Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. was the brightest light in Seattle, and baseball
How do you define Ken Griffey Jr.? Maybe it’s a question without a specific answer. Asking him gets an awkward pause and a look of exasperation. “Really?” he said.
Asking others, it prompts memories, numbers, anecdotes and reverence without a definitive summary.
“Well, there’s a lot more to him than that,” Edgar Martinez said.
Still, as Griffey prepares for this weekend’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s a question that lingers more for him than for some other inductees because of his influence on the game and its fans.
So many words have been written about his greatness and exploits on and off the field. But there really is no way to encapsulate it all — what he meant to the game, to a city and to a generation of fans.
How do you take his massive accomplishments over 22 years and wedge them into a description that the attention-span-challenged youth of today might understand?
You can try to quantify it with numbers and accolades. And there are so many numbers and awards. Mind-blowing, historical, video-game stats that may never be equalled:
He amassed 2,781 career hits, including 524 doubles, 38 triples, 630 homers and 1,779 RBIs with a .282 batting average and .907 on-base slugging percentage.
He hit home runs in eight consecutive games from July 20-28, 1993, tying the MLB record.
He had three consecutive seasons with 140 or more RBIs, something only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig also accomplished.
He had nine seasons of 30 homers or more and seven with 40-plus.
Unanimous American League MVP in 1997.
Thirteen selections to the All-Star Game starting lineup, including 11 consecutive seasons from 1990-2000.
Ten consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999) and seven Silver Slugger Awards.
At age 29, he was voted to the All-Century Team in 1999. Yes, just 11 years into his career he was already one of the 100 best players of the previous 100 years.
You can try to quantify it by watching the magical plays — plays he made look effortless, plays that still leave people and players gasping even though they’ve seen them hundreds of times. Pick your favourite: His favourite was the homer-stealing grab of Luis Gonzalez at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. “But my best play? That happened at the 415-foot mark, just below the Tiger Stadium overhang. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the ball rolling back into my palm,” he wrote for The Players’ Tribune.
How about the 470-foot homer he hit in Detroit? “It was my best poke, and Rob Deer hit one 479 (opposite field) later in that game,” he said.
You could choose the home run off the warehouse in Baltimore during the 1993 Home Run Derby. “I just started laughing after I hit it,” he said. “The crowd started jumping up and down and I hear the announcer say, ‘Did he just hit the building?’ And somebody else yells, ‘Yes!’ and that’s when I started laughing.”
And, of course, the showcase of speed and athleticism when he scored from first base on Edgar Martinez’s double to left against the Yankees to win the 1995 AL Division Series.
JUST BEING HIMSELF
Ask him again what all that means, and he still can’t (and won’t) answer.
To him, it was about playing the game the only way he knew, the way he had been taught in clubhouses and by his father and idol — Ken Griffey Sr., who played 19 major league seasons and was a three-time All-Star — and his father’s friends, who were everyone else’s idols. When you’re a teenager and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell is in your house telling you how great you can be and that you need to focus more on baseball, perhaps you are destined to be special.
“The only person that didn’t see how good of a player I could be was me,” he said. “I just wanted to be a kid doing teenage stuff. I was a rebellious teenager. I didn’t understand until I was 19 or 20 what they understood when I was 15.”
But did they understand he would change the game, not just thrive in it? He was the player for an entire generation. It’s why adults walk up to him excitedly and gush, “You were my hero.”
“Yes, it’s weird,” he said when asked about such encounters. “But you know, those people — whether male or female — they were baseball fans, and they are going to have their kids play baseball. In order for us to grow the sport, that’s what we need.”
A TRUE ROLE MODEL
Griffey gave baseball a status and popularity in places that it had never reached before.
“When you say that name, it definitely puts a smile on my face,” Cubs All-Star outfielder Dexter Fowler said. “That’s why I wear No. 24, because of Griffey. He was my guy growing up. I tried to model my game after Junior.”
Even the youngest of stars of today who saw him in the twilight of his career understand what he meant.
“The Kid! The Kid!” Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. exclaimed. “What an exciting player to watch. As a kid, everyone wanted to be Ken Griffey Jr. You wanted to have that sweet, smooth swing and play the outfield like him. You wanted to bring that charismatic personality to the field like him. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player.”
Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. connects for his 40th home run ofthe season on July 21, 1998.
As a Cincinnati Red, Griffey Jr. tracks one downatthe fence against Tampa Bay.