Ken Griffey Jr. set a record Wednesday for the highest percentage ever in voting for the Hall of Fame. So what possessed three people not to vote for the former Mariners center fielder?
It was his unbridled joy at playing a kid’s game that first endeared Ken Griffey Jr. to us, and Wednesday, you could hear that quality in his voice. And on television, you could see it in his face.
No, Griffey wasn’t a unanimous entrant into baseball’s Hall of Fame, an egregious oversight for which three as-yet-anonymous voters will have to answer — to themselves, if no one else.
But Griffey received the highest total in the history of voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, 99.3 percent — 437 votes out of 440 cast. While that may, incongruously, have been at once a monumental achievement and a faintly disappointing outcome, Griffey himself put his feat into perspective.
“I’m in the Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “It’s not how many votes you got, as long as you get in.”
Griffey being Griffey, a man of undeniable insecurities, he wasn’t sure he was even going to be elected on the first ballot, according to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. But now he’ll be rightly immortalized in Cooperstown in July, along with Mike Piazza, the former Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets catcher who was the only other player elected by the writers.
Griffey was asked in a conference call Wednesday about his favorite memories of a major-league career that lasted from 1989, when he was an ebullient teenager at the Kingdome, until 2010, when he abruptly quit the Mariners at age 40 in June of a miserable season. He immediately mentioned playing with his father in 1990 and ’91.
“And I got to have that playoff slide,’’ he continued, evoking his romp around the bases on Edgar Martinez’s double in the 1995 playoffs that lives on in Mariners’ lore. “I’ve pretty much done everything you could do in baseball.”
That sentiment was reinforced watching the Hall of Fame show on MLB Network before the announcement, which was heavy on Griffey highlights. And seeing all the montages of his great moments, hearing his praises sung by a variety of baseball figures, just reinforced to me what a superb player Griffey was. And, more important, what an influential career he had.
He truly was a beautiful ballplayer, particularly in his early years before injuries diminished the skills that made him stand out. What also stood out, of course, was the flair and panache with which he played the game, the joy that no doubt also diminished over time but was so important early in stamping Griffey as a player who soared above even other superstars.
Griffey would become a cultural icon in the 1990s with a candy bar named after him, national Nike campaigns, and the ultimate badge of honor, his own video game. He recalled it as a time when he was hobnobbing with the likes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Sir Mix-a-Lot.
“We would see these guys in and out of the locker room,’’ he said. “Having Nintendo right down the street from where you lived was unbelievable. We had Microsoft. There were endless things you could do in Seattle. Rappers want to be baseball players, and baseball players want to be rappers. We all basically grew up together.”
Griffey grew up before our very eyes, and if he irked some by forcing his way out of town with a trade to Cincinnati in 1999, and by the sudden fashion in which he retired in 2010, well, we couldn’t stay mad at him long. That was emphasized in 2007, when Griffey returned to Seattle for the first time while playing for the Reds, and again in 2013 when he went into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame.
Both occasions were unadulterated lovefests, and Griffey was visibly touched on both occasions. That unquestionably will be the case at his induction ceremony, when I expect scores of Mariners fans will make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y.
With apologies to Spencer Haywood, Steve Largent, Gary Payton and others, Griffey was, and is, the definitive Seattle sports figure — a flawed hero, as it turned out, but our flawed hero. Russell Wilson may eventually challenge that title, but right now it’s Griffey’s mantle, which is why so many people in these parts seemed to experience Wednesday’s Hall of Fame coronation with such deep feeling.
Griffey may have lost his joy at times along the way, particularly in that dark final season, but he has regained it in his post-playing career in his new role as a parent. All three of his kids, along with wife Melissa and other friends and family, were with Griffey when he received the fateful Hall of Fame call in his kitchen.
“My dad skills are a lot better than my baseball skills,’’ Griffey said.
His baseball skills were transcendent. And now Griffey will reside among the immortals in Cooperstown when he’s inducted, along with Mike Piazza, with whom he will be linked forever. Those two just happened to also share the cover of the 1994 Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue, with the headline, “So Good, So Young.” Twenty-one years later, we can see what a prescient editorial decision that was.
Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Trevor Hoffman all were over 65 percent and are poised to surpass the necessary 75 percent next year. And Griffey’s former Seattle teammate, Edgar Martinez, made a healthy leap from 27 percent last year to 43.4 percent this year. It’s going to be a tough road for Edgar, who has just three more years on the writers’ ballot.
It took just one year on the ballot for Griffey, just as we always knew would be the case. But it was still a thrill for his fans, and a joy for the man himself when the announcement was made — even if three rogue voters ruined the ultimate story line.