Ken Griffey Jr. and I go way back. In fact, he was the first baseball player I ever discovered.
I didn’t know what he looked like, but I knew his name.
Let me elaborate. In 1994 my older brother returned from a trip to New York City with a gift for me. I was 6 years-old and suddenly the owner of a brand new baseball glove, a Rawlings RBG100 model in tan. It had this signature printed on the inside of the palm that read Ken Griffey Jr., and another inscription that read “The Finest in the Field.” I didn’t have the faintest idea who Griffey was but I instantly adored this glove.
This was the first time I had ever seen a baseball glove in person. Holding it in my childish hands felt like an exotic artifact from a foreign land. As I fumbled with it, trying to work out which hand it went on, I felt like one of those kids I had seen on countless American TV shows and movies that I’d been raised on.
So there I was, this 6 year-old British boy with a baseball glove (and a ball, bro remembered to buy a ball) but no one to play with. In rural nineties Dorset, there weren’t many kids playing baseball. My childhood friends were not interested.
Instead, I would bounce the ball off a wall in our house and use the glove to make diving catches on the carpet. I would pull the brim of my cap down low, bend my knees and get into my stance, before releasing the ball again and again, diving to the left and the right, over and over. The carpet burns on my knees and elbows were worth it, as I repeatedly performed Gold Glove-calibre plays. Analysts today would have compared my abilities to those of a young Francisco Lindor. I’m sure of it.
That was the extent of the action this crisp new glove would see, but I cherished it for a very long time, often leaving it out on display in my room so it was always nearby to look at and try on.
It was only years later that Griffey and I reconnected. When I began to discover baseball properly in the mid-2000’s, I absorbed as much information and history as humanly possible.
It was during this time he came back to me.
George Kenneth Griffey Jr. made his major league debut for the Seattle Mariners on the road against the Athletics, in April of 1989. His first at-bat resulted in a crushing double off the cavernous Oakland Coliseum wall. Not a bad way to start your career. When he made his home debut in Seattle, he got off to a fast start again, smashing an opposite field homer in his first at-bat. “The Kid” had a knack for first impressions.
Griffey hit the ground running and was immediately annointed as MLB’s newest star. The young center fielder was the heir apparent to Willie Mays. He would frequently run into walls, leap over the fence to rob home runs, and even replicated Mays’ signature basket catch.
It was unanimous that Griffey had the sweetest swing in the game. Go back and watch tape of his technique; his arms straight, the slight wiggle of the wrists, almost rhythmic. Then he explodes through the batting plane, lifting the ball higher and further than any player since the Great Bambino.
Griffey’s career is stacked full of remarkable achievements. For instance, on September 14 1990, Griffey and his father, Ken Griffey Sr., hit back-to-back home runs against the Angels. Pause and think about that for a minute. Junior was just 20 years-old, a phenom, whereas his father was in the twilight of his career aged 41. Do you know how rare it is for a father-son duo to even play together in the majors? Let alone be good enough to hit home runs. This is an achievement that could never be seen again.
In July of 1993, Junior hit home runs in 8 consecutive games, tying the major league record. A week prior to that outburst he had displayed his incredible power at the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore. With his hat on backwards, radiating that cool Griffey style, he proceeded to unleash on baseballs with a ferocity that Camden Yards has not seen since. Griffey is still the only player to have hit a home run and struck the iconic Baltimore & Ohio Warehouse, recorded at 465 feet. The Orioles even put a plaque there to commemorate it.
Over the course of his 22-year career, Griffey accumulated 10 consecutive gold gloves, 13 All-Star game selections, hit 630 home runs, and recorded seven seasons of 40 plus homers. He was the 1997 American League MVP, and the first overall pick in the 1987 draft.
It was the selection of Griffey with that number one pick that probably saved baseball in the Pacific Northwest. The Mariners had been perennial losers since their inception in 1977. They were not much fun to watch, and a ticket to the Kingdome cost about as much as a hot dog. Seattle finished the 1986 season with a record of 67-95 and were rewarded with the first pick in the draft and the opportunity to turn their sinking franchise around. They selected Griffey fresh out of high school and would never look back. Baseball America would later call it the best selection in the history of the MLB Draft.
Take a quick look at the unbelievable numbers he generated in his Mariners prime:
Year HR RBI
1996 49 140
1997 56 147
1998 56 146
1999 48 134
Total 209 567
At the start of the new century, Griffey departed his beloved Seattle and returned home to Cincinnati to join the Reds, the city where his father enjoyed the most success and became an All-Star. Despite a few good years for the Reds, including 3 All-Star appearances, time took its toll on Junior and injuries forced him from many games. His skills deteriorated as the years ticked by, and “The Kid” ultimately lost his youthful glow.
Griffey never lost his smile though, that famous grin that made him the “face of baseball,” and put him on the cover of every magazine. At his peak, Junior was MLB’s answer to Michael Jordan. Both of the Nike icons collided at the 1993 All-Star game, when Jordan was in the midst of his break from basketball and had begun his experimental spell with the White Sox. The NBA legend made his way into the All-Star’s locker room, pushed a path through the crowds of reporters and actually asked Griffey for an autograph. Still only 23 years-old but showing no signs of being starstruck, Griffey accepted and put his scrawl on Jordan’s bat. That’s just how big a star he was, even the greatest sporting icons wanted a piece of him.
In 2016 Griffey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the first attempt, with 99.3% of all ballots cast, breaking the record set by Mets ace Tom Seaver in 1992. There was never any doubt that Griffey would take his place and be enshrined with all the other legends of the game.
On a personal level, I have always held a deep admiration for Griffey, even when I was too young to realise it. For a long time he was only a name on a glove, yet his impact still resonated. Part of me is sad I never got to watch him in his prime, or be part of the Griffey-experience that captured America’s attention for much for the nineties.
However, thanks to the wonders of technology, I have enjoyed watching his achievements on replay since his retirement, and reading all about his exploits in books and magazines.
One thing is for certain: I have enjoyed reconnecting with that name on my glove – Ken Griffey Jr. and me.