So many words have been written about Griffey's greatness and exploits on and off the field. But there really is no way to encapsulate it all — what he meant to the game, to a city and to a generation of fans.
How do you define Ken Griffey Jr.? Maybe it’s a question without a specific answer. Asking him gets an awkward pause and a look of exasperation. “Really?” he said.
Asking others, it prompts memories, numbers, anecdotes and reverence without a definitive summary.
“Well, there’s a lot more to him than that,” Edgar Martinez said.
Still, as Griffey prepares for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame — the game’s most prestigious honor — it’s a question that lingers more for him than for some other inductees because of his influence on the game and its fans.
So many words have been written about his greatness and exploits on and off the field. But there really is no way to encapsulate it all — what he meant to the game, to a city and to a generation of fans.
How do you take his massive accomplishments over 22 years and wedge them into a description that the attention-span-challenged youth of today might understand?
You can try to quantify it with numbers and accolades. And there are so many numbers and awards. Mind-blowing, historical, video-game stats that may never be equaled:
• He amassed 2,781 career hits, including 524 doubles, 38 triples, 630 homers and 1,779 RBI with a .282 batting average and .907 on-base slugging percentage.
• He hit home runs in eight consecutive games from July 20-28, 1993, tying the MLB record.
• He had three consecutive seasons with 140 or more RBI, something only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig accomplished.
• He had nine seasons of 30 homers or more and seven with 40-plus.
• Unanimous American League MVP in 1997.
• Thirteen selections to the All-Star Game starting lineup, including 11 consecutive seasons from 1990-2000.
• Ten consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999) and seven Silver Slugger Awards.
• At age 29, he was voted to the All-Century Team in 1999. Yes, just 11 years into his career he was already one of the 100 best players of the previous 100 years.
You can try to quantify it by watching the magical plays — plays he made look effortless, plays that still leave people and players gasping even though they’ve seen them hundreds of times.
Pick your favorite:
His favorite was the homer-stealing grab of Luis Gonzalez at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
“But my best play? That happened at the 415-foot mark, just below the Tiger Stadium overhang. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the ball rolling back into my palm,” he wrote for The Players’ Tribune.
Others remember when he robbed Jesse Barfield of a homer on a beautiful catch at old Yankee Stadium, after which he sprinted in from center, holding the ball in glee and flashing his signature smile.
“It was the very first time that I ever robbed somebody on any level,” he said.
How about the 470-foot homer he hit in Detroit?
“It was my best poke, and Rob Deer hit one 479 (opposite field) later in that game,” he said.
You could choose the home run off the warehouse in Baltimore during the 1993 Home Run Derby.
“I just started laughing after I hit it,” he said. “The crowd started jumping up and down and I hear the announcer say, ‘Did he just hit the building?’ And somebody else yells, ‘Yes!’ and that’s when I started laughing.”
And of course, the showcase of speed and athleticism when he scored from first base on Edgar Martinez’s double to left against the Yankees to win the 1995 AL Division Series.
“I can see all the players behind me going, ‘Get down, get down,’ ” he recalled. “When I slid, everybody jumped on me. The only thing I could think of when I was underneath that pile was, ‘Get off me.’ I was just coming back from a broken wrist.”
Just being himself
Ask him again what all that means, and he still can’t (and won’t) answer. He doesn’t know how to define what he did on the field, for a generation of fans and for the game. In his mind, he wasn’t trying to be a defining presence for all those things. He was just being himself.
“As I got older, I finally understood what I’ve accomplished and what I had the potential to be,” he said.
To him, it was about playing the game the only way he knew, the way he had been taught in clubhouses and by his father and idol — Ken Griffey Sr., who played 19 major-league seasons and was a three-time All-Star — and his father’s friends, who were everyone else’s idols. When you’re a teenager and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell is in your house telling you how great you can be and that you need to focus more on baseball, perhaps you are destined to be special.
“The only person that didn’t see how good of a player I could be was me,” he said. “I just wanted to be a kid doing teenage stuff. I was a rebellious teenager. I didn’t understand until I was 19 or 20 what they understood when I was 15.”
