As he approached career home run number 500, the coverage surrounding Ken Griffey Jr. intensified. Since arriving in Cincinnati he has been plagued with a well-documented injury bug that put his career into a deep freeze and kept him off the baseball fan’s radar. Maybe there was the occasional “What if?” and “What ever happened to?”, but as far as the prettiest swing in the game, the brightest smile with the swagger to match, and the impossible running, jumping, gravity defying centerfield show stopping, Junior was a forgotten man. So far, in 2004 he has shaken the curse of the injury, rediscovered his power stroke, and is the heart of one of the most surprising teams in all of baseball. Then he did it. Number 500.When Ken Griffey Jr. made the jump to the major leagues, he was just 19 years old and received extra attention because his father was a player too, even teaming up with his son on the Mariners. Besides his upbringing, what really excited baseball fans was the way he played the game. A smiling, fast running, swing for the fences, go all out on every play teenager, that always seemed to be having fun. He was the type of guy that can become bigger than the game he plays, capturing the imagination of die hard fans, casual observers, or anyone that wanted to see the next big thing. Comparisons to the legendary Willie Mays, who many believe to be the greatest baseball player of all-time, were completely founded in reality as preposterous as that may seem. Mays’ entertainment value was bolstered by a habit of wearing a hat too large for his head, that would fly off in the wind created by his Olympic sprints through the Polo Grounds outfield. Griffey brought the backwards cap to baseball, which might seem simplistic or silly, but it was an important statement. He was there to say that “This game is fun, and I am going to be myself when I play it.”
Think of how Lebron James is looked at now, as a can’t-miss teenage superstar who can compete with grizzled veterans already. That was Junior back in 1989. He had a decent year statistically, hitting 16 home runs and driving in 61 runs with a .264 batting average. That would be the last time he would produce numbers anything other than sensational.
Because he has not had an impact season since the year 2000, the utter dominance of Griffey has been forgotten. He suffered through an injury riddled 1995 season, but to make up for it, put together a playoff series against the New York Yankees that will never be forgotten. So, aside from that ’95 season, Griffey never hit less than .300 from 1990 through 1997. When his average dipped into the .280’s over the next two years, all he did was make up for it by hitting 56 and then 48 homers with 146 and 134 RBIs respectively. Those are wacky, unbelievable, off-the-wall, Babe Ruth numbers. And in those years when he hit .300, these are the home runs and RBIs that Griffey put together: 22 and 80, 22 and 100, 27 and 103, 45 and 109, 40 and 90 in a strike-shortened season, 49 and 140, and as the American League MVP he had 56 and 147. After being traded to his hometown Reds, in a season that was considered to be a disaster for him, Griffey still finished with 40 homers and 118 RBIs. Those are all just numbers, and as impressive as they are, they don’t come close to telling the true story of Griffey.
The Seattle Mariners were never a good team. Never! Not once were they even a .500 team before the Griffey era. Junior’s emergence as a mega-star put them on the map and kept hope in the city of Seattle alive until 1995, the year after the strike. The Angels choked their way out of making the playoffs as Seattle made its push to get there. Griffey was injured for most of the year, but he was back for the playoffs, as the Mariners headed to Yankee stadium for the first playoff series in franchise history. Without their brightest star in the lineup for much of the year, a forgotten potent offense emerged, led by Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and Tino Martinez, who all put up humungous numbers. They headed into Yankee stadium and lost both games there, though Junior supplied the power, as in star power and a different kind of power – one that comes from the smoothest, most beautifully perfect swing in existence. He hit a pair of homers in game one, and a third in a game two that is remembered for Jim Leyritz’s first big playoff moment. But Ken Griffey showed up at Yankee Stadium for the first playoff game there in 14 years, at a place where seemingly all playoff baseball has been played. He stole the spotlight right away, cementing his status as a top performer in the sports world, sort of a Michael Jordan or Joe Montana of baseball. He was someone that the non-sports fan could watch and be drawn to, because the big moment was coming.
Griffey added more homers in games 4 and 5, as Seattle never lost another game to the Yankees in that series. When he scored from first base on an Edgar Martinez double in the bottom of the eleventh inning, he was credited with bringing the disillusioned fans fed up with the strike, back to baseball. Griffey was pure joy to watch, a gifted performer in love with showing the world just how much he wanted to play this game for them.
