A-Rod, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Greatest Home Run-Hitting Team in MLB History

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 25, 2018

OAKLAND, UNITED STATES:  Seattle Mariners player Ken Griffey Jr.(R) is congratulated by teammates after hitting his second home run against the Oakland Athletics 22 September in Oakland, California. This home run gave Griffey 55 home runs so far this season and only six short of tying the record of 61 in a season by New York Yankees player Roger Maris in 1961. The Mariners defeated the A's, 4-2. (Photo credit should read JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images)
B/R

All rise as the Sons of Babe Ruth launch a conveyor belt of moonshots, from Giancarlo Stanton's opposite-field frozen ropes to Aaron Judge's rainbows to Gary Sanchez's rockets.

As the New York Yankees chop and hack their way through the MLB record book this summer, they are taking dead aim at a single-season home run record that has lasted 21 years, a remarkable achievement that has withstood juiced balls, small ballparks, the laws of gravity and the test of time.

For more than two decades, the 1997 Seattle Mariners have maintained Murderers' Row status in the record book by virtue of their 264 home runs. But through this season's first 74 games, the Yankees are on pace to wallop 268.

"The selfish side of me says, hey, they need to fall short," Ken Griffey Jr., who led the Mariners bruisers with 56 homers in '97 and was named the American League MVP, tells B/R. "But it's something the media can talk about and draw interest to the game itself, and I think that's important.

"Like my dad says, if you're in the conversation and it's positive, it's good."

And what a tale the '97 Mariners were. There was Junior and Bone and Edgar, R.J. and A-Rod (before he became A-ROD™). In '97, Griffey, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and one of the best starting pitchers on the planet, Randy Johnson, were in their prime. No place in baseball was louder than the Kingdome.

And no team in history smashed more home runs.

"Oof," exclaims Alex Rodriguez, who, like many of his old teammates, didn't realize the '97 M's still hold the record. "That's a lot of home runs. A lot of slugging.

"It was a great, great lineup because it had a combination of balance, power and good hitting. And the ability to make contact. Very rarely do you have three great right-handed hitters and [two] great left-handed hitters, so from a balance point of view, it was awesome.

"I just remember, especially at the Kingdome, it felt like we had three or four homers nightly."

Buhner ripped 40 homers that summer, Paul Sorrento 31, Edgar Martinez 28, A-Rod—in just his second full season—23 and Russ Davis 20. Griffey and Sorrento swung from the left side; Buhner, A-Rod and Martinez from the right. Outfielder Jose Cruz Jr., who popped 12 homers before a midseason trade to Toronto, was a switch-hitter. If these guys suddenly popped up animated in the Saturday morning cartoon lineup, it wouldn't have been a surprise.

"I'll tell you, one thing I remember is shaking hands at third base," says John McLaren, who coached there for manager Lou Piniella that season. "That happened often."

It would be easy to say these Mariners put up video game numbers, because, well, they were. Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr., produced on the Nintendo 64 platform, was inspired during this time and would debut May 31, 1998. And with it grew a contingent of backward-cap-wearing kids throughout America truly putting up video game numbers.

As a 21-year-old in only his second full season in the majors, Alex Rodriguez hit 23 home runs and stole 29 bases for the 1997 Mariners.
As a 21-year-old in only his second full season in the majors, Alex Rodriguez hit 23 home runs and stole 29 bases for the 1997 Mariners.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

"N64? I always played it," Andrew McCutchen, San Francisco Giants outfielder, says. "And once you put the code in, it was a home run. They'd all go to left-center. That ball is going, going gone. Every time.

"You could bunt it and it'd still be a homer. You was cheating if you played with people who couldn't put the code in."

More on that N64 cheat code in a bit. On real diamonds throughout '97, though, it seemed like the Mariners had their own launch codes. No team had more swag than the traveling rock 'n' roll hardball circus that was those Seattle Mariners.

And nobody was more stylish than the King of Cool himself, Ken Griffey Jr.

"Certain things he did back then, that's why guys do it today," Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper says. "We all were really big fans of Griffey. He made the game a lot of fun not only for himself, but for his teammates as well. He was so gifted. It's incredible how gifted he was."

And how magnetic, both then and now. Six of Seattle's 10 largest all-time crowds to this day came in '97, in a cacophonous cement dome that legendary Seattle newspaper columnist Art Thiel once referred to as an "audio riot." The 3.2 million fans streaming through the turnstiles that summer still stands as a Mariners single-season record.

