Ken Griffey Jr. joins the 600 club
It was a rainbow — the kind one of the sweetest swings in baseball has produced so many times — a high-lofting shot that landed...
MIAMI — It was a rainbow — the kind one of the sweetest swings in baseball has produced so many times — a high-lofting shot that landed in the right-field seats and into history.
Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 600th home run Monday with a blast off Florida Marlins left-hander Mark Hendrickson, becoming the sixth player in major-league history to reach the milestone.
Griffey's 600th home run, a two-run shot, came on a 3-1 pitch in the first inning. There was no doubt from the second he made contact. Estimated distance: 413 feet.
The ball landed about a dozen rows into the right-field seats. It was the second home run Griffey has hit off Hendrickson, who is one of 383 pitchers to allow a Griffey home run.
"I don't think I touched any of the bases. I sort of floated around," Griffey said.
Reds manager Dusty Baker has managed the last three players to achieve the milestone: Barry Bonds in San Francisco, Sammy Sosa in Chicago and Griffey. He was there for Bonds' 600th, on Aug. 9, 2002.
"It's awesome every time you see a milestone like that," Baker said. "It doesn't take away from the others. It adds to it."
Even Hendrickson, the pitcher who gave up the homer, was in awe.
"I grew up watching him. I know what he did for baseball in Seattle," said Hendrickson, who grew up in Mount Vernon. "It's just one of those things where I'm going to pitch to these guys and don't back down from it."
The scoreboards recognized Griffey's achievement as umpires delayed restarting the game and the crowd of 16,003 gave him a standing ovation. Griffey eventually came out for a curtain call.
His wife, Melissa, and three children were at the game. His father, Ken Sr., also was there. Junior, as the younger Griffey was known, was a clubhouse fixture alongside his father, a member of the famed Big Red Machine of the 1970s.
"It's emotional to see the kid I saw running around with my sons in the clubhouse in Cincinnati hit his 600th home run," said Tony Perez, a player on those teams who now is a Marlins executive. "I'm sorry it came against us ... but it's emotional and it brings back a lot of memories."
Griffey needs nine home runs to tie Sosa for fifth in career home runs, and 60 to match Willie Mays.
Controversy ensued in the stands following the home run. Justin Kimball, a 25-year-old from Miami, said he caught the ball, put it in a wool cap and then had the cap ripped from his hands. Kimball said someone ran off with the ball.
However, the Marlins announced Major League Baseball had authenticated the home-run ball for a middle-aged male fan who would only give his first name as Joe.
Griffey ended the game 1 for 4 with a strikeout and an intentional walk. He exited in the middle of the eighth.
"I've been swinging the bat a lot better the last 10 days or so," Griffey said. "I was able to get the ball in the air. I wasn't beating the ball into the ground like I had been."
The ultimate import of Griffey's feat will be determined by historians, but it is significant given that it was accomplished in what is now regarded as baseball's Steroid Era.
The two players who immediately preceded Griffey into the 600 club — Bonds and Sosa — are under clouds because of admitted or suspected steroid use.
The three other members of the club would have a place on baseball's Mount Rushmore, if such a monument existed — Babe Ruth, Mays and Hank Aaron.
"There's so much difference in what he accomplished and what he will continue to accomplish than what Barry Bonds did," said Reds radio man Marty Brennaman.
"Barry Bonds will forever be tainted, long after he's gone. I don't think people truly cared that he hit 756 home runs.
"I think baseball fans will look at what Junior did and be quick to point out that he did it the right way, as opposed to some other guys who didn't."
In a video tribute that was produced by the Reds, Aaron passed along his congratulations to Griffey.
"Congratulations on hitting your 600th home run," Aaron said. "... You know you've always been a favorite of mine.
"I played with your dad, I know him very well, but you know I've always said that if anybody was going to reach 700 ... I thought you had an excellent chance. Of course we can't, we don't know how injuries played a very big part, but congratulations to reaching 600."
Griffey's place in baseball's Hall of Fame is secure; his stature among baseball's legends is still growing.
He will be seen "as a guy who accomplished things honestly," said Kevin Grace, author, teacher and archivist at the University of Cincinnati, "and will probably be compared to Aaron."
At one time in his career, Griffey was expected to challenge the previous record of 755 home runs, which was held by Aaron until Bonds broke it in August 2007.
Griffey, now 38, had 398 career home runs at age 30, when he was traded to the Reds after the 1999 season, following 11 seasons with the Mariners.
In his first season as a Reds, Griffey hit 40 home runs. However, a series of serious injuries limited his playing time in the ensuing seasons. Among Griffey's ailments were a torn tendon in his right knee and torn right hamstring in 2002, an ankle injury that required surgery in 2003, and a torn right hamstring in 2004.
During those years he hit 41 home runs.
Since then, Griffey's enjoyed better health, likely helped by a move to right field before the 2007 season, when he played in 144 games — his most since 2000 — and hit 30 home runs and 93 RBI.
The December 2007 release of baseball's Mitchell Report, which detailed the alleged pervasive use of performance-enhancing drug use in the sport, only heightened Griffey's stature.
Of the top 10 players of his era on baseball's all-time home run list, Griffey was the only one not mentioned in the report.
The Reds have an option to bring Griffey back next season for $16.5 million. It is not clear what the club's plans are, or whether Griffey will retire as a Red.
In the days leading up to 600, Griffey generally avoided talking about the milestone, but during a trip in Philadelphia earlier this month he reflected on the impending achievement.
"It's just weird. It's overwhelming at some points. Embarrassing. I would have never dreamed I'd be in this position," he said.
"My dad was the guy I wanted to be like. If you look at his career — he had a pretty good career — that's the guy who looked like me, acted like me, took care of me. I didn't think I'd be better than him. He said I would be. I was like, 'yeah, right.' I was 14 when he said it. Sometimes Dad does know best."
Information from The Cincinnati Enquirer, McClatchy Newspapers, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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