“How can you not be romantic about baseball?”– Brad Pitt (as Oakland Athletics’ GM, Billy Beane in the movie “Moneyball”.
But really, how can we not be romantic about a game that produces so much beauty? When it comes to beauty, particularly in the game of baseball, nothing was more beautiful than the play of Ken Griffey Jr.
On this date, 31 years ago, we were treated to the arrival of the most beautiful swing you’ve ever seen. That swing was brought to us by ‘The Kid’, Ken Griffey Jr., a second-generation major-leaguer. Griffey was drafted first-overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 1987 Major League Baseball Ametuer Draft as an outfielder from of Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In his high school days, Griffey was the cream of the crop, hitting .478 with 17 home runs in two seasons of high school baseball before being named the U.S. High School Baseball Player of the Year in 1987, the same year he was drafted by the Mariners.
He was the face of baseball for a decade, at least. He graced the cover of video games, was the face of Nike Baseball, had his own signature shoes, and was in the midst of a stretch of 11 consecutive Major League Baseball All-Star Game selections.
The Kid was the face of the ultimate game for kids, and his left-handed swing helped millions of us fall in love with the game of baseball.
No matter your regional allegiance, if you were a kid, you idolized Ken Griffey Jr. From his backwards cap, to his swagger, his Nike digs, and all the way down to the way he made playing the outfield look like fun, he was the man.
From the sandlot, the the wiffle-ball game in your backyard, there wasn’t a more emulated player in the baseball world.
Here are our favorite moments from the career of Ken Griffey Jr.
My first tangible memory of Griffey Jr was in 1993, during the Home Run Derby at Camden Yards in Baltimore. I was eight years old at the time, and pretty much absorbed baseball every moment I was afforded the chance.
This derby, as you likely already know, includes the infamous shot Griffey hit off of the warehouse in right field. There was something impossibly special about that moment — the ease of his brilliant swing, the way the ball naturally shot off the bat, the coolness of Griffey as he donned his signature backwards cap.
Rewatching that moment several years later, I come to appreciate it even more. Griffey, after mesmerizing the crowd, simply smiled and stepped out of the box, allowing the packed stadium to shower him with adornment. He did so gracefully and with a genuine appreciation, all the while remaining as cool as he’d ever been.
This was the moment that made Griffey Jr my favorite non-Cub. He remains that way to this very day.
Growing up a “90s’ kid”, I have many fond memories of Ken Griffey Jr, but my favorite was during the 1999 Home Run Derby, listening to Chris Berman call his signature, “back, back, back, back, gone!”, home run call over and over again as ‘the Kid’ would eventually win his second consecutive Home Run Derby.
Despite ‘Big Mac’ having crushed a record-breaking 70 home runs during the 1998 season, and him being well on his way to what would eventually be a 65-home run campaign in 1999, Griffey and his illustrious left-handed stroke would not be denied his second consecutive, and third total Home Run Derby crown that night at Fenway Park.
1999 was the height of the long-ball during the steroid era, and the 1999 Home Run Derby from historic Fenway Park featured the likes of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Shawn Green, Jeromy Burnitz, John Jaha, B.J. Surhoff, and the hometown favorite, Nomar Garciaparra.
If McGwire seemed like the favorite leading up to the contest, the first round cemented that notion when the former St. Louis Cardinal’ parked his first of 13 first-round bombs over the Monster, and then sent his third of the round into a light tower behind the famed left field wall.
After nine consecutive outs in his first round appearance, Griffey hit a pair to barely escape the first round. He advanced with McGwire, Jeff Bagwell and Jeromy Burnitz.
Griffey turned it around in the second round, belting 10 home runs to advance to the final round against Jeromy Burnitz, whom he beat 3-2 in a five-out final round.
After nearly throwing up a doughnut in the opening round, Griffey managed to swing his way into his third and final victory in the Home Run Derby on a night that played out draped by the iconic Fenway Park background.
I am too young to have seen Ken Griffey Jr. dominate in Seattle or even some of those early Cincinnati years. One thing I do remember, is when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox, my favorite baseball team.
The 2008 summer was all things baseball for me, not very different from years past, but this one was different. I was not only playing baseball, but was the first year I really got into collecting baseball cards. I made many trips to the local card store with my Mom and Dad, and even rode my bike to the Dollar General for some packs.
I probably spent more money that summer on baseball cards than any 10-year-old should have, but nothing mattered. It was summer after all.
By the end of the July, the Sox were in the playoff hunt needing to make a move. That move was the trade of Nick Masset and Danny Richar for baseball legend, Ken Griffey Jr.
I was excited to not only have him playing for my favorite team, but also at the prospect of having several baseball cards with him in a Chicago White Sox uniform.
The Blackout Game
For Chicago White Sox fans, the one-game playoff that decided the winner of the American League Central in the Fall of 2008 — known more affectionately as, ‘The Blackout Game’ — was the shining moment for Griffey in a Sox uniform.
With the game knotted-up at zero, the Twins were threatening after a Michael Cuddyer double to left. With Cuddyer on third and one out, Brendan Harris drove a ball to centerfield, where a one-time baseball God, on the back-nine of his career would make one more impact play on the big stage.
Griffey made the catch on Harris’ fly-ball, and gunned Michael Cuddyer out at the plate, ending the inning and the Twins’ scoring opportunity. It was a game saving play, one that allowed another future hall-of-famer to have a mega-moment in the latter stages of his career. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Jim Thome took Nick Blackburn deep for the only run of the ballgame, that would eventually be the decisive blow to the Twins.
The White Sox would win 1-0, and claim the American League Central crown, their last such feat.
While I do not have any specific notable memories of Ken Griffey Jr., what stuck with me was how smooth and easy he made the game look, particularly defensively.
Without a doubt, he was an absolute beast offensively, but the nineties saw a younger (skinny and more athletic) version of myself learning how to play baseball as a kid and teen. My favorite aspect of the game was shagging fly balls in the outfield, and I just remember watching every replay I could find of Griffey roaming the outfield, fearlessly attacking every wall that got in his way.
He just made the game look so easy. I realize that these days advanced defensive metrics have changed how we view past gold glovers, but the eye test showed a guy that just had “it” in centerfield when he was with the Seattle Mariners.