There are probably a dozen or so players in baseball history who, when they turned 30, had at least a passable argument of someday being in the discussion for greatest ever. Ken Griffey Jr. was one of these players.
Everything about Junior was set up for baseball immortality. He was born in Donora, Pa. — same town as another wonderful left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder named Stan Musial. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Griffey was born on Nov. 21 — which so happened to be the same day as Musial. He was named for his father, a superb player who played in three All-Star Games and hit second for the Big Red Machine, perhaps the best team ever put together. He went to Moeller High School, which not only has one of the great football high school football traditions in America* but is also the baseball school of Barry Larkin and Buddy Bell (and John Boehner).
*One of the oddest sports stories of my lifetime is hardly ever talked about: For 18 years, Gerry Faust was the high school football coach at Moeller and his record there was one of those insane things: His teams went 174-17, won five state championships, four times were named national champion and so on. And in 1980, he was hired to be coach at Notre Dame. Notre Dame. Right from high school. Could you imagine what would happen now if Notre Dame or one of the other big football schools hired a HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH to take over their team? Twitter wouldn’t just explode, it would set off like a Big Bang creating a new social media universe.
In the supermarket parking lot next to where I lived in Cincinnati, there was an X cut into the concrete. This, I was told, was where one of Ken Griffey’s home runs landed. He was that kind of legend. He was just 17 when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 1987 draft. He promptly went to low-A ball where he hit .313 with 14 homers in 54 games. The next year he hit .325 and slugging .557 in Class A and Class AA. The next year, at age 19, he was the starting center fielder for the Seattle Mariners.
Junior was an interesting young player. Unlike his father, he was not that fast. He looked fast because he was so wonderfully graceful — has any young player had such a perfect looking swing? — and because he played center field and because he had that Griffey name. Ken Griffey Sr. had been a slashing player — he almost won a batting title his second full season — and he is convinced that if the Reds had let him go he could have led the league in stolen bases.
But Junior was a different player from his father right from the start. He never did steal 25 bases in a season. He was bigger, stronger, slower, had a much better arm and an innate and glorious ability to pull the ball. Was there anything in sports quite as awe-inspiring as watching the young Griffey pull a home run? He hit more home runs as a 19-year old (16) than his father hit in his first four seasons. He hit 22 home runs each of the next two seasons and then 27 homers. Then he hit 45. As a 24-year-old, he was more or less Roger Maris’ 1961 pace when the season ended for the strike.*
*On what turned out to be the last game of the 1994 season, Griffey hit his 40th homer. Through 111 games in 1961, Maris hit 41 home runs. Could Griffey have hit 61? Maybe. People forget that the Mariners were on a TWENTY-GAME road trip when the strike happened. Yeah, 20 games. They had been forced on the road because some heavy tiles had fallen from the roof of the Kingdome. So Griffey was challenging the record even though he couldn’t get home to his home-run friendly ballpark. He OWNED the Kingdome — in 44 games there in 1994 he hit 18 home runs and slugged .771.
**One other fun part of the long road trip — because of the Kingdome problems, the Mariners played what were considered “home games” at Fenway Park. The first one was rained out — this is the only home rainout in Mariners history.
Junior was such a joy to watch play baseball as young player. He had this youthful exuberance, he exuded joy (he wore his hat backward, which drove the get-off-my-lawn grumps insane but was for people of his generation just about the coolest look ever), and there was that singular grace he played with — the way he ran after fly balls, the way he moved on the bases, the way he would turn on even the best fastballs, all of it just seemed impossibly lovely. That’s the word that comes to mind. Lovely. They used to say that Fred Astaire just standing against a building looked like a dancer. Junior standing outside waiting for the team bus looked like a ballplayer.
Such athletic beauty comes with benefits and pitfalls. Junior won 10 straight Gold Gloves in center field … he was not always that good an outfielder (as evidenced, in part, by the fact he never won another one after he turned 29). He was widely viewed as the best player in baseball, even though he was not — the young Bonds always got on base more and ran the bases better and stole more bases and was probably a better outfielder too
On the other hand, he couldn’t win an MVP for years — he somehow lost the MVP to Frank Thomas in 1993 though it’s difficult to see quite how that happened (not only did he not win the MVP, he finished FIFTH). Griffey hit more home runs than Thomas, scored more runs, gave up just eight points of OPS, was obviously a better base runner and was a Gold Glove center fielder while Thomas was a liability at first base. The difference in Wins Above Replacement (Griffey league-leading 8.8, Thomas 6.2) was not close.
Griffey was one of numerous more qualified players who somehow lost the MVP award to Juan Gonzalez in 1996 (Griffey finished fourth), though he hit more homers than Gonzalez, had about as many RBIs, had 25 points in OBP and won a Gold Glove in center field while Juan Gone was such a liability in right that the Rangers played him at DH 32 games. The difference in Wins Above Replacement (Griffey league-leading 9.6, Juan Gone 3.8) was a joke.
Basically Griffey had to hit 56 home runs, lead the league in runs, RBIs and slugging, plus win a Gold Glove in center field to finally win his award, which he did in 1997. The next year, he hit 56 homers again, won another Gold Glove, drove in 146 RBIs … and the voters felt it was important to give Juan Gonzalez his second MVP instead.
When Griffey turned 30, he had 398 home runs — 50 more than Hank Aaron had at the same age. He had 1,742 hits — 200 more than Pete Rose had at the same age. He had more runs scored than Rickey Henderson at age 30, more RBIs than Hank Aaron at age 30, had more WAR than Willie Mays at age 30 to go along with 10 Gold Glove Awards. He had been voted to start in eight All-Star Games, and he was the face of baseball before such things were decided with online voting. With a second half as good as his first, Ken Griffey had a chance to be the all-time home run champ, the all-time RBI champ and very much in the argument for greatest player ever.
And, basically, it ended right then.
Ken Griffey’s career didn’t end, of course. He played more than 1,100 more baseball games, pumped his career home run total to 600-plus, made three more All-Star Teams,won a Comeback Player of the Year award and so on. But he pressed for a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds in three months after he turned 30 and he hit 40 home runs in his first year back home. And he was never again a great player. Injuries mounted. Years slowed him down. His unparalleled baseball grace bloated and limped and gained weight.
After 30, Griffey hit .262/.355/.493 with 232 home runs — good numbers for a 30-something mortal, but the flight for greatest ever is in light and rarified air. Griffey, like Jimmie Foxx, like Alex Rodriguez, like Cal Ripken, like Carl Yastrzemski, perhaps like Albert Pujols (all glorious players) could not stay in that air long enough. It always struck me as kind of sad that there was a generation of kids who saw only THAT older Ken Griffey play and always associated him with those years rather than the 10 years when Griffey was young and brilliant and as thrilling a player as has ever been.
Late in Griffey career, there was a report that his manager couldn’t use him as a pinch hitter because he was napping in the clubhouse. There was never any real clarity about the report but less than a month later, Griffey retired in the middle of a road trip. You got the sense baseball had lost its joy for him some time before; his infectious smiled had grown wary. It seemed a sad ending, but you know what? A great baseball career will always end in sadness. Sometimes, the sadness comes from saying good bye. Sometimes the sadness comes from a career cut short. Sometimes the sadness grows out of the dismay of seeing a player who once soared just plugging along with rapidly fading skills.
Always, the sadness is about passing years. The great careers always end too soon.