The Mariners legend, who will be announced as part of the 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame class Wednesday, was complicated at times during a 22-year major-league career. But his swing, emulated by a generation of wannabe ballplayers, wasn’t.
Let’s start with the swing.
Ken Griffey Jr. would prove to be so much more complicated than that isolated aspect of his life, of course. But when you think back on the career that on Wednesday will propel him into the Hall of Fame, it was the swing, a flawless product of both heredity and hard work, that made all the rest possible.
Jim Lefebvre, Griffey’s first manager with the Mariners in 1989, called it a beautiful swing, and it was indeed an aesthetic marvel. Edgar Martinez once told me he has a continuous loop in his mind’s eye of Griffey pouncing on a pitch, an imaginary video that will never be erased.
Ken Griffey Jr. bio
Position: Center field.
Born: Nov. 21, 1969, in Donora, Pa.
Drafted: Selected by the Mariners with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft.
Teams: Mariners, Reds, White Sox.
Career achievements: Played 22 years in the big leagues, finishing with a .284 average, .370 on-base percentage, 2,781 hits, 630 home runs and 1,836 RBI. … Named 1997 American League MVP (.304 BA, 56 HR, 147 RBI). … Was a 13-time All-Star. … Won 10 Gold Gloves. … Named 2005 National League Comeback Player of the Year (.301 BA, 35 HR, 92 RBI). … Hit .290 with six home runs and 11 RBI in 18 postseason games.
Bobby Valentine described Griffey’s swing as “perfect” in an article from long ago. And he’s not backing off one inch now, five years removed from the last time Griffey wielded a bat in a game, which was two days before he drove off from Seattle, unannounced, and left the major leagues for good.
Remember, we said he was complicated. But his swing, emulated by a generation of wannabe ballplayers, wasn’t. That was the beauty of it; it’s simplicity, the bat (a black Louisville Slugger, 31 ounces, 34 inches) cocked at that familiar angle, hands high, face rapt in concentration yet oddly relaxed.
“I said it, and I still believe it,’’ Valentine says now. “If you need words to go with that, to back up perfection, well … ”
Well, then you’ve missed the point entirely. Let’s let Valentine — who figures he has watched Griffey’s swing in slow-motion hundreds of times and who has put it side by side with the great Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh to compare the fluidity of both — take it from there:
“When people talk about swings, and I’ve been talking about them for the better part of 50 years, the first thing you look for is balance throughout the swing. Probably the way you can recognize balance best is when someone is dancing — when you see rhythm.
“Griffey got into the box, and it almost looked like he was dancing. Even when he had that little hip movement, it looked like a little cha cha cha.
“Once you start your swing, people talk about transferring your weight. I always thought his transfer was impeccable, the way he was able to stride, and have a good stride, and yet stop his weight as he was going forward so he could transfer all that weight to his front foot, get off his back foot, and stay balanced as he translated all that energy to the bat.”
Yes, the swing was the foundation, but all of Griffey’s game seemed touched by a higher power. Before injuries ravaged him, before the fish-bowl life of a superstar tried to suffocate him, he was astonishing in every aspect of the game, including the spirit, passion and yes, joy, with which he played.
“It was like he was playing Wiffle ball in the yard every night,’’ former teammate Harold Reynolds said.
Rusty Kuntz, a 32-year-old Mariners coach in Griffey’s rookie year of 1989, called him the perfect player in a Seattle Times article. The kid — or The Kid, as he was called when he wasn’t being called The Natural — was just 19 then.
More than a quarter century later, Kuntz, like Valentine, is not backing down.
“I could have said that the first time I saw him play in a spring-training game,’’ Kuntz says now with a hearty laugh.
And then, Kuntz, too, was off on a dreamy dissertation of what the personification of baseball perfection — wrapped in a No. 24 jersey with a backward hat and an ever-present smile — looked and felt like.
“The ease with which he did everything,” began Kuntz, now 60 and reaching the twilight of a baseball life, having won a ring last fall as the Royals’ first-base coach.
“It didn’t take a baseball brainiac to figure out this guy was a five-tool player. In a baseball career, you come across maybe a handful of five-tool guys. But no one I’ve had the pleasure of being around or watching did it with such ease.
“People always talked about his smile and how much fun he had on the baseball field. And the baseball guy in me always said, ‘Hell, yeah, why wouldn’t he have fun, the way he could play?’
“He could do everything. And at 19, he had such elasticity and flexibility in his body, there was a lot he could get away with that would break a guy who was 10 years older in half. Running into walls. Diving on the Kingdome turf, which was like diving on the parking lot. Then he’d bounce up and throw a guy out. The next day, you’d ask him how he felt, and at 19 it never fazed him.”
