It was the summer of 1989 and I was 11. I was trading baseball cards with my cousin, four and a half years my junior, as we often did. I saw that he had a 1989 Donruss Rated Rookie for a guy named Ken Griffey, Jr. It was early in the season, and though I didn’t know a whole lot about him, I remembered hearing some things about Griffey being an up-and-comer. I thought I’d make a play for the card. Not wanting to completely rip off my own flesh and blood, I found a card I thought would make for a reasonably fair trade…a 1988 Topps Danny Tartabull. Sure, in retrospect it looks like a fleecing—the only stat Tartabull eclipses Griffey in now is Seinfeld appearances—but go look at his stats, they’re better than you think, and at the time Tartabull, of MLB pedigree himself, was something of a rising star also. Of course, in a matter of weeks it was clear that, as fine a player as Tartabull may have been, Griffey was going to be something special and the value of the two cards reflected that. At one point not long after the deal the Griffey was around the $5 mark, the Tartabull not more than a common card, maybe a nickel. From that point forward, all trades between my cousin and me were to be pre-approved by his dad (though in my defense, that same year he offered me a Jose Canseco rookie for a slice of pizza and I declined knowing it was a rip off…for me. And also that same year, I traded him a Barry Bonds rookie, among a few other cards, for the 1989 Upper Deck Jim Abbot rookie. A pretty even trade at the time, but I shudder to look up the values of those two cards now).
Anyway, thus began my idolization of Ken Griffey, Jr. Even though he played for a division rival to my beloved Angels, the Mariners had always been terrible and posed no credible threat (until 1995….sigh). Plus, I had a soft spot for them since meeting and going to lunch with second baseman Harold Reynolds (now of the MLB Network) a few years earlier. The Angels had never had a potential star of that magnitude on the roster before. Even as great as Wally Joyner was his first couple years, he didn’t have the grace or magnetism of Griffey. Besides, even by ’89 Joyner’s numbers had come remarkably down to earth; he never again even approached the 30 home run plateau after 1987. So as counterintuitive as it may have been, I was an Angels fan first and foremost, but I always cheered for Griffey, Jr.
Through my formative sports following years he didn’t disappoint. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Power, check. Speed, check. Defense, check. Look like you actually enjoy playing baseball, check. With his hat turned backward, million dollar grin, and picture perfect swing, Griffey took the game by storm. His posters were on my wall and for a long time my most prized possession was his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card that I got for Christmas that year. That card still probably ranks in the top three of my all-time favorite Christmas gifts.
I lamented when he broke his wrist in 1995 (though I should’ve been rejoicing), I was dejected when his shot at 62 was taken away by the Strike in 1994, and I was thrilled when he finally won his first MVP in 1997. By 1999, the question “Is Griffey the best ever?” could be asked and no one would think someone completely insane for asking it.
I predicted that he would take less money to go back to his roots in Cincinnati a year before he did. Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about Ken Griffey, Jr. other than what I could see on the baseball diamond, but I just felt like that’s the kind of guy he was. He was different than all those other superstars. He was a good guy who put his family ahead of the big dollars. He did things right on the field, why couldn’t he be that way in life also?
That sort of talk is more than a little risky when it’s said about professional athletes. Time and time again we put them up on pedestals, and then we knock them down. Most of the time, it seems, they deserve it.
But as the arc of Griffey’s career is now at a close, maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t too far off.
Once he reached Cincy, his career seemed to hit the skids. He put up good numbers his first year there, but not necessarily Griffey-good. The next several seasons were a litany of one injury after the other. From 2001 to 2010 he really only had two of what would be considered “good” seasons. The rest were mediocre at best, in some cases a disaster, none approaching his former greatness. Meanwhile, as he was fading and seemingly aging at an unnatural pace, many of his contemporaries appeared to have found the Fountain of Youth…and Muscles. They were putting up monstrous and unheard of numbers. Players who would would’ve been considered Griffey’s near-equals rocketed past him in production and those who would not have previously been mentioned in the same breath with him as far was talent was concerned, were also now eclipsing the numbers of even his greatest seasons.
Of course now we know why. While Griffey was appearing to age unnaturally, he was in fact doing the exact opposite. It was all the rest who were unnatural. When Griffey began to break down in his mid-30’s as players had for generations, at similar ages the Sosas and Bonds’ and Palmeiros of the world were playing like their hyped up video game avatars.
Can anyone other than Ken Griffey, Jr. ever truly know or prove that Ken Griffey, Jr. never did any performance enhancing drugs? No. But we can sure look at the evidence and make a pretty good guess. His name has never been whispered, mentioned, shouted, or intimated to have been involved with PEDs. Did his body change as he got older? It sure did…a little rounder around the middle.
That is Griffey’s true legacy. It’s amazing that we still ask the What If question for a guy that hit 630 home runs. That is, I think, a result of a combination of the otherworldly expectations we all had for him and us still adjusting to the game that is (somewhat) post-PEDs. We’re still re-acclimating ourselves to the fact that it is more unusual than not for someone to hit 50 home runs in a season. But I think as years pass and we look back at Griffey’s career and the context in which he played, that 630 number will become even more impressive. In an era of drug assisted video game statistics, Griffey’s were just as gaudy, but the only assist he needed was that sweet swing.
Here’s a pretty good highlight video.