After failing to make the postseason the next year, Seattle was back in 1997, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in a series that receives no attention. The other series in the American League at the time featured the defending World Champion Yankees losing to a feisty Cleveland Indians team with the turning point of the series being a Sandy Alomar home run off of impenetrable Yankee closer Mariano Rivera. The drama of that series dwarfed Griffey’s team facing an Oriole team that was the best in baseball that season, and should have beaten the Indians and the world champion Florida Marlins easily. Junior struggled throughout, never collecting an extra base hit while hitting an anemic .133, as the Orioles won the first two games by blowouts in Seattle, and closed the series out 3 games to one.
The Mariners team wasn’t the same happy bunch that beat the Yankees. Despite a roster that included Griffey, a young Alex Rodriguez who put together his first 40 home run season of a streak that is now at six years heading into ’04, and Randy Johnson, who was on his way to becoming one of the great dominant forces in the game, Seattle couldn’t find a way to make it to the playoffs. Johnson struggled that year and was sent off to Houston where he immediately became the fearsome mound presence that he once was and will always be remembered as. Over the next two years, Seattle would unload the other two superstars, and in the wake of their departure, won an American League record 116 games. They didn’t win a championship that year, some said because of their lack of superstars to carry them in the playoffs, i.e. Griffey and A-Rod. With his old team doing better without him there, a Junior backlash gained steam.
The smiling kid that brought happiness and excitement to the game was growing up, and souring a little bit. Suddenly it wasn’t enough that he was fun to watch and still had that amazing swing of his. The questions were asked of Griffey why he couldn’t carry a team to greater glory. He was supposed to be the center piece and carry the Reds to its first championship since the Big Red Machine. But things just weren’t working out.
Injuries, a negative public attitude towards him, whatever the case, he wasn’t the same. Griffey was no longer the breath of fresh air injecting life into a slow moving game.
Throughout the 1990’s, one of the most interesting questions asked by baseball fans was “Griffey or Bonds?” Both came from baseball families, but only one was embraced by the public. Barry Bonds’ arrogance and sense of self-importance kept the fans away while they embraced Junior for his smile. As for the better player on the field? That was hard to decide. As crazy as this may sound now, Griffey was a more devastating power hitter, while Bonds was the complete player. As Junior put together jaw-dropping highlight films with his extreme action in the outfield, Bonds was solid and spectacular at times in left field. There was a definite Mays-Aaron dynamic to the two players. Much like Hank Aaron, Bonds was consistent, but didn’t play the spotlight position of centerfield, and was not exactly embraced by the public. The debate raged on over the years. Bonds went to the playoffs with Pittsburgh as a young player, then with the Giants, but became a joke once the post season came around. Compared with what Griffey did to the Yankees, there were no memorable Barry Bonds moments.
The injuries to Griffey coincided with the second life of Barry Bonds. Whatever the reason, be it steroids, more dedication and focus, or whatever he would have you believe, Bonds launched himself into a whole new realm with his performance, beginning with 2001. After Griffey had his last good statistical year in 2000, he fell off hard with numbers that look like this: 22 and 65, 8 and 23, 13 and 26. His batting average plummeted from .286 to .264 to .247. Over those three seasons, Bonds put up Babe Ruth numbers. Actually they were superior to Babe Ruth numbers. With his rise to power and Junior’s fade, the question about which one was the better player became laughable. Griffey lost his spot as baseball’s elite.
500 home runs. That’s how many he has hit over the years. Despite falling off of the map, he’s back. His body shows no signs of the steroid plague that has ravaged the major leagues. To the common observer, Ken Griffey, despite being a world-class athlete, has the appearance of a stronger-than-your-average-man type, but not the hulking monster that Barry has turned himself into. People can identify with Griffey because of his build, and the graceful ease with which he plays. Now that Junior the grown man is swinging for the fences again, it’s time to welcome him back. Maybe he will have another chance on the big stage that is the playoffs, to reinvigorate his legend.
It’s too late for him to overtake Bonds or even his former teammate A-Rod as the best player in the game, but he can still bring fans to their televisions and local stadiums. The new Griffey is the old Griffey, striding into his trademark bat drop and strut in the same motion as his swing’s effortless follow-through. He’s more than just home runs and RBIs. He is a reason to watch Major League Baseball; a familiar player with no apparent steroid problem, and a likeable person who bottomed out and has now come back to town to see if he’s still got it. Welcome to the 500 home run club Ken Griffey Jr. It wasn’t as easy as you thought it would be, but you’ve overcome so much and now you are here. Don’t ever stop smiling again.