In July 1993, Ken Griffey Jr. was 23 years old and playing in his fifth major league season. He had already established himself as a fascinating player. His outfield defense had earned him four gold gloves and become the stuff of legend. His offensive prowess had put him in the conversation for MVP each year after his rookie season.
In July 1993, he was selected to his fourth All-Star Game and invited to participate in the Home Run Derby at Camden Yards. His hat flipped around backwards, he swung his beautiful swing and became the first—and officially only— player to ever hit a home run off the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field wall.
Ken Griffey Jr. may have been shifting from prodigy to superstar mid-season 1993, but his team was still struggling to find its way. Going into that year the Mariners had played exactly one season above .500. But things were looking up. The team hired former Yankee firebrand Lou Piniella to manage the team. He had won the 1990 World Series with Cincinnati and was intent on doing the same in Seattle. The team also underwent a full rebrand, shucking off its signature blue and yellow color scheme for navy and teal. In the early 1990s it felt fresh and new. The Mariners were ready to burst onto the MLB scene.
However, the process of rebranding a team from perennial losers into playoff contenders wasn’t as simple as changing a color scheme. After a loss in New York to the Yankees on July 19th, the team’s fourth in a row, Lou Piniella vented his frustration. He told reporters he was “sick and tired of making excuses for this team.” “It seems like we have that nice comfort level (around .500) and just can’t get through it,” Piniella continued. “When you play 162 games, you’ve got to dig deep. Sometimes this business is a matter of mind over body.”
The next day, Ken Griffey Jr. was the only Mariner to show up for the optional early batting practice at Yankee Stadium. After hitting by himself, Griffey went into Lou Piniella’s office for a short chat.
Griffey told his manager, “Skip, I’m going to have to take charge.” Then, he left and went to get ready for the second game in New York.
1: July 20th
Ken Griffey Jr., the newly self-appointed leader of the flailing Mariners, wasted no time establishing his new position. Bob Finnigan of The Seattle Times said, July 20th “may have been one of the watershed days in the notable career of one Ken Griffey Jr.”
The game didn’t begin as a testament to his leadership.
After 5 innings, the Mariners were down to the Yankees 5-0. It could have been another game that slipped away from them before they even really began to fight. Griffey led off the sixth inning, grounding out to first base. After him, Pete O’Brien reached on a single. (This was the last game of Pete O’Brien’s 11-year baseball career, as he would find out the next day) Tino Martinez flew out. With two outs, Mackey Sasser, the Mariners right fielder, hit his first (and only) home run of the season.
In the 7th Inning, the Mariners continued to pummel the hapless Yankee pitching. With the bases loaded, the Yankees brought in relief pitcher Steve Howe. Griffey had never gotten a hit off of Howe. In fact, a couple weeks earlier when the teams had faced each other in Seattle, Howe had remarked, “I own him and I owned his dad.”
Griffey swung at the first pitch Howe hurled his way for a two-RBI single.
“Revenge is one of my favorite motivations,’’ he said of the situation after the game. “I remembered what Howe said. It’s a competitive situation. I remembered.’’ (To the New York media he said, “Nah, nah, I forget stuff like that.”)
It was just the kickstart the team needed from their new leader. The batters behind him in the lineup, drove in 4 more runs to establish a nice lead.
In the eighth inning, the Yankees had Paul Gibson, another lefty in to face Griffey. Griffey, perhaps still enjoying the sweet taste of revenge, hit an upper-deck home run. The newspapers didn’t take too much notice of this home run, his 23rd of the year. It was just the icing on a 9-5 win.
2: July 21st
If you know one thing about Ken Griffey Jr., it’s that he hates the New York Yankees. The series was tied, and he wanted to win.
The Mariners jumped on Yankee ace Jimmy Key right away, scoring a run in the first inning. They gave it right in the bottom of the first on a two-error play. When Griffey led off the top of the 6th, the teams were still tied 1-1.
He had flown out twice already against Key. This time, he knocked the ball over the right field fence. Again, the newspapers little noted this home run, his 24th on the year.
The rest of the offense contributed in the late innings. Rich Amaral came through with a sacrifice fly in the 7th. Tino Martinez and Lee Tinsley both hit home runs in the 8th, and Jay Buhner capped off the game in the 9th inning, hitting a home run that also scored Griffey.
The Mariners held on for the series win.