"That particular group, it's like your first love," says Tim Hevly, the Mariners' vice president of communications, now in his 29th season with the club. "It's like your high school girlfriend."

        

The Mashers

The '97 home run barrage unofficially started Sept. 1, 1996. The season had been a disappointment. After a rousing playoff win in the '95 divisional round over the Yankees, the Mariners fell back to the pack the following year and would miss the playoffs. But in that early September game, Baltimore Orioles manager Davey Johnson paused the proceedings to ask the umpires to check Rodriguez's bat for cork. Griffey and the gang figured it was simple gamesmanship. McLaren says something had happened long ago in the minors between Johnson and Piniella and they never cared for each other. It was another notch in their personal one-upsmanship, McLaren figured.

Whatever—plate umpire Ted Barrett complied and seized A-Rod's bat. What happened next as the Mariners plowed ahead without skipping a beat was a moment for the ages—and one A-Rod just this April memorialized on something that didn't exist back then, Instagram. The kid met the Kid between the plate and the on-deck circle, and Griffey, the No. 3 hitter, tossed the bat he was swinging in the on-deck circle to Rodriguez, who promptly took it and launched the very next pitch into the seats.

"He was using my bat in the first place," Griffey says. "So, here's my other bat."

Says A-Rod, who hit .509 with a .909 slugging percentage against the Orioles in '96: "The thing that sticks out is that Lou Piniella was a great mentor to all of us. He loved hitting, loved teaching hitting. I think some of the great numbers that added up at the end of ['97] was really the way we approached offense. And a lot of that came from Lou Piniella's DNA."

The Mariners struck early once the '97 season rolled around. On Opening Day, Griffey slammed two home runs against New York Yankees ace David Cone.

"It seemed like Junior always did something on Opening Day," says Mariners radio man Rick Rizzs, now in his 33rd season with the team. "Opening Day, Mother's Day, Fourth of July, final game in the Kingdome, whenever his father showed up … any game of significance, it seemed like Junior homered."

"Such a deep lineup," says Mike Blowers, an infielder on the '97 team and now a Mariners television analyst. "That was a difficult lineup to get through. And in that ballpark, it felt like someone was going to kick a field goal every night, even whoever was hitting eighth."

Says Griffey: "It takes everybody, even the guy who hit one, he's part of that record. It's not just held by one guy; it's held by a team. Most of the guys, nobody's thinking going up there, I've gotta hit a home run. Our philosophy for hitting was, Let's get on base and if goes out, it goes out, but if it doesn't, we've gotta score some runs. I think if you look at most championship teams they're right around 1,000 runs, 1,000-RBI mark. That's what you shoot for."

The '97 Mariners, who won the AL West but lost in the division series that autumn to Johnson's Orioles, finished with 925 runs scored and 890 RBI.

"Junior was considered the best player in the game at the time," Martinez says. "We had great players. And personalities, characters. Randy was tall. Jay was bald. Junior, his personality and ability. And Alex was so talented, too.

"It put our team on the map."

Ken Griffey Jr. hit .304 with 56 homers and 147 RBI in '97 in winning the A.L. MVP Award while helping guide the Mariners to 90 wins.
Ken Griffey Jr. hit .304 with 56 homers and 147 RBI in '97 in winning the A.L. MVP Award while helping guide the Mariners to 90 wins.Tomasso Derosa/Getty Images

As it was happening, they were still young enough to be untouched by the cynicism the years eventually bring. Later, A-Rod's combination of insecurity and ego would put him sideways with Griffey. But in '97, things were still new and fresh, and when an off day hit at home, A-Rod (then 21) and Griffey (27) would play together.

"I took my whole team Jet-Skiing," Griffey says. "We were a close team. Hell, during the strike years ('94-95), you would see six of us playing golf. We were terrible, but we'd play golf. When you're a close team, you do things together."

Rarely was there a bad day. On those occasions when Griffey dipped into a funk at the plate, McLaren would kid him: Go back to being the Kid at Cincinnati's Moeller High School. Or: Put on some music and get your mind at ease.

"He'd just smile at me," McLaren says.

"He'd give me, Is that all you got?" Griffey says. "Stuff like that. Anybody can do it once, can you do it again? Things like that. But it was everybody."

One day Buhner was taking batting practice, and Piniella had dropped him down in the lineup.

