Griffey's accomplishments will never be forgotten
Ken Griffey Jr. started his Hall of Fame career with the Mariners in 1989. It ended, 630 home runs later, two months into a disappointing 2010 season. But the brilliance and accomplishments from 22 years in the major leagues is preserved forever.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Ken Griffey Jr. was introduced to Seattle, way back in 1989, in bite-sized chunks of brilliance — a leaping catch here, a laser shot to the gap there, the occasional flashing smile that foreshadowed his powerful personality.
They were the first tangible hints, beyond the initial hype, that the Mariners, with the first pick of the 1987 draft, had stumbled onto something special. Something magical. Something epic — and that sense just grew stronger with each passing game. You know greatness when you see it, and the teenaged Griffey just oozed with larger-than-life abilities — and sensibilities.
Griffey was introduced to the nation, more or less, in a Sports Illustrated cover story on May 7, 1990, headlined, "The Natural." Author E.M. Swift began it like this: "You kind of want to put the whole show under glass and preserve it forever, before it changes, the way people wanted to do when Willie Mays first came up and the Say Hey Kid won everybody's heart."
That was a sweet thought, but time marches on. Griffey became great, then greater — quickly became the biggest thing in the game, a megastar, and then an icon. He left town, went home to Cincinnati, kept getting hurt, found the grass wasn't always greener. He came back to Seattle, flashed the electric smile again, bathed in the warmth and affection of a grateful fan base that had never forgotten the person who put Seattle on the baseball map.
And then, abruptly, Griffey walked away on that June day, a shocking move even though everybody could see the end coming fast. You could see it in his slowing bat and the hurt in his eyes as his commitment was questioned in a story about him napping in the clubhouse. And then he was benched, the unkindest cut of all.
The finality of his departure hit us all like a punch in the stomach. It was a reminder of our own mortality. If Ken Griffey Jr. — the joyous wunderkind, the prodigy, The Kid — could get old and frail, what did it say about the rest of us?
But once the initial shock wears off, and the gloom of his final season passes, we will be left to savor, for perpetuity, a career for the ages. No one can take that away — not the passage of time, the graying of our hair and fraying of our strength. Now Griffey will indeed be preserved under glass forever.
I asked Griffey's longtime agent, Brian Goldberg (unlike many superstars, Griffey stuck with the guy who guided him through his first contract), how he thinks Griffey views his career, now that it's over. Griffey has yet to speak publicly since he retired, though it appears he will eventually rejoin the Mariners' organization in a yet-to-be-determined role.
"I'm confident it's pure satisfaction," Goldberg said, "because in the big picture, while Junior always had confidence in his skills, he never expected to have the career he had."
The career, of course, was a marvel, his 630 home runs ranking fifth all-time, behind only the titans: Bonds, Aaron, Ruth and Mays. As his longtime teammate, and buddy, Jay Buhner put it, "There were times he played in a whole different league, at a whole different level, than the rest of us."
And yet Griffey will forever leave behind a sense of what could have been, if only. If only he hadn't played so long on the unforgiving Kingdome turf. If only he had paid more attention to conditioning early in his career. If only his body hadn't betrayed him during the final decade.
Griffey's career was definitely truncated: The glory years (438 homers by the age of 30, seemingly on an inexorable track toward Aaron) and the breakdown years (just 192 homers thereafter; no more 100-RBI seasons; a pedestrian .260 average the rest of the way, after hitting .296 up to that point).
One of the common exercises in his later years was to imagine if he had stayed healthy, extrapolate the numbers, and guess how many homers he could have hit without all those lost games — surely, somewhere in the low to mid 700s. And if he got that close, maybe he would have persevered until he got to the top — a much more palatable Home Run King than the tainted Barry Bonds.
But that's all dreams and wishful thinking. Griffey's career was what it was, and that will still send him on a Cooperstown path, a definite first-ballot choice whom we can safely assume will go in wearing a Mariners hat.
Griffey also, of course, played the bulk of his career in what is now known as the steroids era, and he has never once been connected to performance-enhancing drugs. While there are no certainties, the prevailing sense among baseball people is that he was the singular slugger to stay clean, to resist the overwhelming temptation to juice up, to forestall the ravages of time, to slow down the breakdown, to turn his body back into the physical specimen it had been in his prime.
Instead, he got older, slower, pudgier and achier, just the way nature intended.
"One thing, to his credit, I never heard him say in private, let alone in public, something to the effect of, if I hadn't gotten hurt, I'd have this many home runs, or if guys didn't juice up, I'd be here on the list," said Goldberg. "And outside of his family, I've spent as much time with him as almost anybody."
