffey issued a statement and was gone. The quietness in which he slipped out of the game belied the audaciousness in which he entered it with.

Place In History

Griffey was the Haley’s Comet of baseball, through no fault of his own. He was bright and dynamic and burst across the baseball universe and then, poof, he was gone. As the cartoonish and foolish sluggers of the Steroid Era outpaced him in individual seasons, his body of work was overlooked. That is a baseball crime.

His face was ubiquitous in the 1990s on commercials and video games and candy bars and “The Simpsons,” but Madison Avenue dropped him unceremoniously. Unfortunately, a lot of baseball fans followed suit.

He was a defensive genius who also happened to be the best hitter in the game. He patrolled center field like a gazelle and hit like you’d imagine God would. He was the best player for a solid decade. His was a once in a lifetime talent.

Its no small coincident that this man was born in the same place as another semi-vanished Hall of Famer: Stan Musial. Both played in deep shadows. Musial in Ted Williams’ and Griffey in the Steroid Era’s, and both have been forgotten to a degree. Another baseball felony.

He shared a nickname with Williams, The Kid, and that name should now be forever reserved for left-handed, ebullient, transcendent hitters who changed the game. Griffey, like Williams did later in his life, will experience a rebirth of appreciation starting about five years from now when he becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Maybe then people will wake up and realize what they’ve missed.

Griffey fell short of the youthful projections and the perception is out there that he was, ultimately, an underachiever. Yet, he still ended up 14th all-time in RBIs and 5th in homeruns. Bud Selig may not be able to parse out the ‘roiders but we can, and if you take out Barry Bonds and ignore the fact that Alex Rodriguez will pass him soon, I firmly place Griffey 4th all time in homers, behind only Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Rare company indeed.

When that All Century team was brought onto the field during the 1999 World Series who received the loudest ovation? Not Ted Williams, although his was touching. Not Pete Rose, although his was a kind gesture from the baseball fans. No, Ken Griffey Jr. received the loudest and longest ovation. At that time he was the King of Baseball and we should never forget that moment.

I know fans can be shortsighted and too caught up in the moment, but when ripping off a list of the best of the best, with many of them in attendance from Sandy Koufax to Ernie Banks to Johnny Bench to Aaron, Griffey was given the most love. The flame that burns twice as bright burns only half as long.

Impact On The Game

Griffey was the Michael Jordan of baseball. A singular talent that dominated a team game. A marketing machine with ethereal talent. Every boy’s hero and every mother’s dream.

Who could forget his smile and backwards hat? With that simple movement, turning one’s hat around, Griffey was signaling that he was a different kind of player. He was here to turn the game backwards and upside down and inside out.

A player who could control the game with nonchalance. Often imitated but never duplicated, he influenced thousands of kids around the nation, black and white, many of whom now play sports other than baseball.

One can list his best on the field moments off the top of the head. Climbing the wall at the Kingdome. Going over the wall at Yankee Stadium. Hitting the warehouse behind Camden Yards in the 1993 Home Run Derby. Scoring the winning run in the 1995 ALDS.  Slamming his 500th homerun on Father’s Day.

Off the field, he was just as dynamic. Who could forget his first real impact on baseball culture: the fervor his Upper Deck rookie baseball card caused? That smiling face, full of promise, signaled the dawning of a new era in baseball.

Soon to follow were Ken Griffey Jr. chocolate bars. In baseball history, I can only think of two other players who had candy named after them, and they were among the most vibrant, otherworldly talents we’ve ever seen: Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson.

The man was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “The Simpsons” for the love of Jeff.

Nike thought so highly of him they conducted a mock “Griffey For President” campaign in the early 90’s. I know I would have voted for him over Bush or Clinton.

Griffey, along with Jordan, ushered in the age of the celebrity sports pitchman. The only reason sports became sports entertainment was because of Griffey and Jordan. Okay, and Vince McMahon.

Nowadays, you need only the slightest amount of promise to get an endorsement deal but back then, only real talent was hyped. These kids should be lining up to thank The Kid.

He leaves a void in baseball that will not be easily filled. I think a lot of people are going to wake up five years from now and, as I said before, realize they missed out on one of the greatest careers all time.

As the Steroid Era dawned, Griffey was funk in a world of hip hop.  The current MCs couldn’t have gotten to where they are without his contributions, but they left him by the wayside nonetheless.

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One comment for “Ken Griffey Jr.: The Kid Stays In The Picture”

  1. Sleeping during the game? Fit right in with the Nightowls.

    Posted by Wild Bill Hiccup | June 12, 2010, 8:25 pm

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