I don’t recall the first time I heard of him, and I don’t recall when I decided that he was going to be my favorite player growing up; hell I don’t even remember much of anything from the first time I saw him play. But I’m fairly sure that my cognizant awareness of baseball coincided with that of Ken Griffey, Jr. The Royals were terrible and had no players I could grasp on to, aside from maybe Jeff Montgomery or Bob Hamelin. So Junior became my idol.
I did the things all other kids my age did. Even if we were right-handed, we had Griffey’s gorgeous left-handed swing down pat. That classic bat wiggle, the smooth stroke through the zone, and of course the one-handed finish with the left hand raised high in the air. I collected every card, pored over the box scores every morning before school to see how Griffey did the previous night, and donned his number 24 throughout my own playing career in elementary and middle school.
None of this is special; there were millions of other kids just like me who did the exact same thing. But that’s exactly what made Junior so special. For every curmudgeon who griped about his backwards hat, there were a million kids emulating his style. For every home run he hit, a million more would be brought to their feet, cheering at the television set. For every gravity-defying catch that he made, still a million more would marvel at that smile of his and try to bring that joy to their own games.
I think my favorite highlight of his comes from Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, when the Mariners were playing the Yankees. Down by 1 in the bottom of the 11th, Griffey strode to the plate with Alex Cora on 1st base. Having already homered earlier in the game, I’m sure all Mariners fans had their hearts set on a walk-off. But Junior singled, which set the stage for Edgar Martinez. Brent Musberger’s call here gives me chills:
Have you ever seen anyone happier to be at the bottom of a dogpile? Scoring from 1st on a double to win a playoff series is the dream of a lot of ballplayers, purely because of the adrenaline rush; running 270 feet in a circle in an effort to score a game-winning run gets you on your PF Flyers, and nothing could have felt more satisfying for him than sliding safely into home.
I did see him hit a home run once, and contrary to what many of you might guess, no, it was not against the Royals. It was against South Korea in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. The only highlight of this that I can find is actually in Korean:
Griffey and most of the crowd seemed to know it off the bat, despite the ball only carrying into the first row of seats. I remember kicking myself afterwards because I had the thought of going from our seats along the first base line to those in right field, just in case he hits one, but I decided against it.
Throughout the mid-2000s I was constantly defending Junior when he sustained a barrage of injuries (I think the best line I heard was from a friend of mine’s dad, who said, “Griffey was born with a pulled hamstring”). But no matter how prolonged his struggles were, no matter how long he was on the DL, he never stopped being, in my eyes, the greatest player to ever set foot on a ballfield.
That World Baseball Classic game I mentioned? That was during spring break of my senior year in high school. While just about everyone in my graduating class was on a cruise or in Mexico, I wanted to go with my Dad to LA and watch Junior play baseball. I was very fortunate to have parents who were able to take me on a weekend trip upon completion of middle school. They did this for my brothers as well. Did I want to go somewhere cool like New York? Nope, I wanted to go to Cincinnati to see Junior play baseball.
That’s what I’ll always remember about his career; that I never wanted to miss a minute of it. The effortless joy, charisma and swagger he brought to the game was beyond compare. I dearly wish I could be in Cooperstown today to watch him be inducted. I’ve never met him, but I hope one day I will. And when that day comes, I imagine the only thing I’ll be able to say is, “Thank you, Junior.”
*Featured image from clare_and_ben, via Wiki Commons