Perhaps, it’s gently pointed out, all those dives and collisions on the unforgiving turf took a delayed toll in the second half of Griffey’s career, when his body seemed to give out, part by part.
“No doubt,’’ Kuntz said. “You play that long, and put up those kinds of numbers, you deserve to be able to break down.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT, let’s start at the beginning. With the teenage wunderkind at Moeller High School in Cincinnati in the mid-1980s, whose legend began to leak out to the baseball world at precisely the time the woebegone Mariners had the first pick in the 1987 draft.
They settled early on Griffey as their target, and Tom Mooney, the Mariners’ scout living in Columbus who had Ohio as his territory — along with Indiana, West Virginia and parts of Michigan — was their point man.
Mooney remembers that Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners’ scouting director, had Griffey on his radar after seeing him in a national Connie Mack tournament in Texas the previous summer. GM Dick Balderson soon settled in on Griffey as their guy. Mostly, Mooney remembers Griffey as his once-in-a-lifetime player that every scout dreams about.
“The best way to describe him is a man among boys,” Mooney recalled. “The game was so easy for him.”
Griffey would claim later that he never struck out in high school, and who’s to argue? Certainly not Mooney, who says that the best part of scouting Griffey was meeting the family. Ken Griffey Sr., the former key member of the Big Red Machine, was playing for the Braves by then but would fly home on his off days.
“It was just a great experience to see how the family interacted and how Junior interacted with the neighborhood kids coming in and out,’’ Mooney said. “There were no airs about Junior, no airs about Senior or the mom, Birdie. It was just a great environment.”
Griffey and Cal State Fullerton pitching star Mike Harkey graded out similarly, and the Mariners’ scouting department was afraid Seattle owner George Argyros would insist on going for the college guy. So legend has it that senior scout Bob Harrison simply added points to Griffey’s total to break the tie and ensure they took the guy everyone in the organization badly wanted.
The Mariners signed Griffey for a bonus that the Seattle Times pegged at $180,000, but Mooney remembers as being closer to $160,000. A pittance now, but big money for its day.
“I remember George called me after the draft and said, ‘You’d better be right on this guy, or it’s your ass,’ ’’ Mooney said with a laugh.
The historic correctness of the Mariners’ decision began to emerge on June 8, 1987, when Griffey, not yet 18, showed up at the Kingdome for the traditional batting-practice session by the team’s No. 1 pick.
“Most of the time, these guys are so nervous they dribble two or three, swing and miss, pop a few up, and then maybe hit one out. They’re trying so hard to yank every ball into the seats,’’ former Mariners catcher Scott Bradley said.
“Junior comes out, smiling, laughing, basically being the person we all came to know. Of course, the media, other players, the front office, they’re all watching. And he stands there with his gorgeous, silky-smooth swing and starts hitting line drives into left. He wasn’t trying to yank balls into the street.
“Of course, he was talking the whole time he was swinging. Then he works his way up the middle, the swing so grooved. Then he starts lining some into right. He steps back, takes a break, towels off, and now he’s loose. And he started rattling seats in the Kingdome. I remember standing next to Alvin (Davis) and Harold, and they say, ‘Man, he looks like he belongs here already.’ ”
Mike Brumley, a Mariners’ infielder, had the best line: “High school cost him three years on the major-league pension plan.”
Reynolds remembers Griffey’s “big, old Michael Jackson afro” and how their skepticism slowly faded away.
“We were sitting there going, ‘Ken Griffey doesn’t have power,’ ” Reynolds said. “We were thinking about his dad. He was hitting the ball into the seats like it was ridiculous. He put on a show.”
“I have vivid memories of that,” Davis said. “At 17, he was making the Kingdome look pretty small. Harold, Scotty and I had a few years under our belt, and we were questioning how good a 17-year-old could really be. He showed up, and he was the real deal. The legend kind of built from there.”
Griffey made the Mariners two years later, at age 19, almost by accident. Bradley is convinced the front office had no intention of putting Griffey on the team out of spring training, but he simply left them no choice.
“My feeling is they wanted him to struggle for a week so they could say, ‘He made a really great impression, but it’s time to send him down to the minors.’ ” Bradley said. “They started playing him against every nasty lefty, the Chuck Finleys of the world, so they could justify sending him down.
“It never happened. Not only was he far and away the best player on our team at that point, he was the best player in Arizona (in spring training).”
Griffey was a man-child, a prodigy. He took his major-league-minimum salary of $68,000 and created instant magic.
