Ken Griffey Jr. retired this week. He was the best all around baseball player I ever saw. Here is a reflection.
Actions speak louder than words. Ken Griffey Jr., the greatest baseball player of my lifetime, retired earlier this week. This man said little. He was the athlete who let his bat and glove speak for him. When the news broke, Griffey was nowhere to be found. There really was nothing left to say—his play on the diamond throughout his twenty-two year major league career spoke volumes about the man and the game he played. He, more than any star of his era, played the game with a child-like enthusiasm. His career ran full circle—full of unparalleled heights and unimaginable lows. It was a remarkable ride and one which left all fans hoping to see more. Now it has come to an end. One can only hope that fans appreciate the joy Junior brought to the game as much as they respect and marvel at his athletic performance.
It was fitting that Griffey played baseball in the 1990s. He helped define the era. The laid back, cool approach marked that decade. Casual Fridays became a part of the business cycle. Bill Clinton, the president from 1993-2001, famously wore jeans and shorts to work in the oval office. Will Smith brought that casual demeanor to Hollywood. Smith got his start on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and transitioned from television fame to international movie stardom. Junior brought that Will Smith approach to baseball. He wore his hat backwards. He had a cool demeanor. He possessed a quiet confidence. He knew he was good. He knew that others recognized his talent. Why stress, why get uptight about anything? He was young and invincible. Things always went his way. A relaxed Griffey brought that laid back approach to the game.
He also brought a youthful exuberance to the sport. Fans recognized his enthusiasm from the start. Griffey was fearless in center field. He tracked down everything imaginable. He ran into walls. He dove into the outfield grass. He caught balls over the shoulder—just like football players do and the same way that Willie Mays famously did in the 1954 World Series. He climbed walls and took home runs away from others—notably Jesse Barfield at Yankee Stadium. He glided through the outfield grass— playing the position the way Joe DiMaggio did. But he also had his own style. Whereas the Yankee Clipper was notorious for displaying no emotion, Griffey accompanied every great defensive play with a big grin. The smile seemed to ask fans: Did I just do that? That body language— noted for its sheepish shrug and flashy smile— and that passion made Griffey a fan favorite.
Griffey also had attitude. Much of that came from the way he hit the baseball. He possessed the sweetest swing in the game; he had effortless power. The ball flew off his bat. During his first eleven seasons, Griffey hit 398 homers and collected 1,152 RBIs. He led the American League in long balls four times (1994, 1997, 1998, 1999) and won the league MVP in 1997. That offensive power made him a baseball star. It brought attention to Griffey, and to the Mariners.
Seattle was, and is, on the outskirts of Major League Baseball. Situated deep in the Northwest, the team was an after thought to most baseball fans. They played on the west coast—meaning home games started at 10pm on the east coast. They were a new team—coming into the league in 1977 as an expansion team. They lacked noteworthy players. They never advanced to the playoffs. In short, they were an after thought.
Junior made people pay attention to the Mariners. In fact, he made the Mariners must see television. His attitude and good cheer reverberated throughout the league and helped baseball’s resurgent popularity in the late 1990s. He helped craft a team, and a city’s identity.
They became nearly as popular (to baseball fans at least) as the city’s trademark product—Starbucks Coffee (was to the general public). They were young, they played exciting baseball, and they accumulated a lot of talent around them. Hard throwing lefty Randy Johnson became their ace. Edgar Martinez developed into the best designated hitter in the game. Jay Buhner played a solid right field and had some pop in his bat. In 1995, a 19 year old Alex Rodriguez joined the team. That summer, the Mariners became a contender. They won the AL West that year for the first time. In the divisional round, they knocked out the Yankees in 5 games. Junior scored the winning run in that deciding game.