But did they understand he would change the game, not just thrive in it? He was the player for an entire generation. It’s why adults walk up to him excitedly and gush, “You were my hero.”
“Yes, it’s weird,” he said when asked about such encounters. “But you know, those people — whether male or female — they were baseball fans, and they are going to have their kids play baseball. In order for us to grow the sport, that’s what we need.”
What Griffey forgets is that he helped grow the game into a billion-dollar business that has influence throughout the world. No player in the past 30 years has done more to help the perception of baseball. Others simply lacked the talent, production or charisma that Griffey had. He achieved pop-culture status — his marketing campaign from Nike featuring his shoe, his video game, a candy bar, music videos and television appearances.
“There’s a handful of players that have changed the game not only on the field, but off it, and he’s one of them,” Toronto Blue Jays outfielder and former Mariner Michael Saunders said last week during the All-Star Game festivities in San Diego.
Former commissioner Bud Selig called Griffey “one of baseball’s most important ambassadors.” But he was more than that. He was necessary for a game that gut-punched its shrinking and aging fan base in 1994 with a season-ending labor strike. Following one of the worst times in baseball history that left fans jaded and angry at the greed displayed by rich athletes and richer owners, Griffey’s megawatt smile, energetic personality and prodigious talent were needed to bring back fans.
“He changed the game of baseball in my opinion,” Reds outfielder and former teammate Jay Bruce said. “Even (Angels star Mike) Trout being as iconic as he’s been in his career so far, he didn’t generate the interest that Griffey did. I think he really changed the game, especially in that time for baseball. Baseball was kind of looking for something to spark. And man, that was more than a spark. This guy was known all over the world. He really changed the game.”
Though adults at the time might have been jaded, kids couldn’t resist the magnetism of Griffey.
“He made baseball look about as cool as you could do it,” Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager said.
Baseball’s stars of today were impressionable adolescents then, and they light up with Griffey-like smiles when asked about his importance.
“He’s the one main guy that got me loving baseball,” said Cubs All-Star pitcher Jon Lester, who was born and raised in Puyallup. “You talk about David Ortiz and what he’s done for the face of the game and all that stuff, (but) Griffey was the face of the game when it was going through its hardest times with the strike and coming back and trying to get fans. He changed the game at the right time and made the game popular again.”
A true role model
Griffey gave baseball a status and popularity in places that it had never reached before.
“When you say that name, it definitely puts a smile on my face,” Cubs All-Star outfielder Dexter Fowler said. “That’s why I wear No.?24, because of Griffey. He was my guy growing up. I tried to model my game after Junior.”
Even the youngest of stars of today who saw him in the twilight of his career understand what he meant.
“The Kid! The Kid!,” Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. exclaimed. “What an exciting player to watch. As a kid, everyone wanted to be Ken Griffey Jr. You wanted to have that sweet, smooth swing and play the outfield like him. You wanted to bring that charismatic personality to the field like him. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player.”
There have been players with similar talents. There have been players with similar charisma. Finding a player with both seems a little more difficult.
Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has that chance, though he knows it is hallowed territory.
“I don’t think there is ever going to be anyone else like Ken Griffey Jr.,” he said. “He took this game by storm and had all the fun in the world. He was unbelievable. The smile, the hat backward, the laugh. It was just everything about him. His whole game was a work of art — he did it all.”
In a spin-off of sorts from a popular campaign slogan used by politicians (most recently by Donald Trump), “Make America Great Again,” Harper has worn a hat that reads: “Make Baseball Fun Again.” He knows that wasn’t needed in Griffey’s prime. And he respects the effect Griffey had on the game, and on a generation of players and fans.
“He really reached out, and the kids took advantage of that and saw that,” Harper said. “It’s something you try to do while you are playing. You do it for the next generation. You want to respect the game as much you can. You want to respect your opponents as much you can. But also with that, there’s people that want to play other sports because of the flair and emotion.”
In the search for how to define Griffey, the answer is found in simplicity. Less is more.
It was mentioned by Lester, emphasized by Bruce and apparent in the wide-ranging personal responses by other players.
What is the meaning of Ken Griffey Jr.?