If nothing else, the forced idleness of the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a golden age of documentaries.
We watched the macabre weirdness of “Tiger King” with mouth agape. “The Last Dance” captivated a huge audience for five straight weeks as Michael Jordan’s competitive drive was chronicled in exacting detail. Lance Armstrong, Bruce Lee, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have all had shows devoted to them in recent weeks.
Now it’s Ken Griffey Jr.’s turn, with “Junior,” a 90-minute documentary narrated by actor Sterling K. Brown that will air Sunday on the MLB Network (5 p.m. PDT, re-airing at 9 p.m.). It’s only fitting that it drops on Father’s Day, since so much of Griffey’s backstory is inextricably linked with being the son of Ken Griffey Sr. — and so much of his joy emanates from being the dad of Trey, Taryn and Tevin.
In a Zoom conference call from his Florida home with a small group of Seattle media members on Friday evening, Griffey said the greatest compliment he ever got was from a former Reds teammate, catcher Jason LaRue, who told him, “I wish we had more kids like yours in the locker room.”
Says Griffey now: “That means more to me than anything because it shows I raised my kids right, and other people looked at it and appreciated it.”
Griffey, a notoriously private person, is 50 now — I’ll pause a moment to let that sink in — and at a time in his life when he’s more willing to open up a little. And that’s because he feels his children are at a point in their lives they are receptive to it, which helped convince him to cooperate with the documentary.
“Yeah, because they understand what goes on in life,’’ he said. “They’re still relatively young. My youngest (Tevin, headed to Florida A&M in Tallahassee to play football) is 18. Still a little naïve to the world. Now with Trey being 26 and Taryn being 24, being able to show a different side of me is important.
“I am pretty private. That was by design, because I just want my kids to be normal kids and not have people think, ‘He’s supposed to have this because his dad has this. He’s supposed to have that, or she’s supposed to have that.’ I wanted them to work for everything. They’ve done a great job of doing it.”
This documentary was actually filmed a year and a half ago, but Griffey mandated that it not be shown last year so as not to upstage Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame coronation in 2019.
“We were just waiting for the right time to do it,’’ he said. “I will tell you that I didn’t want to step on Edgar’s toes, because that was very important to me that Edgar, a teammate of mine, have his time and be able to enjoy the full year. I have that much respect for Edgar. I didn’t want it to be any distraction to a guy I have the utmost respect for as a teammate and a person.”
Edgar appears in the documentary to talk about Griffey, along with an eclectic group of people that includes Gary Payton, Macklemore, Reggie Jackson, Nick Lachey, Jay Buhner and Lou Piniella, among many others. None are more affecting than, of all people, LeBron James, who is eloquent in describing Griffey’s immense appeal to a Black youngster in Akron, Ohio, for whom baseball was not in the forefront. It turns out those two have a long-standing relationship.
“When LeBron became a pro, his first Christmas was at our house,’’ Griffey said. “He was in Orlando, and Melissa and I cooked him Christmas dinner, along with a couple other teammates. It was pretty sweet to have a guy, 18 years old, a phenom. He came over and had Christmas dinner and watched a game, and I’ve been a big fan of his ever since. He’s done some things, with his school, being an activist, that are phenomenal, let alone being a great basketball player. He’s just a great person.”
While you won’t necessarily get any deep insights into what makes Griffey tick, the documentary is captivating, propelled by a wide-ranging array of archival footage. All the high points of his career are covered in vivid detail, as well as a sense of how Griffey became a cultural phenomenon along with being a transcendent player. Ken Griffey Sr. is interviewed extensively, while seldom-seen younger brother Craig also appears. Griffey himself is the anchor, of course, while Griffey’s wife, Melissa, and the three kids make several heartwarming appearances, grouped together on the couch.
“You know how my family is; they don’t want to be seen,’’ Griffey said. “They enjoyed the process. They knew that eventually they were going to have to say something. They did it as a group, so it didn’t point out any individual in my family. Everyone is sitting there enjoying themselves. Me being the practical joker, I said a couple of things and they just started laughing.”
And those laughs turned to tears when the family watched the finished product together — at least they did for Melissa.
“They (his children) just looked at me and started laughing,’’ Griffey said. “Well, what happened is they looked at me and they looked at Mom, and there were a couple of scenes where she started crying. One of the scenes is when I broke my wrist (running into the Kingdome wall in 1995) and she wouldn’t even look. She still to this day will not look at me running into the wall. She knew it was coming and she turned her head. I happened to look at her and she looked and turned away. But it’s in there, and it happened and, ‘oh, well.’ In my book, it’s ‘oh, well.’ For her, it’s not fun.”
I doubt if Griffey would call being the subject of a documentary “fun.” But it’s a welcome distraction during the shelter-at-home period that his family is observing as closely as they can.
“I’m essential worker 24 in my house,’’ he joked. “That means I go to the mailbox, I go to the post office. I go shopping. … It’s been OK. Every now and then people have to come into the house to do some things to make sure everything is OK, but for the most part, like everybody else, we’re trying to keep safe and keep healthy.”
And now for baseball fans, Father’s Day will be Griffey day – one he commemorated in 2004 by hitting his 500th home run with Senior in attendance.
“I remember me as a kid going to the ballpark with my dad on Father’s Day and enjoying the time I had with him,” he said.
Griffey says that’s why it means a lot to him that the documentary is showing on this of all days — and that viewers will get to observe him in a different light.
“For me, just being able to see the human side of people,’’ he said. “I think people look at athletes as non-human and we don’t care about certain things, we’re just here to play sports and that’s it. We’re not. We’re human, we feel, we breathe, we hurt.”