"Bone was pissed," McLaren says. "I happened to be in charge of the balls that year, and we had a budget on balls. Buhner starts flipping them [with his bat] into the stands down the first base line, and I don't say anything because in the first round of BP you usually go oppo."

Second round, Buhner's still doing it, and McLaren tells him to quit taking half-assed hacks and swing the damned bat. Buhner shoots back, "Oh, noooo, you want me to be a table-setter."

Martinez remembers and smiles.

"We had a fun relationship with Mac," he says. "Him and Jay were always giving each other a hard time. They kept the team loose. Mac was always trying to get a reaction out of Jay."

Sometimes, batting practice was even more memorable than the games, which was saying something with this crew.

in '97 outfielder Jay Buhner posted his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, all while occasionally sparring with Seattle's coaching staff.
in '97 outfielder Jay Buhner posted his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, all while occasionally sparring with Seattle's coaching staff.Tomasso Derosa/Getty Images

"More fun than I've ever had in baseball," McLaren says of his BP pitcher duties. "I so enjoyed it. I had fun with those guys. No. 1, when I threw to Junior, it didn't make any difference, he'd hit anything I threw. Buhner was different. On the last round, those guys used to play Home Run Derby. It was cool. They worked on their strokes for the first three rounds and then let it rip. They'd have side bets. I'd change speeds and Buhner would get so pissed. OK, all right, that's right, try to show me up."

      

The Dome

The epicenter of Seattle's thunderous attack was the Kingdome, an all-purpose, concrete mausoleum that opened in March 1976 and was the Mariners' home through the opening of Safeco Field in July 1999.

It was like playing arena baseball and had the warehouse feel of your local Costco. Speakers and roof-support wires high atop the playing surface were in play. The foul territory was large, but the field dimensions in '97 were small: 331 feet down the left field line, 312 down the right field line and 405 to dead center. The center of the dome roof was just 250 feet above the field.

They could stuff 59,166 into the joint (as compared to Safeco Field's capacity today of 47,943), which helps explain both the record-setting attendance in '97 and the eardrum-pounding noise.

"You know what I remember? The fireworks," says Nomar Garciaparra, then Boston's shortstop and now a Dodgers television analyst. "They went off when the balls went out. That was a loud place to play. It was loud, the bombs were loud. They'd hit one out and there would be smoke in the air, and before that cleared, they'd hit another."

It wasn't some one-sided Coors Field-like home-field advantage. The '97 Mariners clubbed 131 homers in the Kingdome and 133 on the road. But…indoor fireworks?

"There were so many homers, one game, it looked like the Kingdome was on fire," Rizzs says. "There was just a huge, gray fog that wafted over the outfield.

The Kingdome wasn't a typical baseball stadium, but it did offer some semblance of a home-field edge thanks to the enclosed structure of the building.
The Kingdome wasn't a typical baseball stadium, but it did offer some semblance of a home-field edge thanks to the enclosed structure of the building.BARRY SWEET/Associated Press

"Fly balls were tough to see. There was no place for the smoke to go."

Well, near the 250-foot apex of the roof, there was one place.

"We'd try to open the hatch [to let the smoke escape] when we were playing defense, then close it when we were playing offense," Griffey quips.

Two decades later, the legend of the Kingdome endures.

"I heard that place was awesome," Bryce Harper says.

"We'd shift on Ken Griffey," Garciaparra says, "and he'd bunt, and we were like, 'Cool, it didn't go out,'"

       

Nintendo 64

Like McCutchen says, if you knew where to get the cheat code to the N64 Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. game, Griffey bunts would turn into home runs. And you better believe Junior himself was in on that action.

"If I'm going to play somebody, I can't let them beat me!" Griffey says, laughing. "Yes, I knew the cheat code to N64."

At home in Florida, McCutchen's family could not afford the game, so Andrew, who grew up idolizing Griffey, would skedaddle across town to his cousin Brian's house.

"We'd play together, he'd get to hit with [Griffey] once, then I'd get to hit with him once," McCutchen says.

Based out of Redmond, Washington, practically right down the street from Seattle, Nintendo of America approached Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg, and explained its plans for the game. One, Griffey was a video game player himself and had been for years. And two, Nintendo at the time was the majority shareholder of the Mariners.

So with echoes from those '97 Kingdome fireworks still popping, Griffey traveled to a warehouse in San Diego for three days that winter to go through the motion capture exercises that were required to produce the game.

