As I sat staring at the empty space where I was going to write this post I struggled to think of how I wanted to present the topic. What of interest is left to be said about Ken Griffey Jr? Every sportswriter/blogger/content creator with any connection to Seattle and/or the 90's has said their piece. I've done it. Today Tim Booth of the AP did it. A few months ago Michael Baumann did it exceptionally well. Many, many others have done it.
We live in an age that is better at tearing down heroes than perhaps anytime previous. Did you go to a club the night before a big game? We see you. Did you lose your patience with someone on Twitter, or use your smartphone during a baseball game? We see you.
The social media age has given us the tools to feel more connected to great athletes than at anytime since perhaps when we paid them so little they had to get offseason work in town to pay the bills. As a byproduct we've decided that the search for, discovery, and mass broadcast of those athlete's fallibility is the kind of currency we build lives and careers around. In this reality there is some right, some wrong, some cynicism, profit, and greed. In short, it's life, like everything else. The gilded age of sports heroes is, for better or worse, gone.
Ken Griffey Jr.'s career wasn't formed in our modern times of course. If you were a kid in, say, Nebraska in 1994 you learned about Junior through the narration of Mel Allen and the Nike commercials that split your episode of Real World. But his playing years lasted well into the First Age of Twitter, and his second departure from Seattle was at least as messy and conflicted as his first.
Yet, here we sit, on the brink of coronation. Ken Griffey Jr. is going to be the first player to go into the hall of fame as a Mariner. He has a legitimate chance of getting the highest percentage of the vote ever and there's a small but real possibility he will do what most have said is impossible: Unite the fractured sensibilities of the BBWAA and become baseball's first unanimous hall of famer.
How did we get here? Griffey's importance to Seattle, as an entire region's entry point into a love of baseball cannot be oversold. But how did he resonate so far outside the northwest and span a globe, to the point where a small man from Japan idolized him and came damn close to becoming his country's own Griffey?
The truth is there's plenty left to say about Ken Griffey Jr. The Seattle sportswriters of the 90's all have stories of numerous conflicts, petty squabbles, rivalries, and other real life blemishes from Griffey's first, inimitable stay in our city. In an era where athletes literally killed themselves attempting to reach the level of greatness he existed in, a disinterest in nutrition and exercise were at least partially to blame for a woefully disappointing second half of a career. You can make a decent argument that Griffey was not only not the best player or hitter in Mariner history he wasn't even even the best hitter or player on the team at the time he played.
We can say all those things and a lot more. But, for some reason, we choose not to. Like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle before him with Junior we are comfortable making him the amalgamation of our best memories, of our ideal Griffey. He's not the overweight DH, or malcontent superstar. He's The Swing, The Hat, The Smile, The Leap, The Slide, etc. Every peer of Griffey and every athlete since has been weighed with different scales than Junior's. For some reason, somehow, our hearts just can't do anything but love him. Baumann said it well when it he said the whole thing "....just looks like a miracle."
Is this unbalanced measuring system unfair? Do we treat Junior too kindly and others too harshly? I think absolutely. But there is a point, at least in something so silly as sports, in our quest for justice and equity when we have to acknowledge our own fallibility and allow that there is no denying that something is, even if perhaps it's not quite as it should be.
As baseball statistical research almost fully maps its own globe we are stuck acknowledging hard truths about things we took for granted as younger people. RBI is a bad stat. Pitcher wins are laughable. Sacrifice bunts are, in fact, not a sign of one's willingness to be a team player but rather a poor tactical play from your ignorant manager. To age is to constantly recognize that almost all knowledge has an expiration date.
The beauty of it all is there's no end point to it. We will always have more to learn, and the open mind will never be wanting for its daily bread. Stats don't make Ken Griffey Jr. the god that so many of us remember him as, and for once the vast majority of the modern age hasn't felt the need to remind us of that fact incessantly. In fact, the consensus across all age groups, genders, races, creeds, statistical knowledge and preference seem near universal: Ken Griffey Jr. was a hall of fame baseball player.
Perhaps someday we'll accurately quantify the part of the human brain that manages cognitive dissonance. For now and probably at least until then Ken Griffey Jr. is my and many others great sports hero. The why is a mystery. And I'm pretty ok with that.