Originally published on August 10, 2013. Republished here because Ken Griffey Jr. is now in the Hall of Fame with the highest vote total ever.
I click. I watch. I drag the cursor to "replay video". I click. I watch. I drag the cursor to "replay video". I click. I watch...
Do you know what you're best at? I don't. I've spent 31 years of life trying to figure it out and still don't know. I imagine I may never find out. Even if I did somehow unearth my raison d'etre there's a very good chance I would discover it's one commonly found among the species. I don't say that to damn myself to mediocrity, merely to acknowledge that I'm pretty sure my contributions in this world are going to be on a similar level than 99% of the rest of humanity. Outliers are outliers because they exist at the outer edges of the human spectrum. They are capable of the rarest achievements and of the most spectacular atrocities.
Ken Griffey Jr. is an outlier. Of that I am certain. It strays too far into ineffable concepts like "destiny" and "purpose" to say he was made to be a baseball player. However a brief exposure to his skill was all it took to know that he possessed "something" that made him stand out even among professional athletes. His talent was something not seen in Seattle sports before or since.
As I fall in the middle of the sweet spot for Griffey love (male baseball fan, formative years during the 90's) writing about Griffey dispassionately is an impossibility. 90% of my strongest memories about sports are mentally catalogued "#Griffey". So keep that caveat in mind when I say things that feel hyperbolic. Griffey lends himself to exaggeration and myth. I don't think it stretches reality too far to say that Ken Griffey was to Seattle what Babe Ruth was to New York in the 1920's. Consider:
- When Griffey debuted with the Mariners in 1989 the franchise's career home run leader was Alvin Davis at 110. Griffey hit #111 on July 21, 1993 at the age of 23.
- As a Mariner Griffey hit 40+ home runs 7 times (93-94, 96-99). Every other player in the franchise's history has combined for 6 such seasons.
- He racked up the franchise's first 5, 6, 7, and 8+ WAR seasons for a position player.
- He has 3 of the top 4 and 5 of the top 7 all time franchise marks in SLG%.
- At a time when we were all too starved for data and way too dumb to look for it Griffey won 10 consecutive gold glove awards. He did so in centerfield, probably the 3rd most difficult position to play defensively.
- He did this:
- And this:
- And this, and this, and this, and this. (etc.)
Writing about my love affair with baseball is hard to do because it is beyond cliche. I have no memory of my childhood where I was not passionately infatuated with the game of baseball. One of my dad's favorite stories is to recall how I would grab a toy truck and hit balloons he would throw to my 1 year old self. I would watch the entirety of any baseball game, at any time from the age of 2. My love of this game is a perfect cocktail of timing, genetics, and exposure. But it wasn't until the age of 9 that the concept of being a fan was known to me.
On May 21, 1989 I went with my dad to the Kingdome. We didn't have a whole lot when I was young and, growing up a ferry ride from Seattle I had only been to one or two Mariners' games. This being the era before cable and limited exposure I really only knew the Mariners as the nearest baseball team and that they mostly lost. My dad and I settled into our seats somewhere in the double letter portion of the right field quadrant of the 300 level. I may have had a King Dog. I remember it tasting like what I imagine the proverbial ashes of my ill gotten gains would taste like, as it is written.
Through 8 1/2 innings the Mariners had fallen behind the Yankees 6-0 and already given me a honest and no frills presentation of what rooting for them would largely entail. The crowd of 35+ thousand had largely left. But this being baseball and me being me I was adamant that we stay. My father, being beyond patient agreed. Scott Bradley led off the inning with a single and that brought up Ken Griffey, already at 19 and only 43 games into his career batting 3rd in the big leagues.
I can still see Clay Parker's stretch, longer than normal pause and delivery. Griffey hit one of those screaming liners to left center with that easy power that so many of his contemporaries attempted to replicate through chemistry and lies.
None other than Rickey Henderson went back to try and track it down. He lept and crashed. Somehow the baseball transmogrified itself from the wall towards the left field line. The few fans left in the stadium rose with the anticipation that comes from knowing something unusual is happening. My father's hand grabbed my shoulder as I looked back towards the infield.
Ken Griffey Jr's speed was not "quick" speed. He was too big at 6' 3" and 200+ pounds to have that kind of scatback like zero to sixty speed of, say, Tim Raines. But once he had reached stride he ran with the effortless gallop of a triple crown thouroughbred. The most famous instance, of course, is rounding 3rd on The Double, his running form as perfect as his swing. But on this day in 1989 I swear he ran faster than he ever ran prior or after. As the Yankees defense desperately tried to corral the wandering ball Griffey rounded 2nd base, hitting the bag perfectly with his right leg because, hey, The Kid. He loped like the Usain Bolt of an earlier age, at this point almost lapping poor Scott Bradly. The 3rd base coach hesitated, gave Griffey the pinwheel and I saw him visibly buck and rear for the home stretch. Somehow he increased the ferocity of his running without ever losing an ounce of his grace. He slid home but didn't have to.
Inside-the-park homerun. I was branded that day a fan for life.
Originally I wanted this piece to serve as a honest examination of Ken Griffey as a whole. The intention was to acknowledge that while yes, he is the idol of my childhood he left the team on less than perfect circumstances not once but twice. He was famously difficult at times with the Seattle press throughout the last half of the 90's. In some ways his days in Cincinnati cemented him as the modern day Mickey Mantle, a player who accomplished so much but still managed to fall short of expectation. The Ken Griffey of 2010 left a cigarette burn on the valentine his talent had written us through his first go around as a Mariner. The passing of time tolls on us all.
But I couldn't write that. I've never wanted to write about anything that wasn't authentic and the truth is, for me, the Griffey of the 90's is the alpha and omega of my great sports heroes.
My brain watches my heart blot away all the inconvenient dark parts of the story and chooses not to care. He is the only athlete who's image has survived my world opening to reality without being subject to criticism and cynicism. That probably says more about me than Ken Griffey. But it still says a hell of a lot about him.
The old time religion lives.