Destined for greatness
Ken Griffey Jr. retires as one of the finest center fielders of all time
Soon after signing his first professional baseball contract, a first-round draft choice sometimes is given the opportunity to take batting practice in his new team's major league ballpark to give him an idea of where he will play someday. "I've seen it before; the kid is nervous," said Scott Bradley, the baseball coach at Princeton and a former major leaguer. "He gets in the cage, pops up a bunch of balls, swings and misses at a couple because he's trying to hit it so high and so far because he doesn't feel like he belongs."
Then Bradley laughed.
"That wasn't the case with Junior," he said. "He got in the cage, and he was kind of carrying on a conversation with the media while he was hitting. The first 25 swings, he just hit line drives to left field. He didn't overswing one time. Then he hit balls up the middle. Then he took a break, came back loose and started hitting balls into the seats. I looked at [veteran Mariners] Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis and said, 'It looks like he belongs.'"
Junior, of course, is Ken Griffey Jr., and he always looked as though he belonged. He is the son of a good major league player, Ken Griffey Sr.; he is from Donora, Pa., hometown of the great Stan Musial; and he says he never struck out in a game in high school. Griffey was the No. 1 pick in the country in 1987. That day when he took BP at the Kingdome, with all the Mariners watching, was an indication of where he was going and how special he would become.
Griffey was one of the greatest players in baseball history. Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker and Griffey Jr. are generally considered the best center fielders of all time. Griffey made the All-Century Team before he turned 30. He was voted player of the decade for the 1990s. He hit 630 home runs, fifth-most ever. He hit 40 homers seven times, and 50 twice, back-to-back in 1997 and '98 when he totaled 112. From 1997 to '99, he became the first American Leaguer since Harmon Killebrew to lead the league in homers three years in a row. He hit 16 homers as a teenager; only Tony Conigliaro and Mel Ott hit more as teenagers. One of those home runs came directly after a hit by his father, a first in baseball history and likely a last. In 1993, Griffey hit a home run in eight consecutive games, tying the record held by Don Mattingly and Dale Long.
"He had a perfect swing," said Bobby Valentine, ex-major league player and manager. "Perfect."
But Griffey was much more than a home run hitter; he was also a brilliant defensive player, one of the most acrobatic center fielders of all time. Griffey won 10 Gold Gloves; Mays, with 12, is the only center fielder with more, and Mays is the only member of the 500-home run club with more Gold Gloves. In 1997, he joined Mays as then the only players to hit 50 home runs in a Gold Glove season. Only Mays has hit more home runs as a center fielder, and no center fielder ever hit more homers in one season than Griffey.
In 1989, the Mariners wanted Griffey to spend a third year in the minor leagues and play a year at Triple-A. "When he came to camp in 1989, he had no chance to make the team," Bradley said. "But he got a lot of at-bats early that spring because a lot of veterans don't like to play a lot early. After 20 games, he wasn't just the best player on our team, he was the best player in the league that spring. The Mariners basically said, 'We don't want this to happen, we don't want to rush him, we don't want him to make the team.' So they started running him out there against every elite pitcher, against all the nastiest left-handers they could find in hopes that he would stop hitting, and they could send him out [to the minors]. It never happened."
He made the club as a 19-year-old, the youngest player on an Opening Day roster that season. In his first at-bat at the Seattle Kingdome, he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw from the White Sox's Eric King. And the rest was history. As natural a baseball player as there has ever been, Griffey was as good a player as there was in baseball for 10 years.
"The first time I saw him was in Arizona for spring training," said Lou Piniella, the manager of the Cubs and one of Griffey's former managers in Seattle. "He would hit these towering fly balls that would carry and carry and go out of the ballpark. I just figured it was the thin air in Arizona. Then he kept hitting those towering fly balls wherever we went, and I realized it wasn't the thin air, it was him. And it was so effortless."
Griffey had the amazing ability for a young hitter to see, react and hit the breaking ball if it stayed in the strike zone for too long. As he grew as a hitter by developing his opposite-field power while maintaining his pull power, the huge home run seasons came. He was then the youngest player to reach 300, 350, 400 and 450 home runs. When he was 31, he was a legitimate threat to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs: Until Alex Rodriguez came along, no one had more homers through age 31 than Griffey. The projections were for 800 home runs; nothing could stop him. He was that good and that gifted.
The story began to change soon after he was traded from the Mariners to the Reds -- he grew up in the Reds' clubhouse with his dad -- after the 1999 season. Four seasons in a row, starting in 2001, Griffey suffered a major injury, limiting him to 111, 70, 53 and 83 games played, respectively. When he reached 500 home runs in 2004, everyone knew 500 might have been 600 if not for the injuries. When he reached 600 in 2008, it could have been 700.
For one who was so spectacular for 10 to 15 years, the last five years weren't good to Griffey. He didn't make it easy for the Reds to move him from center field to right field when his range had diminished. At the end in Cincinnati, there were those on the Reds who thought he was more interested in hitting his 600th homer than anything else. At the end in Seattle, where he revived baseball and always will be an icon, he hit .184 with no homers in his 98 at-bats this season, preventing him from joining Rickey Henderson and Willie McCovey as the only players to hit a homer in four decades and preventing him from joining Ty Cobb, Rusty Staub and Gary Sheffield as the only players to hit home runs as a teenager and as a 40-year-old. And there was, of course, the controversial story about his possibly being asleep during a game this year, which perhaps hastened his retirement.
But none of that should be important now. It is more appropriate, and more fun, to remember Griffey at his best, a wondrous athlete who streaked through the outfield, climbed an outfield wall and made a catch that only Mays could make, then the next inning hit a ball to places that very few players could reach. That will be our lasting image.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
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