He doubled off Dave Stewart in his first major-league at-bat in Oakland, homered off Eric King on the first pitch he saw at the Kingdome. He hit a two-run homer to win a game in his first pinch-hitting appearance in May. All of the feats were interspersed with a series of breathtaking catches that announced loudly and clearly the arrival of a generational talent.
It wasn’t just a star that was being born. It was a phenomenon, and it didn’t take long to foment. Candy Bars. A Nike campaign built around Griffey. Magazine covers. Adulation everywhere he went.
“I just think it was perfect timing,’’ Reynolds said. “It was all fresh and new. I don’t want to say it was a time of innocence, but there was no Internet, no video-game heroes. All there was was Bo Knows Bo, Michael and Junior. Those three — that was it.
“When you take a guy in the Northwest, and he becomes an international superstar, it’s mind-boggling. You didn’t have the reach you do now, where you could have a guy on Twitter, Instagram, all over the world. Junior did all that out of the Northwest with a local TV package.”
LET’S DROP RIGHT into the middle of it all, into the days when Griffey owned baseball in a way Barry Bonds, his peer and statistical superior, could only dream of.
Oh, some old-school grumps like Yankees manager Buck Showalter harrumphed about Griffey’s flair. Showalter told the New York Times magazine in 1994, “I shouldn’t say this publicly, but a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttails hanging out … to me, that’s a lack of respect for the game.”
Even Davis, the beloved future “Mr. Mariner,” had to come around.
“Junior changed the game with his hat backward, earrings on in the field, being very happy-go-lucky,” Davis said. “I was a little old school, and it took some time for me to come to the conclusion that some guys just get to define their own persona. Junior was one of them.”
Valentine, who managed the Rangers while Griffey was in his heyday, had no such issues.
“I loved his spirit,” he said. “I always thought, and still think, there needs to be more of that. Do it differently than the way Lou Gehrig did it. I’m bored with all that other stuff. Young kids are, too. Griffey said and did all the right things and played masterfully, but he also exuded a free spirit that was easy for young fans to follow. … Those things resonate.”
It worked, of course, because he had the game to back it all up. Griffey’s body of work in the four-year span from 1996 to 1999 — when he averaged 52 homers and 141 runs batted in — was the very definition of a superstar. And never with a whiff of steroids suspicion in an era that was marked by rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Let’s let Jay Buhner, Griffey’s buddy and running mate, take it from here. The two, five years apart in age, hit it off instantly, but their friendship really blossomed when they became neighbors in Issaquah, two houses apart. They car-pooled to the ballpark, their families became inseparable and a lifelong bond was formed.
“He was one of those rare guys that seem to play the game at a completely different level than everyone else,’’ Buhner said. “A select few are able to slow the game down and seem to play at a different pace, so easy, so effortless.
“Day in and day out, Junior was a human highlight reel. He had all five tools. If he didn’t hit a home run, he’d drive in a big run, or take a walk and steal second, or go first to third. He could carry the mail, as we called it. Throw someone out if he wanted to. Cut the ball off in the gap and limit him to a single. There wasn’t a weakness to his game.
“And he did it every day with a smile on his face. He loved to give the media crap, but there was mutual respect. It seemed like once a week he’d blow you guys off, but he loved to hold court. He was funny, and so sharp. He doesn’t miss anything. He knows everything that’s going on, sees everything.
“It goes back to him being a ballpark rat, having a dad who played such a long time. When he stepped into the ballpark, he felt he belonged there. That’s why he was so ahead of the game. He hung out with the elite, the best of the best. The Big Red Machine was the friggin’ bomb, and he called those guys uncles.
“For him to go head to head with (Nolan) Ryan, (Roger) Clemens, that was nothing to him. He always seemed to deliver huge. When we needed something, Junior was able to do it. I’m not (bleeping) you, he’d call his shots all the friggin’ time. We’d all shake our heads.
“That was part of him being so strong mentally. He could visualize and break down the game and see so many things. His mind worked at a different level. The rest of us, every now and then, we’d get locked in. He seemed to play his whole career at that level.”
NOW LET’S take a step back and think about what Griffey meant. And still means.
For starters, he was an icon. For fans of a certain age, Griffey made them love the game for life. For major-leaguers of a certain age — the ones coming into their prime now, and the ones just before — Griffey was the patron saint.
“He was pretty much the standard for all of our generation,’’ said Mike Cameron, who followed Griffey as the Mariners’ center fielder. “Out of all the old-school stuff that goes on all the time, he made the game funner than we were accustomed to dealing with. And he could ball. That made it all the better.”