As a player, Griffey was a human highlight film. There was the succession of jaw-dropping catches he made, back in the days when it seemed as if Griffey could truly do virtually whatever he wanted on a baseball field. His first manager, Jim Lefebvre, said of Griffey's swing: "It is beautiful. There is no other way to describe it." It was 1990 when Mariners coach Rusty Kuntz declared, "If you could build the perfect player, it would be Ken Griffey Jr."
Those words were uttered barely one season into his career, and for the next decade, Griffey set about proving it. He ramped up his power to the point where it seemed he, and not Mark McGwire, would win the race to Roger Maris. In 1994, Griffey had 32 home runs on June 24, but he never seemed comfortable with the attention that a potential run at Maris brought him. He hit just eight more until Aug. 12, when the strike hit and the point became moot.
Griffey always bristled when he was called a power hitter — he considered himself a hitter, period, with power — but he dropped 56 homers in both 1997 and '98, and blasted a ball off the warehouse in Baltimore during the All-Star home run derby in 1993. His favorite home run, of course, was the one in Anaheim, the one that followed a blast by his father, Ken Griffey Sr., in September 1990, off Kirk McCaskill. Two weeks earlier, they had become the first father-son tandem to play together in major-league history, the proudest moment of both Griffeys' careers.
"I think he would feel that was the highlight of his career," Goldberg said of the father-son homers. "I know, when it happened — and I was in Anaheim that Friday night; the Angels were still in the race — that was the most excited I've ever seen a visiting crowd get.
"My memories of that night — we went to get something to eat after the game, and Junior and Senior had a friendly, made-up disagreement about whose ball went farther, and whose went out quicker."
Of course, Griffey's signature moment was his dash around the bases on Edgar Martinez's double in the 1995 playoffs, and the 1,000-watt smile he unveiled from under the pile of teammates that engulfed him. Talk about a moment to preserve under glass.
Again, however, reality: The Mariners, seemingly a team of destiny that magical season, were knocked out in the next round by the Cleveland Indians. Griffey never did reach the World Series in three playoff tries, the overriding regret of his career. In that 1995 season, he and his teammates would have to settle for being the galvanizing force behind passage of legislation to bring a new stadium to Seattle — "the House That Griffey Built," as team president Chuck Armstrong invariably calls it.
As a personality, Griffey really took off in the 1990s, proving that someone from the lonely Northwest outpost of Seattle could be nationally marketable. People ate up the backward cap and the youthful energy he exuded. He seemed to play the game with a joy that fans wanted from all their superstars, but too often got instead a surly, disinterested vibe. Not from Griffey, and when he got his own chocolate bar (which he never ate, being allergic to chocolate), a high-profile Nike ad campaign and an instant-classic rookie baseball card, Griffey became the highest profile athlete this side of Michael Jordan.
As a person, Griffey proved to be complex. In the spring of 1992, Griffey revealed to Bob Finnigan of The Seattle Times that he attempted suicide after his first pro season, swallowing 277 aspirin and having to have his stomach pumped. "I'm living proof of what a dumb thing trying to kill yourself is," he told Finnigan, saying he told the story to help other troubled youngsters. "No matter how bad it seems, work your way through it."
Griffey could be moody at times, and stubborn — it took a massive amount of persuasion to get him to participate in the Home Run Derby in Denver in 1998; he eventually relented, and won the competition. He threatened on more than one occasion to bolt from the Mariners when his contract expired (and he eventually forced a trade after the 1999 season to be closer to his family in Florida). He chafed at the lack of privacy that came with being a celebrity, and periodically felt disrespected.
Yet the other side of Griffey prevailed — the hilariously funny one who would stand at his locker and hold court, throwing out one-liners worthy of Chris Rock. The warm one who endeared himself to teammates for not letting his ego run amok. And the sensitive one who was a tireless advocate of both the Boys & Girls Club and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"From someone who has known Junior since he was 8 years old, and been his agent since he turned pro at 17, I can say he's even a better person than he was a ballplayer," Goldberg said. "For me, it's a friendship as much as a business relationship. I'm just so proud of all the things he does — not just in the community, but with the people who are fortunate enough to get to know him."
Baseball fans in Seattle were fortunate enough to get to know Griffey. It was, at times, a rocky relationship. He walked out on us in 1999, but eventually we forgave. When he came back to Safeco Field for the first time with the Reds in 2007, it turned into an unabashed lovefest, ovations for him at every turn. It can safely be said that when Griffey left town after that series, his eventual return was inevitable.
Many now wish Griffey had left after last season, when he rode off on his teammates shoulders after the final game. But life is not always neat and tidy. Nobody loved being a ballplayer — on the field and in the clubhouse — more than Griffey, who essentially spent his whole life there. He wasn't ready to give it up. Heck, he may still not be ready to give it up, deep down inside.
But eventually, the bell tolls, and all our heroes head home. What Griffey rendered during his 22 years, however, is preserved forever.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.