3: July 22nd
The team moved on to Cleveland the next day. Ken Griffey Jr. got them on the board, and this time, the newspapers took notice.
“I made up my mind I was going to right,” he said to reporters after the game. “Then I got an almost perfect pitch to do it, outside. Almost too far outside, a foot outside maybe. I had to lunge to hit the ball at all.”
Hit the ball, he did. The solo shot off of Jeff Mutis sailed out to right field, tying the game at 1 apiece. It also made Griffey the fastest Mariner (96 games) to reach the 25-home run mark.
The home run inspired Dave Valle to hit a home run in the fifth inning to give the Mariners the lead. (He would hit 13 that season, his career high. He must have scared pitchers with that offense because he also led the major leagues with 17 hit-by-pitches that year.) An Omar Vizquel RBI-single put the Mariners up 3-2 and chased Mutis from the game. Relief pitcher Jerry Dipoto would come in and finish up the game for Cleveland, allowing no further Mariner offense.
Luckily, the bullpen was good for 3 innings of scoreless pitching. The Mariners had a nice little 3-game winning streak going and were back to the .500 mark.
4: July 23rd
The second game in Cleveland wasn’t nearly as fun as the first. Randy Johnson started for the Mariners, but only made it halfway through the second inning. After giving up 5 runs and walking 4 in 1.1 innings, he was replaced by Bob Ayrault. Ayrault promptly gave up a 3-run double to Carlos Martinez. (In Randy’s defense, he was the subject of trade rumors and he wasn’t very happy with the Mariners’ organization. In about a week Mariners GM Woody Woodward would trade him to the Toronto Blue Jays, but the trade would fall through when Woody missed a return call from Toronto GM Pat Gillick while out golfing.)
The Mariners offense didn’t get on the board until the 6th inning. Ken Griffey Jr. launched the first pitch he saw from Albie Lopez into center-right for a home run. It was his 4th home run in 4 games. It was the second time that season he had done that, so it was remarked upon, but no one was too excited yet.
A few batters later, Edgar Martinez hit his second home run of the season. The Mariners would score two more runs, but the Clevelands had already done their damage. The Mariners were back below .500.
5: July 24th
Rather than roll over after dipping below .500 again, the Mariners fought back the next night. After blowing a 5-run lead, the Mariners came back to snag a win. The winning run was courtesy of Rich Amaral, who drove in Dave Magadan against Cleveland reliever Dipoto.
By this time, the newspaper writers were hyped about Ken Griffey’s Jr. home runs. All season, Griffey had been insisting he wasn’t a power hitter. This, despite tying the team record with 7 home runs in April and 10 home runs in June. The slugger doth protest too much.
Lou Piniella explained Griffey’s denial by saying, “He doesn’t know how strong he is because he doesn’t think about it.”
In the top of the 5th inning, Ken Griffey Jr. faced Matt Young with one out. With a full count, he drove a pitch to deep right field. It was his 27th home run of the season, which tied his career record set the year before. It also tied a Mariners’ team record of 5 home runs in 5 consecutive games, something Richie Zisk did in 1981.
Of his streak, Griffey said, “It’s odd because I don’t usually get my homers in bunches, just five a month or so.”
He was given the home run ball, but gave it to a high school friend who was at the game that day. He did promise that he would keep the ball if he broke the Mariners’ team record. “That one’s going in the living room.”
6: July 25th
“I hit home runs in streaks, too,” Lou Piniella said, while holding court with the postgame media. “I’d hit one a month for six months.”
During the game, his star player had broken a Mariners record and suddenly found himself looking at a major league record. In the fifth inning, the Mariners were down 7-3 to Cleveland. Starting pitcher Jose Mesa was in his final inning of work when Ken Griffey Jr. took him the opposite way to deep left field.
“I didn’t think about it until I was in the dugout and Jay (Buhner) said, ‘Congratulations,’” Griffey told reporters. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run. They were pitching me away and I wanted to go (left) with it. I just wanted to hit it hard.”
Griffey was briefly the league leader in home runs. That ended in the bottom of the seventh when Albert Belle took Jeff Nelson deep to retake his lead. Still, writers were excited to crow about Griffey’s “on pace” numbers. The club record was 32 home runs in a season, held by Gorman Thomas (1985). Griffey was on pace to hit 46 and shatter that record.
The major league record was 8 home runs hit in 8 consecutive games. Don Mattingly had done it 5 years before in 1988 and Dale Long had done it in 1956. Just two more home runs in two consecutive days. And the Mariners were coming home to their home run-happy Kingdome confines.
