Ken Griffey Jr made everything on the baseball diamond look easy, and he did it all with style. The smile, the swing, the speed, and the backwards hat all combined together to present one of the best baseball players of his era. He made the gravity defying plays by climbing the outfield wall to rob a batter of a home run, and he also reeled in fly balls over his head á la the Willie Mays basket catch.
He described himself as a line drive hitter who occasionally hit home runs. Obviously, Ken Griffey Jr hit more than the occasional home run. He is sixth on the all-time home run list with 630. Other than Junior downplaying his power at the plate, his line drive statement pinpoints the fact that his frame wasn’t exactly the blueprint of the typical home run slugger. The perfect baseball swing delivered the power. No baseball player’s swing featured the type of follow through that Junior’s displayed. It really was poetry in motion, to use a cliché. With that swing, he was able produce enough power to hit opposite field home runs that defied the normal laws of human anatomy.
Out of all the home runs and the wall crashing or Spider-Man climbing catches, the baseball play I tab as my favorite not only showcased his base running ability, but another Mariner great, Edgar Martinez. Of course, the referenced play was the 1995 Edgar Martinez double against the New York Yankees in the playoffs, which allowed Junior to score from first base. I watched this play alone at my college apartment on University Boulevard, because my friends at the time who cared about baseball were busy. Honestly, it was probably better that no one was around. As soon as Edgar hit the ball, I started yelling, “Run Junior. Dig…Dig…Dig” He rounded third base at top speed. The camera focused on the throw, which left me guessing as to how far Junior was from home plate. (Curse them and their drama.) When the camera focused back to Junior, it was obvious the throw was not going to get there in time. Safe! The celebration featured your’s truly screaming and running around like a person on fire who didn’t know how to get help. I am still surprised no one knocked on my door to let me know their displeasure of someone yelling like a madman; especially, yelling over a baseball game. The unthinkable had happened, though. The Mariners won a playoff series and were moving on to face the Cleveland Indians, one step away from the World Series. (Of course, they lost to Cleveland, but that does not damper the Martinez double.)
People who say that Ken Griffey Jr saved baseball in Seattle are not exaggerating. Yes, this accolade should probably also include Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, and the rest of the 1995 team, but even the less astute team owner can deduce that Junior’s presence on the team nudges the bottom line a little more in the right direction, even if the team doesn’t win many baseball games, and the Mariners don’t normally win many games. Before 1995, the Mariners had never made it to the playoffs. In fact, from 1977-1995, only three seasons yielded winning records: 1991 (83W-79L), 1993 (82W-80L), and 1995 (79-66). The location of the franchise was cemented that year.
Borrowing a line from Dawes’ song, All your favorite bands stay together, wouldn’t things in the sports realm work out so much better if all our favorite teams stayed together? Inevitably, Junior’s attitude regarding Seattle soured. There were rumors that he wasn’t happy about the pitcher-friendly field dimensions of Safeco Field. Plus, the Mariners found themselves in a bind with two superstars to accommodate as Alex Rodriguez was just starting to show the world what he could do on the baseball field. By the time 1999 rolled around, Junior was approaching 30, while Alex was 23, so it was no surprise that the team focused on re-signing the younger player, and Junior made it clear that he wanted to leave for Cincinnati. Unfortunately, my favorite team split apart, Randy Johnson was already gone, and Junior took less money than the Mariners offered to join his favorite boyhood team, the Cincinnati Reds, proving once again that change usually brings sadness.
Unfortunately for the Reds, Ken Griffey Jr’s best years were behind him as he was plagued with injuries in the 2000’s. As a Mariners fan, I don’t even feel vindicated that my team got the best years of Griffey’s career. The reality that he forced the Mariners hand as he would only accept a trade to Cincinnati doesn’t bring up any hurt feelings, either. I genuinely wanted him to succeed in Cincinnati so watching him suffer injury after injury was tough. He played briefly for the Chicago White Sox before finally rejoining his first team to finish his career.
There was no doubt that Junior would make the Hall of Fame. The question on my mind was would he go in as a Mariner. Randy Johnson, another one of my favorites, went into the Hall of Fame as a
traitor Diamondback, which is a topic for another post. Here is the answer from Junior’s acceptance speech.
“Out of my 22 years, I’ve learned that only one team will treat you the best, and that’s your first team. I’m damn proud to be a Seattle Mariner.”
Nothing ever seems good enough for human beings. We always want more, so even Hall of Fame careers are subject to “What if” scenarios. What if Ken Griffey Jr didn’t get injured after he left Seattle? What kind of numbers would he have put up? Could he have threatened Barry Bonds’ all-time home run total? Forget all of that. Celebrate The Kid for what he did accomplish. He brought joy to the fans of a historically bad franchise by playing baseball at the highest level with style.