Ken Griffey Jr. goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. For thousands of baseball fans my age, this will be a coronation as much as a formality. After all, he seemed destined to end up in Cooperstown since the moment he stepped onto a big league diamond at age 19.
Griffey and Kirby Puckett were my two childhood heroes growing up. Puckett, of course, is no surprise due to my Minnesota roots. Griffey, really, is no surprise either, because for those of who grew up obsessed with baseball in the 1990s, it was Griffey who captured the imagination.
There was an ease to what he was doing. He made it look easy anyway. And young baseball fans ate it up.
I couldn’t get enough Ken Griffey Jr. baseball cards when I was a kid. Fortunately, one of my best friends growing up was a huge Frank Thomas fan. And we pretty frequently went to each other’s houses after a trip to the local sports cards store in town (even small towns had those in the 1990s), and I swapped Thomas cards for Griffey cards. I think I have about 70 different Griffey cards from that era. If it was printed, I found someone who would trade it to me.
What made Griffey’s national stardom unlikely is that he was rarely on the big stage, and that was in an era when there wasn’t nationally televised games on every day of the week. Griffey played in 18 postseason games in his 22-year career. That’s it. Eleven of them came in the Seattle Mariners’ memorable 1995 run to the ALCS, which included a thrilling division series defeat of the New York Yankees.
Griffey had five homers in that ALDS five-game win over the Yankees. New York might have embarked on its dynasty one year earlier if not for Griffey’s big homer in the eighth inning of Game 5. followed by his game-winning scamper around the basepaths in the 11th inning after Edgar Martinez lined a base hit that sent a packed Seattle Kingdome into a frenzy the likes of which has not been seen before or since at a Mariners game.
I went to a Mariners game in 2008 at Safeco Field. By that time, Griffey was long into his injury-plagued Cincinnati Reds career. One year later, he would return to the Mariners. I was riding the bus from Tacoma into downtown Seattle for the game and was seated next to a Mariners fan wearing team gear from head to toe. We struck up a conversation about baseball and Seattle and how Griffey had kept the two together. This fan was certain that Safeco Field would not have been built had Griffey and the Mariners not made their 1995 postseason run. To that point, I had heard that narrative repeatedly on national TV. But I always wondered if the local fanbase had the same feelings, or if that was just an all-too-easy talking point for national pundits. This guy definitely believed Griffey had saved the Mariners from moving. I’m sure he wasn’t alone.
While Griffey never played in a World Series, his big stage wound up being of the individual variety. The Home Run Derby was the Home Run Derby during Griffey’s prime. That’s when it was must-see TV. Griffey, donning the backwards hat you otherwise would only see in his commercials, would send that bat through the zone time after time, that sweet swing pounding homer after homer into the upper decks of every ballpark that hosted the Derby in the 1990s. I didn’t miss one of those Derbys. He’s still the only three-time winner.
One of the coolest baseball moments I have ever witnessed live was at Opening Day 2009 at the Metrodome, the final opener that stadium ever hosted. The Mariners were in town, and it was Griffey’s first game with the team since leaving it for the Reds after the 1999 season. His Cincy years were, unfortunately, forgettable. He only made the All-Star Game twice with the Reds, and he never played in more than 145 games. Griffey, 39, was now back with Seattle, but before he could get a warm reception again in front of Mariners fans, there was an opening series in Minneapolis. And he didn’t disappoint, launching a homer over the right-field baggie to lead off the fifth inning against Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano. I pretty much lost my mind, and I couldn’t stop talking about it during the car ride back to Fargo-Moorhead that night.
Griffey retired the following season. His 630 career homers rank sixth in baseball history. But there’s always been a “what if” with Griffey’s career. What if he hadn’t been injured all of the time? Could he be the all-time home run king? I liken Griffey’s career to Mickey Mantle’s in that way. With Griffey and the Mick, you look at their career stats and your jaw drops. And both were the idols of kids growing up during their careers. Yet, with both, you feel like there could have been so much more. Mantle really didn’t have a Mantle-type season after age 32, only playing until he was 36. Griffey’s best seasons ended even earlier than that. He hit 40 homers in his first Reds season in 2000 at age 30, and he only hit more than 30 one time after that.
But Griffey’s prime years were out of this world for a center fielder. And that’s what fans remember. How good were you when you were at your best?
Nobody was better.