7: July 27th
After an off day, the Mariners faced the Minnesota Twins. Fans were hyped for the return of their slugging star. Griffey tried to downplay the hype, insisting that this streak was a fluke and he wasn’t a home run hitter, all evidence to the contrary.
His dad was serving as the Mariners’ hitting coach. He was every inch the proud father when talking to reporters. “I figured he eventually would be a 30-to-40 home run a season hitter,’’ Griffey Sr. said. “It was just a matter of time.’’
On July 27th, Griffey didn’t make the 21,000 fans in attendance wait long to see him inch closer to the record. With the bases loaded, he took Kevin Tapani 441 feet to straight away center field for a grand slam.
Tapani wasn’t mad about it though. After the game he said, “Anytime a guy hits the ball out in center field, you have to tip your cap to him.”
The Mariners jumped out to a 7-0 lead, then barely eked out a 10-8 win over the Twins. But a win was a win, and Ken Griffey Jr. was one home run in one game away from a major league record.
Griffey didn’t talk to reporters after the game, slipping away before the media descended upon the clubhouse. Before the game, though, he revealed that his wife, Melissa, was pregnant with their first child.
8: July 28th
The next night, an additional 10,000 fans came out to the Kingdome as Ken Griffey Jr. went for the record. 30,000 fans waited until the 7th inning for the payoff.
Randy Johnson came roaring back after his disastrous start in Cleveland. He struck out 7 and surrendered 4 runs over 7 innings. But he left with the Mariners down 4-0. Ken Griffey Jr. did his best to spur the offense when he led off in the bottom of the 7th.
Willie Banks made the mistake of throwing Griffey an elevated fastball. Griffey drove it 404 feet off the façade of the upper deck in right field:
Holy cow, The Kid had done it.
It was Ken Griffey Jr.’s 30th home run of the season. He was only the second Mariner to ever hit that milestone (the other was Gorman Thomas, who hit 32 in 1985) and it gave him the major league lead in home runs that season.
Unsurprisingly, the game also gave the Mariners their second highest tv rating of the season (only Opening Night had done better). Unfortunately, outside of Griffey’s record-tying home run, the game was a dud, and that one run was the only run the Mariners scored.
But what a run it was. After the game, no one could stop gushing about it.
“Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, Maris,” Lou Piniella said. “Junior can do something that’s never been done before in the history of baseball.”
“The scary part is he is just getting better,” Mariners catcher Dave Valle said. Griffey Sr. agreed. “People forget he is still learning.”
“Amazed? We’re all amazed by him, every day,” Mike Felder said.
“He’s awesome,” Mike Blowers said.
“What can you say? He’s unbelievable,” Kirby Puckett of the opposing Twins said.
Banks said after the game, “They (the crowd) all came to see a home run, but I didn’t want them to. But I made a mistake and left the pitch up. The rest is history.”
Griffey let the media know he wasn’t going to talk about the streak until it ended. He was overwhelmed with the attention he was getting. Piniella assured everyone that despite the overwhelm, Griffey was just fine. “He’s handling it well, having fun.”
It was a huge moment for the Mariners. After nearly 2 decades of ineptitude, a Mariners player was in the record books for something good. And he was still only 23. Writers couldn’t help but ponder his chances of reaching the single-season record set by Roger Maris. It had stood for 3 decades. They couldn’t help but speculate, given his tender age, that he could reach the all-time record held by Henry Aaron.
Suddenly, Mariners fans could dream.
The streak ended the next night in front of 45,607 fans who filed into the Kingdome on a Thursday night in July, hoping to see history.
The Mariners beat the Twins 4-3 and Griffey went 2-for-4 with a single and a double. He would end the year with 45 home runs, one behind Juan Gonzalez of Texas and Barry Bonds of San Francisco for the major league lead.
“What the fans came out to see was the beginning of an era for this team. Ken Griffey Jr. represents this team, this city, the whole Northwest” coach Lee Elia said after the streak ended. “He’s all theirs, and they love him.”
Griffey, the leader. Griffey, the power hitter. Griffey, the heart of Seattle.
The beginning of the streak was indeed a watershed moment in his career.
That year, the Mariners pulled off only the second winning season in their history, finishing 82-80, good for 4th in the American League West.
The team was on the way up. And Seattle’s biggest star was only just beginning to shine.