Of all the accolades and accomplishments in Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, the most impressive might be this: In an era that may very well have contained both the best hitter and best pitcher in baseball history, Griffey stands out as the most important player of his generation. For someone who has for years touted Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as baseball’s highest deities, that’s not light praise.
Griffey was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. In the weeks that led up to the ceremony, I read a lot of stories…stories about his life and career of course, but other kinds too, the kinds of stories that aren’t written about your average ballplayer. I read stories from writers who described the impact Griffey had on them as young baseball fans, writers who credited him with their fandom entirely. The stories weren’t centralized in the Pacific Northwest, and they weren’t exclusive to Mariner fans. They were from all kinds of fans, in all corners of the baseball world.
In reflecting on my own memories of his career, it became apparent to me that Griffey transcended the game in a way few players over the course of history ever have, and did so in a way that was so unequivocally him. Babe Ruth did it with his greatness…Jackie Robinson with his courage, Ted Williams with his scientific brilliance. Even within his own era, there were players who held things on Junior; he wasn’t as big and strong as Mark McGwire, as fierce as Randy Johnson, as dominant as Bonds. Those players, great as they were, didn’t resonate with people the way Griffey did, though. There was no nation of ten-year-olds rocking Greg Maddux shirseys or practicing their Juan Gonzalez swing in the mirror every night. Griffey alone inspired that kind of mania, and it was simple why: all those guys put together couldn’t come close the coolness of Ken Griffey Jr.
Like so many others in the mid-nineties, that coolness was the spark that transformed me from a wide-eyed eight-year-old just beginning to discover the wonders of the game into the baseball-obsessed lunatic I’ve been in the twenty years since. The numbers were magnificent, sure, but the joy that Griffey brought went well beyond that. It was the smile, the earring, the backwards hat. It was the circus catches in center, the rocket arm, the way he’d jump into the wall feet-first as if he was springing off the high-dive. It was that freaking swing, man.
The swing was like a pendulum, expertly weighted and scientifically engineered to destroy baseballs. It was effortless. As beautiful as Bonds’ swing was, I always felt as if his homers were somehow defying physics. The force of his swing and the devastating crack that would ring out when he connected was something to marvel at, as if he were launching a shot put instead of a baseball. It wasn’t like that with Griffey. Physics seemed to work with him, not against. I never once wondered how he got the ball to sail so far. Of course it went that far, look at that swing. The ball had no choice in the matter. It was poetry.
The Mariners became everybody’s second favorite team by way of Griffey. When you and your buddy fired up Triple Play 99, it was understood that whichever one of you that didn’t get to be the hometown team was going to be Seattle. The half-dozen Yankee hats in my room as a kid were proudly contradicted with a navy and teal Mariners snapback. I knew Yankee fans who wore his jerseys, Met fans that had Mariner bedspreads, Red Sox fans with Junior posters plastered all over their walls. It wasn’t just socially acceptable to love him. It actively made you cooler.
To this day I remember the tag inside my Little League cleats better even than I do the cleats themselves. “Engineered to the exact specifications of Ken Griffey Jr.” Below it was his signature, stitched in red, a personal validation from The Kid himself to ward off anyone who might dare to think me uncool. One day at practice, a teammate told me he thought they were ugly. When he found out they were Griffeys, he showed up to practice the following week with a pair of his own.
Even when Griffey began to diminish on the field, his coolness never wavered. Everyone remembers the ‘oh shit’ feeling they had when his name got called at their fantasy draft in the mid-2000s. His body had been ravaged by injuries by then, and his prime was a half-decade in the rear-view mirror. You might publicly scoff at the pick. “Good luck with that,” you’d mutter insecurely. In reality, it didn’t matter if it were a sucker’s move. Everyone was jealous of that pick. The greatness of his play was irreversibly seared into the memory of anyone lucky enough to witness it, and that greatness demanded reverence even after his skills had long faded.
When Griffey took the stage in Cooperstown on Sunday, those are the memories that came flooding back to me. More than his 630 home runs, more than his ten Gold Gloves, more than his highest vote-percentage in Hall of Fame history…that level of cool is what continues to make him so beloved to anyone who watched baseball in the nineties. It’s that level of cool that we’re all still hoping to be someday.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a mirror. There’s a swing that needs practicing.