There’s never been anyone quite like Ken Griffey Jr.
Remembering the electrifying career of one of baseball’s best ever – The Kid
Did you expect any different? Could you have expected any different?
When it was over – his 20-minute Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, that is – Ken Griffey Jr. put the punctuation on one of the most memorable baseball careers ever in exactly the way we all hoped he would: by turning his hat around for one last time. It was glorious.
The speech itself was emotional and memorable. “The two perceptions of me were I didn’t work hard, and I made everything look easy,” he said at one point. “Just because I made it look easy didn’t mean it was.”
Still, there has never before been a player who made crushing baseballs and bolting around the outfield hunting would-be hits look so effortless, graceful and balletic. Five players in the history of Major League Baseball have hit more home runs than Ken Griffey Jr. and despite winning 10 Gold Gloves, advanced metrics later showed his defensive prowess to be somewhat overstated, more flash than substance, so it’s clear why no one would argue that he was the best ever even if we can all acknowledge he’s most definitely one of the best ever.
But Griffey Jr. might just be something entirely more important: the coolest baseball player to ever live.
‘’I don’t think there will ever be another Ken Griffey Jr., somebody that comes into the game and just changes it,’’ Bryce Harper told USA Today on July 23. “He changed it for the better, every single day he played, he was smiling, laughing, enjoying the game – the hat backwards, going onto the field and doing everything possible to have fun and be one of the best players out there.’’
At 17, Griffey Jr. was the No.1 pick in the 1987 MLB draft and at 19, he was already in the big leagues, starting and starring in center field. He was still a teenager. After his first game, he admitted, “I was nervous before the game. I was just hoping when I ran onto the field I wouldn’t fall down.” Still, he smacked a double in his very first at-bat and never looked out of place. Plus, he had that swing. Oh, that swing.
It was so beautiful and unique; this is how SI.com’s Jon Tayler recently eloquently and expertly described it:
It was fluid; there was no wasted motion; the follow-through was textbook. His stance was impeccable, his stride was flawless, his head somehow never moved despite the incredible violence he applied to a baseball. It was a swing designed by some higher being, given to a man with limitless gifts for the sole purpose of hitting home runs. It was, to put it bluntly, f—– incredible. Most baseball swings are hacking, violent, ruinous things — truncated stabs, awkward flails, brutal slashes. There is no grace to most of them; even the world’s greatest hitters have motions that make you cringe, and that’s when they make contact. Griffey was different; he looked perfect even when striking out.
In his second season, Griffey Jr. got to show off that swing while playing alongside his dad, Ken Griffey Sr. Once, they even hit back-to-back home runs. Griffey Jr. later called playing with his dad “probably the greatest feeling I’ve had as a player” and Griffey Sr. even admitted this recently: “I didn’t find out how good he was until I ended up playing left field in Seattle, and I got to see how much ground he can cover, what kind of player he was, what kind of offensive player he was, and the home runs.” Everyone else saw it, too.
During the 1993 Home Run Derby at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, a 22-year-old Griffey Jr. annihilated one pitch so bad, the ball crashed into the B&O Warehouse behind the stadium. With his hat turned backward, all Griffey Jr. could do was smile in amazement. Basketball great Michael Jordan was even chasing Griffey Jr. for an autograph.
He didn’t actually win the derby that year, but no one remembers. They remember Griffey Jr.’s iconic home run. There was a lot about him that folks couldn’t take their eyes off of. His swing, his speed, his swagger. But it was his hat that was really a particular point of contention for a segment of the sport.
In a Q&A with the Seattle Times in August 1993, Griffey Jr. was asked why he wore his hat backward during batting practice all the time. “I just always wore it like that,” he answered. “When I was little, I wore my dad’s, but it was too big, and it slid down over my eyes. So I just turned it back so I could see. Ever since, I’ve worn it that way.”
Though he began wearing his hats backward for a pragmatic purpose, the end result was a new look that young baseball fans adored. But Griffey Jr.’s cool defiance downright enraged old-timers such as Buck Showalter, the manager of the New York Yankees at the time, who always wore his hat straight ahead, to say the least.
In 1994, he told Charles P. Pierce, “I shouldn’t say this publicly, but a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him,” Showalter said. “He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backwards, and his shirttail is hanging out. I go to the All-Star Game a couple of years ago, and Barry Bonds is there for three days, and the only time he tucked his shirt in was for the game. To me, that’s a lack of respect for the game. Maybe I’m being too picky on these guys. I’m starting to say, ‘Back when I played.’ I thought I’d never say those words.”
Bonds responded with “Who’s Buck Showalter?” while Griffey Jr. accused Showalter of being “jealous because he doesn’t have a 24-year-old who can carry my jock.” It wasn’t Showalter’s kind of league anymore and baseball was better for it. Everyone else, it seemed, wanted more of Griffey Jr.
In 1994, Griffey Jr. made an appearance on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was in the film Little Big League and even had his name stamped across popular video games. By 1996, Nike was also in the Griffey Jr. business, putting out his own line of shoes. Jay Z mentioned Griffey Jr. on a track that year as well, Hova’s Song: Slimmy at the Rucka wanna leave and spend with me/ I consistently take ’em out the park like Ken Griffey.
He was in all kinds of commercials, including Nike, Foot Locker, Pepsi, and Nintendo. He was the sport’s most marketable asset and consistently one of the very best players in the league. From 1996 through 1999 (his last season with the Mariners), these were his home run totals, respectively: 49, 56, 56, 48. He was a monster.
Going into the 2000 season, his first for the Cincinnati Reds, Griffey. Jr. was a bona fide Hall of Famer and one of the most beloved baseball players of all time – already. He wasn’t even 30.
The second half of his career (2000-2010) had blimps of brilliance – he hit 40 home runs his first season with the Reds and another 35 in 2005 – but mostly just crippling injuries. The real testament to Griffey Jr. is that the first half of his career so was memorable and mesmerizing, his legacy will always be about those years and not the disappointing Cincinnati ones. This is still the first thing so very many of us think and feel when we hear the name Ken Griffey Jr.:
‘’He was the only guy I looked up to, he was the guy I wanted to be like, model my game after,’’Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. ‘’I was right-handed trying to hit like him. He was left-handed. He was just that guy I just marveled at. Every time I’d see him on TV and making a crazy catch or a long homer, I’d just be glued to the TV. He was definitely somebody I grew up watching and definitely I still, to this day, look up to and respect.’’
There have been other guys, sure, who have hit more home runs, who were even better at defense, guys who were faster and got on-base more, but there was never anyone quite like Griffey Jr. Forget making baseball fun again, he must be thinking to himself, make it cool again. After all, it has never been cooler than when MLB was Griffey Jr.’s sport. A generation of baseball players and fans alike can attest.