Ken Griffey Jr. Restored the Mays-Mantle Legacy of the Iconic Center Fielder

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2016

Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. smiles while adjusting his cap in the dugout before the baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Seattle on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
John Froschauer/Associated Press

They write songs about center fielders, from (where have you gone) Joe DiMaggio to Willie, Mickey and the Duke. They write books about center fielders.

Catchers, shortstops and first basemen are important, but center fielders live on.

And yet in all the years of the Hall of Fame, only six players who started at least 1,500 games in center field have been voted in by the Baseball Writers Association of America. On Wednesday, it will become seven.

On Wednesday, Ken Griffey Jr. will take his rightful place next to DiMaggio, next to Willie (Mays), Mickey (Mantle) and the Duke (Snider). And next to Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker as well.

It would be hard to think of a more rightful heir.

Griffey starred. He did it with style. And after nearly three decades where center fielders were mostly forgotten, Junior made it glamorous again.

Just as kids of the 1950s and '60s grew up wanting to be Mays or Mantle, kids wanted to be Griffey. They wanted to hit like him and field like him, and they wanted to style like him.

As Andrew McCutchen wrote last year in the Players' Tribune, "From the time I first stepped up in front of a tee-ball stand, I was trying to waggle my bat just like Ken Griffey Jr."

Now, McCutchen is a star center fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and now, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout may well be the best player in the game. It's too early to say we're seeing the start of a new era of center field stars but not at all too early to declare Griffey as the founding father.

He was born the year after Mantle retired and was just three years old when Mays stumbled through his final season with the New York Mets. He grew up in a decade when Amos Otis and Cesar Cedeno were the best of a modest center field lot.

Dale Murphy, who could have been a Hall of Famer, followed them, and Kirby Puckett, who is a Hall of Famer, came after that. But no one really followed through to become what DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays were.

Griffey did. He played much of his career way out there in Seattle, a baseball outpost when he arrived as a 19-year-old in 1989. His games started too late for most of the country to watch, and most of them weren't on national television, anyway. The team around him was ordinary enough that the Mariners won just one postseason series while he was there.

Didn't matter. During the 22 seasons Griffey played in the major leagues, no one in the game was more recognizable.

Not everyone liked the way he wore his cap, but who couldn't love that smile? Who couldn't love the swing that produced 630 home runs or the way he chased down all those fly balls that shouldn't have been caught?

He made the best catch I ever saw in person, in 1998 at Tiger Stadium, when he leaped high over the right-center field fence to rob Luis Gonzalez (chronicled here by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times). He made so many other great catches that when he was asked to name his five best, the Gonzalez play didn't even make the cut.

He made it through the steroid era without ever feeling the taint, so when his name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this winter, the only question was how close he would come to being a unanimous choice.

In fact, of the 181 ballots made public and posted on BBHoFTracker as of Wednesday morning, Griffey appeared on every one. We'll find out at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday how many other votes he'll get.

No one has ever been a unanimous pick. DiMaggio made just 88.8 percent of the ballots in 1955, the year he was elected. Mantle made 88.2 percent in 1974, and Mays made 94.7 percent (409-of-432) in 1979. Pitcher Tom Seaver came closest, missing just five of 430 ballots in 1992.

It's a nice thing to watch for, and no one will mind if Griffey gets it. But in the end, it hardly matters, because Griffey's legacy doesn't depend on any number, any more than the legacies of Mays and Mantle did.

"Great players played center field," said Art Stewart, the 88-year-old Kansas City Royals executive. "I saw Griffey his entire life, from high school all the way through the big leagues. He absolutely belongs with those greats.

"No question he belongs in that class. No question."

No question, center field is glamorous in baseball again, with Trout and McCutchen both already owning Most Valuable Player awards. Bryce Harper has one, too, and while he played just 13 games in center field when he won it last season, he could end up playing there again.

Griffey played there 2,145 times. He played a few games in left field, a few more in right and a few as a designated hitter, but he was always a center fielder. He was what DiMaggio was, what Mays was, what Mantle was.

All he needs is a song.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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