I have a confession to make.
Ken Griffey Jr. was my favorite player growing up. Yes, despite being a Yankees fan and having Don Mattingly, and a young Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter, the man who Sports Illustrated dubbed a Yankee Killer in 1995, stole my heart and nearly drove me to sports bigamy. As a 9-year old at my family reunion, I even went so far as to emulate his slide on the game-winning run that had knocked my Yanks out of the ALDS and left me crushed just an October ago.
Griffey, and his majestic swing led a generation of precocious peewee outfielders, myself included, to add a jerky chicken-wing motion to their batting stances. It was the man they called ‘Junior’ who inspired legions of kids to play with a reckless abandon sorely missing from the sport, and reminded us all of how much fun the game of baseball could be.
Most accounts will report the numbers he left behind as proof of his impact on the game, and they are truly staggering: 630 home runs (5th all-time), a 13-time All-Star and 11 Gold Gloves. As impressive as those numbers are they do not begin to his career justice. He was the greatest player of his generation, and probably the best in baseball since Willie Mays. In 1999, you wouldn’t have found anyone who didn’t think Griffey would eventually own the all-time Home Run record, as well as going down as one of the great defensive players to lace them up. He was the face of a Mariner’s franchise that boasted Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and the criminally underrated Edgar Martinez in their primes, and probably saved baseball in Seattle.
In his last four seasons (1996-99) in Seattle before leaving to play at home in Cincinnati, he averaged .294-52-142. To put that into context, Mays’ best four-year stretch was .308-47-117. He inspired his own wildly popular baseball video game series for Nintendo, and more than that, made baseball cool again. You can see his imprint in the swagger of C.C. Sabathia, the energy of Torii Hunter, or the awe-inspiring power of Prince Fielder, but to witness that complete package rolled into one man-child was truly once in a lifetime. The fact that he was an African-American star didn’t have the same cultural resonance in baseball then still ripe with Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines et al, but with baseball’s dip in popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, Griffey had as much to do with restoring interest in the game as Cal Ripken, or Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
No, he was never the same player dealing with chronic injuries in the National League, and when he returned to Seattle he was a shell of the former-icon. History will look back on his career as one of the greatest and yet most disappointing. Despite captivating the sport from the day he arrived as a 19-year old prodigy sharing the outfield with his father, for the last decade of his career, it seemed no matter what happened, Griffey could not get out of his own way. He will go down as one of baseball’s greatest What-ifs, despite the fact what he did places him among the game’s immortals. Unlike most of the stars of his era, Ken Griffey Jr. has to this point, remained above the cloud of steroid speculation that plagued the game at the end of the 20th century.
It is regrettable that on a day we should be celebrating and appreciate the breadth of his accomplishments, perhaps for the first time, Junior was upstaged by umpire Jim Joyce and Major League Baseball which stole a perfect game from the record books leaving many wondering what might have been. Instead, one of the game’s greats stepped away from the game with the same sense of poise and respect which defined his career without the fanfare that is so deserved. Here’s to you Ken Griffey Jr., the greatest baseball player I ever saw, and my favorite player of all-time.