Yeah, Griffey was a perfect player, in many ways. But it was his imperfections that fleshed him out and gave him humanity, made him more than just a ballplaying superman.
He could be overly sensitive and would brood over perceived slights. He hated the lack of privacy that came with superstardom, and felt at various times unappreciated.
As brilliant as Griffey was on the field, he wasn’t without insecurities. Early in his rookie season, he fell into a slump that left him devastated. Reynolds remembers Griffey sitting in front of his locker in Chicago after a hitless game, crying.
“Physical tears. He thought he was never going to get another hit,” Reynolds said. “Alvin was in the next locker and put his arms around him and said, ‘Trust me, you’re going to get a lot more hits and be a great player.’ I’ll never forget that conversation and Alvin talking him off the ledge.”
In 1992, Griffey opened up to the Seattle Times’ Bob Finnigan about how he had attempted suicide four years earlier after a series of disagreements with his dad the winter after his first year of pro ball. Griffey said he spoke about how he swallowed 277 aspirin and had to have his stomach pumped because he wanted to help other kids.
“I’m living proof of what a dumb thing trying to kill yourself is,’’ he told Finnigan. “No matter how bad it seems, work your way through it.”
The second half of Griffey’s career was nowhere near as sublime as the first part. After forcing the trade to the Reds after the ’99 season — Reds GM Jim Bowden announced it as “the day the Michael Jordan of baseball came home to Cincinnati’’ — he was ravaged by injuries. Lou Piniella, his former Mariners manager, suggested to the Los Angeles Times that he wished Griffey had worked harder at conditioning earlier in his career.
Hank Aaron himself had predicted Griffey to be the one to break his home-run record, but the injuries took him off pace. Still, Griffey’s 630 homers rank sixth all-time and fourth among those perceived to be “clean.” There are no guarantees, of course, but Reynolds spoke of his confidence that Griffey never succumbed to the temptations of steroids.
“I might as well walk away from baseball (if he did),” Reynolds said. “Him and (Derek) Jeter are the guys I trust the most through the scandals.”
Griffey’s charitable endeavors are the stuff of legend in their own right. When kids from the Make-a-Wish foundation came around, Griffey would give them his undivided attention, sometimes to the point he had to be gently reminded that the game was about to start.
“There hasn’t been someone who dedicated his time to the children with so much of his heart and soul as Junior that I can ever recall in the 16 years I’ve been here,’’ said Donna Verretto, chief operating officer of Make-A-Wish in Washington and Alaska.
“It wasn’t about how many kids he met, but about how he was when he was with them. It was like nobody else mattered.”
Another pet cause throughout Griffey’s career was (and remains) the Boys and Girls Club, but the Ken Griffey Jr. Family Foundation also helped endow Pediatric Cancer Research in his name at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The foundation also supports children’s hospitals in Cincinnati and Florida.
“A lot of his philanthropic work is done in a very understated way,’’ said Jay Brennan, who runs Griffey’s Orlando-based foundation. “He doesn’t seek a lot of credit, where it’s really deserved.”
Griffey’s final chapter in Seattle ended poorly, of course, with the story of him sleeping in the clubhouse, an apparent rift with manager Don Wakamatsu over playing time, and then his abrupt departure. It still irks Buhner that the ending was so messy.
“With everything he did for the organization, all the body parts he left on the field, I just thought it was pretty (horsebleep) the way it transpired and the way he went out,’’ Buhner said. “He just said, ‘Screw it, I’ve had enough. I’m not going to deal with this stuff anymore.’ ’’
On the day Griffey quit, Buhner told me, “I hope to God that he’s really and truly happy. That’s all I care about at this stage.”
And you know what? By all accounts, he is. Griffey isn’t doing any interviews until the Hall of Fame announcement that will be a mere formality — once a superstitious ballplayer, always one — but his agent, Brian Goldberg, says Griffey is extremely content reveling in the achievements of his family. Mooney saw him recently and noted how much he looks like his dad, who provided the favorite moment of Junior’s career when they hit back-to-back homers in 1990.
I’m reminded of what Griffey once told me: “I’m a parent with an abnormal job. That’s all I am.”
Two of his kids are athletes at the University of Arizona (Trey is a junior wide receiver on the football team, Taryn a redshirt freshman guard on the basketball team), and the youngest, Tevin, is 13 and a talented athlete in his own right.
“I can honestly say Junior is one of the most well-adjusted post-professional athletes I’ve ever seen,’’ Goldberg said. “He’s very at ease with who he used to be, and who he is now.’’
Ken Griffey Jr. is baseball royalty, a singular presence who mattered more than anyone in the game for a good, long time.
And man, his swing was pretty.