Elected last week to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr. inspired several video games and a whole generation of baseball fans around the country who played them. A reader remembers what The Kid meant when he was kid.
Ken Griffey Jr. waltzed into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, three votes shy of perfection, but with the highest percentage of writers’ votes in the known history of the universe. And are we surprised? Of course not.
And was Ken Griffey Jr. smiling when he got the news? News that was a foregone conclusion, as every writer in America, and presumably any baseball writer on the planet, knew was coming? Of course, he was smiling. He was having fun. Which is something Ken Griffey Jr., the ballplayer, looked like he was doing all the time.
Being a sports fan old enough and privileged enough to watch No. 24 do his thing, I recognized immediately that his smile, whether it was for hitting a ball so hard it made cattle cringe the world over, or getting elected to the greatest baseball congregation in the galaxy, was The Kid being The Kid.
Griffey’s dad said his son wasn’t sure if he was going to get into the Hall on this ballot, then all of the sporting world laughed and said, “Yeah, right.” His boyish humility had the feeling of watching the lefty smash a moonshot to the upper deck circa 1995, and have him think it was a pop out.
As a boy raised in the pre-Diamondbacks state of Arizona, I got to choose whatever team I wanted to hitch my wagon. I chose the Boston Red Sox for the sole reason that Roger Clemens had a right arm that was crafted by Zeus (and later maintained by chemical science), but most of the people I knew were Mariners fans.
The M’s thaw out for spring training a mere hour and a half from my front door, basically across the street in rural Arizona measurements. My best friend was a gigantic Mariners fan, and worshipped Junior so much that he bought a fitted Mariners cap, a hefty purchase in those days. He wore it backwards, á la the Kid, every waking moment of his life. The fact that we were from a town where a backward hat was about as common as a two-day rainstorm didn’t deter my friend, so bonkers for No. 24 was he. His love for the most loveable major-leaguer was a catalyst for the baseball loving-aged kids of my town, and before long Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t just my best friend’s favorite, he was everyone’s. It wasn’t cool to dislike Griffey, which was convenient because Griffey was potentially the most likeable athlete of our generation.
In the 1990s, Griffey infiltrated our sports pages and our movies. Remember his cameo in “Little Big League”? If you don’t, just know these two facts: 1) Griffey hits a ball so far out of the stadium it looks like CGI; 2) he ends the movie by ripping out the hearts of the Minnesota Twins via circus grab, robbing them of a home run. Does art imitate life, or what? But, most important, Griffey infiltrated our video games.
The Kid hit 630 home runs, made 13 All-Star teams, and tallied a laundry list of on-field achievements, but he will forever be known and revered as the face of the greatest baseball video game ever created: Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.
When the game came out, our breath fogged up the unopened game’s shrinkwrap on the hour-plus drive home from the nearest video-game retailer. It was immediately clear that this was Ken Griffey Jr.’s game. The action moved quickly, the music was loud, and there, at the front of it all was The Kid, smiling that Cheshire smile, diamond blinging in his ear.
I can still hear the soundtrack blasting in my brain right now, and it’s making my fingers itch. It was the first sports game where playing defense was as much or more than playing offense. The players flew around the field and made acrobatic catches, turned lightning double plays, and, if you took the warning track as a mere suggestion, they’d smash headlong into the fence and fall comically backward like the dying gasp of a silent-movie gunslinger.
At the time, I wasn’t drawing conclusions or waxing poetic about how this game, albeit the greatest ever constructed, was in any way an extension of the man on the cover. But it is easy to see now that the reason the game was so wholly satisfying was that it was so completely Ken Griffey, Jr. Sure, it had his face on the cover, and the title screen had him jacking one of his signature home runs, but the meat and potatoes was that it made every aspect of the game fun. We had fun playing it. We had fun being Junior fans.
And, if Cooperstown means anything, I hope that its value lay in the fact that the athletes who fill its hallowed hall remind us, and continue to remind us, that they are celebrated for making our lives more fun by playing a game. Like kids do. Like The Kid did. And that understanding of sports, and of our heroes, will never be a pop out. It will always be a home run.
Colin McArthur is a freelance writer and actor, originally from Wickenburg, Ariz., which is just as small and isolated as it sounds. He happily lives and works in Kirkland, Washington, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from UW Bothell, and may or may not have a Griffey rookie card as his retirement policy.
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