"I had a lot of fun getting in spandex with all the sensors on me and running around," Griffey says. "It was pretty sweet, being able to say, 'Hey, I was on a video game.'"

Griffey had a Nintendo system hooked up in his locker during those days and often would play in the clubhouse during downtime. Sometimes, he would even play his own N64 game. You would think that would have set him up for ribbing among his teammates. But for a very simple and meaningful reason, it did not.

"Most of the time I saw him in his chair playing that game, it was with a Make-A-Wish kid," Blowers says. "It was important."

Rizzs tells the story of a young family friend stricken with cancer whose dying wish was to meet Griffey. So the boy's family came to the Kingdome one day, and Rizzs found Griffey in the clubhouse, explained the circumstances and asked if Griffey could maybe say hello to the boy as he was preparing for batting practice. Next thing Rizzs knew, Griffey had the boy in the clubhouse, seated at his locker, playing Nintendo for 20 minutes. The boy passed away a couple of months later.

"He did that all on his own," Rizzs says, speaking of Griffey. "He is one of the most remarkable human beings I've ever met in my life, as well as the greatest baseball player I ever saw."

Griffey became part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation early in his career, and at 48 today, he still is, estimating he visits with 30 or 40 of their kids annually.

"My thing is to give someone happiness for two or three hours without knowing the outcome," he says. "I owe it to them. I play baseball. As I call it, I got two hours of fun. These kids have 24 hours of pain."

      

Legacy

The tentacles from that Mariners team still stretch into the present. The home run record will remain in place until at least later this summer, the Nintendo game featuring Griffey is marking its 20th anniversary and Nike still produces his shoes.

"You think about guys in '90s, you think about Griffey," Bryce Harper says. "I do. That's the era I grew up in. You knew the swing, you knew the silhouette of the swing, everybody knew. He'd hit the home run and walk out of the box and that little look he would give. He had the sweetest swing of all time."

After losing in the Division Series to Baltimore in '97, the Mariners have made only two trips to the playoffs.
After losing in the Division Series to Baltimore in '97, the Mariners have made only two trips to the playoffs.DAN LEVINE/Getty Images

As Griffey emphasizes, even the guys who hit one home run that year are a part of the record (take a bow, utility outfielders Rich Amaral and Raul Ibanez and backup catchers John Marzano and Rick Wilkins). Regarding the everyday thumpers…

"When guys are on base, it's hard to pitch around a guy," says Griffey, who smashed 23 two-run homers that season, three three-run homers and one grand slam. "You're going to walk me to load the bases for Edgar to come up? It helps when a guy is unconscious hitting behind you. We were putting guys in spots where they were able to swing."

Griffey remembers the lineup to this day, from Sorrento's golfing prowess to third baseman Russ Davis' Alabama drawl.

Even though he didn't homer, the 6'10" Johnson stands as an anchor of the rabid cult following this beloved team developed as well.

"Randy and I still talk about photography," Griffey says. "He took it in college, I took it up later. Our kids went to the University of Arizona. I'll call him, or he'll call me. I see him at the Hall of Fame. It's been fun to watch him over the years. It was easier to stand behind him than in front of him."

"It was a fun bunch," A-Rod says. "In many ways we had two role models, right? Two guys who had Ph.D.s from Harvard in hitting. One from right side in Edgar Martinez and one from left side in Ken Griffey Jr. So in many ways they set the tone for the entire offense."

Two decades later, Griffey again was a video game cover boy, this time for Sony's MLB The Show, solo last year. This year the cover went to New York's Aaron Judge, an appropriate choice given that it is Judge's Yankees thundering toward Griffey's Mariners.

"The record's going to get broken at some point, whether it's the Yankees this year or a team down the road," Blowers says. "It's cool it's lasted this long."

Slugger Mark McGwire, then Oakland's first baseman and now San Diego's bench coach, sees plenty of similarities.

"The Mariners were one of those teams you couldn't really pitch around," he says. "You want to, but you can't because of who's hitting behind them. Like the Yankees do now.

"You bring up some names from that Seattle team in '97, if you ask fans to name them they wouldn't realize, oh, that guy, too. You think of the marquee guys, just like with the Yankees you think of Judge and Stanton. But then there are six other guys, like Didi Gregorius and Miguel Andujar. It was like that in Seattle. With A-Rod, it was like, oh my gosh, he's so young, what's he going to do?

"I'd be very surprised if not this year or next year, the record is not shattered."

       

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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