The Survivor


While I’ve blogged about my favorite teams before, I have yet to really delve into my favorite athletes.  I don’t usually have strong ties to individual players, and will usually adopt the best players from my favorite teams as my favorite athletes and lose interest in them when they leave my teams.  Probably the most notable exception to this rule is George Kenneth Griffey, Jr., my favorite athlete of all time.

First, let’s recap his career.  Ken Griffey Jr. was born in Donora, PA in 1969, but soon his family moved to Cincinnati, where his father, Ken Sr., was an outfielder for the Reds.  The elder Griffey, while not a Hall of Fame-caliber player, had a productive career playing for four teams, winning two World Series titles with the Reds and making three All-Star teams.  Griffey Sr. instilled his son with many traits that would come to benefit him during his career, such as subordinating his own individual stats in favor of doing whatever it took to help his team win.

Junior Griffey was a two-sport star at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati and was heavily recruited by college programs in both baseball and football (he played wide receiver).  But after the Seattle Mariners chose him with the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, Griffey eschewed college and entered the Mariners minor league system.  He shot up through the ranks quickly, playing only two years in the minors and jumping straight from the Class AA Vermont Mariners to the majors, where he and his father became the first father-son duo to play on the same team in the majors.  He made an instant impact with the Mariners, hitting 16 home runs in his first full season, and 22 in his second.  His breakout season was 1994, when he hit 40 homers in just 114 games.  Many believe he would have broken Roger Maris’s single-season home run record of 61 had the season not been derailed by a players’ strike.  After 1994, his popularity grew quickly, fueled by endorsement deals with Nike and Nintendo.  My first awareness of his greatness came when I played the Super NES game Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run, which featured mostly fictional players but was endlessly fun to play.  And when Griffey came to the plate, you knew you had a good chance to whack one out of the ballpark.

winning run

Griffey had another chance at Maris’s record in 1998, and while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa attracted the most attention during their famous chase toward breaking the record that year, what many people don’t realize is that Griffey kept pace with them for most of that season, only to fade late.  He finished with 56 dingers that year, which would’ve earned him widespread acclaim in any other season.  Case in point, he hit the same number of homers the previous year and earned the American League MVP award.  During his first 11 seasons, all with Seattle, Griffey hit just a hair under .300 and compiled a .378 on-base percentage and an impressive .563 slugging percentage.  Many believed he would easily break Hank Aaron’s career home run record of 755, and maybe become the greatest slugger of all time.

But, alas, things don’t always go as planned.  Griffey started expressing a desire to live closer to his family in Cincinnati, and in 2000 the Mariners acquiesced, trading him to the Reds in what seemed like one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history.  The centerpiece of the trade for the Mariners was outfielder Mike Cameron, who would go on to have a productive, if unspectacular, career with five more teams after a three-year stint with Seattle.  Griffey would have a productive 2000 season, though his power numbers would be somewhat diminished as he adjusted to National League pitching.  Many Griffey fans (myself included) couldn’t wait to see his full power unleashed on the NL in 2001.  But a string of hamstring injuries derailed his next three years, and he never hit more than 22 home runs in a season between 2001-2004.  His batting average and on-base percentage languished behind his former numbers as well.  This was a trying time for me as a baseball fan.  For years I had checked box scores in the morning paper to see if he had hit another home run.  Now I was reduced to checking to see if he’d even played.  Griffey’s frustration mirrored the fans’.  I remember a particularly agonizing interview in which he broke down and said, “I just wanna play.”

griffey SI

In 2005, he got his wish.  Finally healthy and able to play consistently again, he batted a resurgent .301 with 35 home runs, and earned the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.  But by then, age had started to become a factor, and he never again reached the incredible stats that he put up early on in his career.  Griffey remained a productive player, however, making one final All-Star appearance in 2007.  His decline finally started in 2008, when the Reds traded him to the Chicago White Sox at the deadline.  Griffey returned to the Mariners for two more seasons, a signing made more out of nostalgia than anything else.  His batting average hovered around the Mendoza Line, and his characteristic power was mostly gone.  The hitter once known as “The Kid” finally retired 33 games into the 2010 season, citing a desire to avoid becoming a distraction for his team.

Despite the mostly disappointing second half of his career and reports of a petulant and moody demeanor, Griffey remains my favorite player of all time.  First off, he was not a one-dimensional slugger, like many players of the era who usually either hit a home run or struck out.  He was able to contribute whatever his team needed, whether it be a single, double, triple, or homer.  This was aided by one of the most silky-smooth swings of any hitter in history.  Check out some examples of that swing in this video.  It’s a thing of beauty, really.

Griffey had other skills besides hitting, too.  His fielding ability in center field was superb for most of his career, and resulted in his making circus catches to rob hitters of extra-base hits and home runs.  That same speed enabled him to steal around 15-20 bases a year in the early part of his career, and round the bases to score a run on shallow hits where that wouldn’t be expected  There were a few examples of his speed and defense in the above video, but I wanted to include these as well.

Perhaps best of all for some fans, Junior has yet to be linked to steroid use.  While we will never know exactly who was and wasn’t clean during the mid to late 90s “Steroid Era,” I am convinced, for now, that he did not use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).  I have a few pieces of evidence for this.  For one, he was pretty much always had the same sinewy, thin physique for much of his career.  He didn’t turn into this massive, pumped-up mutant like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire did.

But not all players who used steroids were huge, muscular monsters, either.  There are other pieces of evidence that work in Junior’s favor.  The three years he spent languishing with hamstring injuries oddly work in his favor here.  One key reason athletes use steroids and other PEDs is that they are able to recover from injury faster.  Had Griffey been using steroids, I think, he would have lost far less time to his injuries than he had.  And finally, his skills diminished with age at a fairly normal rate for most ballplayers.  He did not have sudden surges near the end of his career like Bonds or McGwire, nor an inordinately long period of success as a hitter.  He has survived such PED bombshells as the Mitchell Report, BALCO scandal, and Jose Canseco’s revelations with his reputation intact.  As such, he should be welcomed with open arms into the Hall of Fame when he is eligible.  I will watch his acceptance speech with pride as one of the most enthusiastic and productive players of his generation takes his place as one of the greatest of all time.


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