Greatness can’t always be predicted. History can be made right before one’s eyes, but it can sometimes only be seen in retrospect.
With Ken Griffey, Jr. however, greatness was predicted early and often.
In fact, before spring training in 1989, a fledgling trading card company staked its credibility on Junior’s ability to become the best player of his generation before he even made his major league debut. Within a short time, that company, Upper Deck, would dominate the card-collecting hobby, just like Junior dominated the game of baseball.
In his prime, Ken Griffey, Jr. seemed to make history on a nightly basis, and we all bore witness. He was an All-Star and a Gold Glove recipient at age 20, a 100 RBI man at age 21, and the best player in the game by age 23, when, in 1993, he hit .309 with 45 HR, 109 RBI, 113 runs, led the league with 359 total bases, and had an OPS+ of 171, his career best.
In that 1993 season, Griffey equaled the record for consecutive games with a HR, beginning his streak of eight straight with a HR on July 20th. On my 18th birthday, July 21st, I was at Yankee Stadium to see Junior deposit his 24th HR of the season into the seats in right field, witnessing history and not realizing it at the time.
While Frank Thomas was the American League MVP in 1993, it was Ken Griffey, Jr. who captured the hearts of baseball fans across the country. His ever-present smile, his backwards hat during batting practice, and his natural feel for the game, all made Griffey the player most emulated in backyard Wiffle Ball games across the country in the early 1990s.
I mean, who didn’t want that swing? With its slight uppercut and high follow-through, Griffey’s swing generated prodigious power and helped him become baseball’s transcendent player of the 1990s. It even became the logo on the signature shoe that Nike created for him.
When he was named to the All-Century team in 1999, Junior was 29 years old and had another decade of baseball in front of him. It seemed inevitable, back then, that he would break Hank Aaron’s career HR record.
Of course, that never came to pass. In fact, 1999 was the last time Ken Griffey, Jr. played more than 150 games in a season, and it also marked the end of his first go-round with the Seattle Mariners.
Prior to the 2000 season, Griffey forced a trade to Cincinnati from Seattle, claiming it was because he wanted to be closer to his home in Orlando. Some in the media questioned Junior’s motivation, especially after he signed a multi-year contract for well over $100 million soon after the trade. It was also disappointing for many fans who had hoped Ken Griffey, Jr. would follow in the footsteps of Cal Ripken, Jr., Robin Yount, and George Brett, who each played for one team in their careers.
Griffey was the Seattle Mariners. Even when Seattle had Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, it was still Junior’s team.
When Ken Griffey, Jr. scored the game-winning run in game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, it symbolized the Seattle Mariners’ arrival on the national stage. It’s been said that moment propelled the city of Seattle and the state of Washington to build Safeco Field. No wonder Safeco has been dubbed, “The House that Junior Built.”
After he turned the page and moved on to the Reds, Ken Griffey, Jr. was supposed to enjoy a triumphant return to Cincinnati, where he grew up and went to high school. He was going to be the missing piece that pushed the Reds back into the playoffs.
Instead, things didn’t pan out as either the Reds or Griffey had expected. Injuries ravaged Ken Griffey, Jr. when he was in Cincinnati, and the Reds struggled for the duration of Junior’s tenure. He wound up playing 140 or more games just twice while a Cincinnati Red: 2000 and 2007.
While Griffey managed to make three All-Star teams as a member of the Reds, and he put together one 40 HR season (2000) and two 30 HR seasons (2004, 2007), he did not lead the Cincinnati Reds to the World Series, much less the postseason. In fact, the only season that the Reds finished above .500 was Junior’s first year in Cincinnati.
Despite his injuries and his team’s poor play, Ken Griffey, Jr. continued to accumulate statistics that would ultimately place him among the greats in the game.
He missed the equivalent of two and a half years, yet Griffey now has 622 HR, good for 5th all-time, and 1,806 RBI, 18th all-time. While it is unlikely he will pass Willie Mays (660 HR) on the career HR list, Griffey could move up the career RBI standings.
Junior trails Frank Robinson (1,812) by 6 RBI for 17th place, is 21 behind Al Simmons (1,827) for 16th, and is 27 short of Dave Winfield (1,833) in 15th place.
There’s no sense dwelling in the realm of “what-could-have-been” with Ken Griffey, Jr., because what he did places him among the best players to ever put on a baseball uniform. His injuries, like his statistics, are a part of his legacy.
Back with the Seattle Mariners now, the 2009 season has the feel of one long swan song for Ken Griffey, Jr. Like many 39-year-old ballplayers, Junior struggles to hit the way he used to (.221, 11 HR), but that doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that, whenever Ken Griffey, Jr. decides to retire, the future Hall-of-Famer will leave the game he loves with his dignity and his legacy intact, unlike many of his contemporaries. His accomplishments do not need to be defended in the court of public opinion. His Hall-of-Fame plaque will not need a disclaimer.
Ken Griffey, Jr. will be remembered for his natural ability, his breath-taking defensive play, his awe-striking swing, and his bright smile. As a fan of the game, I am appreciative of Ken Griffey, Jr.
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