Seattle had a winner at last. The city decided to move the team out of the ghastly King Dome, as depressing a venue as there was in the game, into a new, state of the art stadium. Safeco Field is the house Junior built. During the years of stadium planning and construction, Griffey continued going about his business. He was the best player in the game in the late 1990s. He hit 56 homers in 1997 and 1998. In 1999, MLB named him to the All Century Team. At 29, Griffey entered baseball middle age at the top of his powers. Many figured that he would break Hank Aaron’s home run record. That winter, Griffey got a wake up call and had to decide where he wanted to spend the rest of his career. Would he re-up with the Mariners? The team offered him an astronomical $148 million dollar contract. Or would he follow his heart back home?
October 1999 changed Griffey’s perspective. His Orlando neighbor, the golfer Payne Stewart, died in an airplane crash. Griffey began thinking about how precious life is, how he wanted to raise his kids, and how he wanted to return home.
Mariners’ management got a call that winter and heard their star wanted to return to his boyhood hometown of Cincinnati. Junior left millions on the table in the process of orchestrating a trade to the Reds. The Kid left his professional hometown for his child hood home.
On February 11, 2000, with his dad (the Reds bench coach) beside him, Griffey joined the Cincinnati baseball family. Baseball insiders extolled this feel good story and began preparations for the celebration, later on in the decade, when Griffey would surpass Hank Aaron’s record.
It didn’t happen that way. Griffey’s play began slipping that year. He still hit 40 home runs but his OPS number slipped to its lowest number in five years—down to mere star like status of .943. His precipitous decline began the next season. Injuries hampered him for four straight years. A torn hamstring crippled him in 2001, a torn knee tendon and a hamstring hampered him in 2002, a dislocated shoulder and a torn knee tendon set him back in 2003, and two hamstring tears shut him down in 2004. It seemed like Griffey spent as much time on the DL as he did on the field.
These injuries took their toll. Junior lost bat speed. The ball stopped flying off his bat the way it once did. By 2003, it became apparent that the odds of breaking Aaron’s record were great indeed. He hit his 500th home run the next season but it was a muted affair—in large part because injuries that year took him out of action for the rest of the summer and people began recognizing that Griffey would not reach Aaron’s record.
Through it all, Griffey kept a brave face. His smile still appeared. His enthusiasm continued on. If anything, he seemed embarrassed that his body wouldn’t allow him to live up to his contract. The great come home story didn’t go as planned.
By 2008, the end was near. That spring, Griffey hit his 600th home run in Florida. This mile stone turned out to be his last highlight as a Red. Later that summer, the team traded him to the White Sox. Looking out of place and out of form, Griffey went through the motions. He showed up every day—but he was a shell of his former self. Many assumed he would retire after his contract ended that year.
That winter, the White Sox declined to pick up Griffey’s option. The slugger received a buyout from the team. Weeks later, he also received a phone call from the Mariners. Seattle wanted their hero back; Griffey was more than happy to oblige.
Near the twilight of the career, Junior came back to his Seattle roots.
2009-2010 turned into a grand farewell for Junior. The fearless young star had turned into a hobbled old veteran. But he still provided some thrills for a new generation of Mariner fans.
He hit the 5,000th team home run off the Padres last June. He homered off Andy Pettitte at the new Yankee Stadium in July—marking the 44th park Griffey had homered in. 5 weeks later, Griffey captured a game winning hit against the White Sox.
On May 20th, 2010, Griffey came up against the Blue Jays in the 10th inning. The winning run stood in scoring position. Junior knocked a single off closer Kevin Gregg to win the game. It turned out to be his last hit.
And now, it is all over. The man who made baseball cool in the 1990s decided to hang it up. Junior was baseball—the game’s pivotal player for twelve years and an elder statesman the last decade. He made the game cool. He played with fire, with passion, and most importantly, with joy. His smile lit up a room. Ernie Banks famously said: “It’s a great day…let’s play two.” Ken Griffey Jr. made fans believe that mantra. He held fans captive. American eyes focused on him whenever he entered the batter’s box. He was must see tv and always made sure fans got plenty of thrills after watching the Mariners play. But, what I’ll remember at the end of the day was that smile. It revealed his love for the game. That toothy grin told it all.