PLEASE NOTE: This post has very little to do with the Phillies, but as it’s an off day, and we all have our memories of this dude who just retired, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the Pacific Northwest.
June 2nd, 2010. Ken Griffey Jr has finally reached the sunset he’s been riding into for the last ten years. And wouldn’t you know it? After a career in which there was always something grabbing just a little more headline than him, his retirement from the game in which he was so loved was second-tier news, after umpire Jim Joyce blew (and later apologized for) a call that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga his perfect game. Poor Junior.
The last time he passed through Citizens Bank Park, in June 2008 with the Cincinnati Reds, he was sitting on 599 homers. In the four game series against the Phillies, he had one hit, a double, in six at bats. No big milestone for Junior in South Philly — he got #600 the next series out in Florida.
Despite the fact it’s been over a decade since he was at the top of his game — he was at the top of the game — it’s hard to not be just a little nostalgic. Griffey is only 40 — his former teammate Jamie Moyer is seven years his senior and still takes the mound every five days for the Phillies — but his retirement has been long coming. Many fans, not least the popular blog ussmariner.org, were surprised the Mariners brought him back for the 2010 season. His return to Seattle last year was triumphant insofar as it brought fans back to the stadium the Mariners built for him, as the team struggled out of the basement they occupied the year before. He only hit .214, but he did collect 19 homeruns. When his teammates carried him off the field after the final game of the 2009 season, it seemed like the end of an era.
That era dragged into this year as Jack Zduriencik assembled what on paper looked like a drastically improved Mariners team. Big score Chone Figgins? He’s batting .218 with 47 strikeouts in 188 at-bats. Cliff Lee has been as good as expected — he’s 3-2 with a 2.91 ERA and 0.95 WHIP — but he’s only pitched in seven games after an injury, and no one expects him to be with the M’s by the trade deadline, let alone next year. Milton Bradley? Well, he’s definitely Milton Bradley. Ken Griffey Jr, meanwhile, watched his playing time diminish as, after 105 plate appearances, he’d amassed a .184 average with 0 homeruns and 7 RBIs. In the game against the Rays in which Bradley went bonkers after being pulled following a bases loaded strikeout, Griffey followed Bradley’s with his own strikeout, this one ending the inning. And of course there was the alleged clubhouse sleeping incident, which Griffey and manager Don Wakamatsu denied happened.
But with over 100 games left in the season, Mariners fans — baseball fans — can overlook a sour ending to a brilliant, if unfulfilled, career. There is no asterisk to be held next to Griffey’s name or his stats. His name has never been associated with any of the steroid nonsense, while his longtime teammate A-Rod and longtime pal Barry Bonds are the poster children of it. And his body’s conditioning is sort of a testament to that. He never cared enough to bulk up, and that he didn’t keep himself in top shape left him prone to the injuries that plagued the second half of his career.
You have to feel bad for The Kid. In 2000, he passed up big time free agent money to play for his hometown Cincinnati Reds, and in nine seasons there, he only came occasionally close to the bar he’d set for himself in the 90s. All his injuries cost him a bona fide run at Hank Aaron’s mark, and the Reds never came close to making the playoffs. After an unceremonious trade from the Reds, Griffey piggybacked into the White Sox’ 2008 postseason, where they were disposed of by the Rays on their way to the World Series.
He never got to play in any World Series, but for one magical postseason run, he saved baseball in Seattle and painted the portrait that he’ll always be remembered by. After the lockout cut the 1994 season — and his first run at 61 HR — short, fans were slow to warm back up to baseball. Griffey made one of his more spectacular highlight catches in May 1995, but in doing so broke his wrist and shortened his season. He came back in late summer to nail a walk-off HR off of Yankees closer John Wetteland, then finished the Yankees off in Game 5 of the ALDS when he slid across home with the defining moment in Mariners history, the result of Edgar Martinez’ game winning hit — The Double or The Slide, depending on who you’re a bigger fan of.
Needless to say, in spite of the so-called greatest designated hitter of all-time’s clutch hit, more Seattle fans remember The Slide. Junior was a wee more popular than Edgar, and than any other Seattle Mariner ever, and one could say, than anyone who’s ever played baseball. He’s the all time leading All Star vote getter, including 1996’s game at The Vet, where he got over 500,000 more votes than the next player.
His popularity was no accident, either. A thoroughbred right out the gate — he was the #1 overall draft pick in 1987 — Junior had a head start on what to expect thanks to his dad Ken Griffey Sr, a three time all star who made his mark with the Big Red Machine. At the end of his career, he joined his son in Seattle to become the first father-son team to play at the same time, the first to play on the same team, and the first to hit back-to-back homeruns (in 1991, against the California Angels).
630 homeruns. 1,836 RBI. 13 All Star games, 3 Homerun Derby championships (including the one that bounced off the warehouse at Camden Yards, still the only ball ever hit off that building). 10 Gold Gloves. 4 homerun crowns. 1 MVP. Junior’s numbers are by themselves enough to book his ticket to Cooperstown, but it’s his personality that he’ll ride there. On top of his power, speed and acrobatics, he always just seemed to be having fun. He loved baseball, and the fans loved him.
The Nintendo games (he had four). The “Next Generation” poster with his dad. The appearances on The Simpsons and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (and Harry and the Hendersons). The Nike Air Griffey Max. The chocolate bar. The rap song with Seattle’s Kid Sensation (who was down with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s posse on Broadway). The covers of Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. The Upper Deck rookie card.
Like a lot of people my age, to me Ken Griffey Jr was the bridge between the innocence of childhood and unpleasantries of the real world after it. Hard to believe it’s been 21 years since this exciting 19 year old burst into the Majors. Hard to believe it’s been 21 years since I was a 12 year old throwing heat for our Little League Fucking Champions team in Tyrone, PA. I might have worked on developing a curve or a slider as I moved into junior high levels of baseball — if I hadn’t become so infatuated with playing centerfield thanks to some masher kid playing up in the corner of the country.
Thanks for the memories, Junior.
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