The Kid always had that swagger. He had the smile, wore his hat backwards, and had one of the smoothest swings in the history of the game. He defined a generation of ballplayers, often being the yin to Barry Bonds yang, and the end result will be his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in five years. Of course, I’m talking about Ken Griffey Jr.
My first recollection of Griffey isn’t a homer or a catch to rob one, but going to the local ball card shop with my brother and friend in 1989. My brother and I each bought two Upper Deck Griffey cards, while our buddy bought 20 of them at $2 a piece (no joke). I’ve since lost touch with that friend, but hopefully he hung on to all those cards because he’d have made a pretty penny (at the lower end I think they go for $40-50). Why did my friend grab so many rookies of Griffey? He clearly knew what he was doing – slightly ahead of me and my cheapskate ways at the time (I think I bought two boxes of Score cards instead – and that wasn’t a great choice in retrospect).
However, my greatest memories of Griffey obviously emanate not from losing a small fortune, but from his work on the diamond. You’ll see the numbers listed everywhere you read about Griffey the next few days, so I’ll just list them quickly.
630 homers, 5th all-time
1,836 RBI, 14th all-time
1,662 runs, 31st all-time
1,192 extra base hits, 6th all-time
5,271 total bases, 12th all-time
* He was named to 13 All-Star teams including every year from 1990-2000 – the entire decade.
* He won the MVP award in 1997, unanimously. He was awarded 3.20 Career MVP Shares, 27th best of all-time.
* Here might be the most amazing part of the whole deal; Griffey wasn’t just a hitter, he was a sublime fielder who 10-straight Gold Gloves, one for each year of the decade of the 1990′s. Think about that. He won a Gold Glove ever year of the 90′s. Only Roberto Clemente (12) and Willie Mays (12) won more amongst outfielders.
Injuries curtailed Griffey’s career prematurely, and people who only remember the broken down player of the past few years are doing this man a disservice. Just how great was he during his prime? From 1996-1999, there wasn’t a finer player in the game. In that four year period of time he was the MVP once, finished fourth twice, and was 10th on the other occasion. As for the numbers, he never hit fewer than 48 homers, knocked in fewer than 134 runs, scored fewer than 120 or stole fewer than 15 bases in any of those four years. Griffey is therefore the only man in the history of the game to go 48-134-120-15 in 4-straight seasons – and he also won a Gold Glove every season to boot.
But beyond the greatness of his two-way play, beyond the childlike enthusiasm and beyond the fact that he was never embroiled in any off-field issues of any kind until the recent ludicrous story that he was sleeping during a game, there is one salient fact that sets him apart from everyone else he played against – not once has his name ever been linked to performance enhancing drugs.
Now I have no inside knowledge, I wasn’t in the locker room with any of these guys and I don’t share beers with them on a Friday night, so like the rest of you it’s all rumor and supposition about what went on behind closed doors. But as stated, what we do know is that Griffey’s name was never linked to PED’s. Therefore, he just might be the only slugger of his era whose exploits aren’t thought to have been chemically enhanced. Given that, there is nothing to stop Griffey from entering the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
So, was Griffey the best center fielder in the history of the game? It’s pretty difficult to think that Griffey was as good an all-around player as Willie Mays, and he clearly lacked the outward passion of Ty Cobb, and it’s not like there aren’t two all-time greats who roamed centerfield for the Yankees in Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. In the end the question will continue to be debated, but I feel completely comfortable in stating that Ken Griffey Jr. was the greatest all-around center fielder this scribe ever had the privilege of watching play the game of baseball, and while that might not mean a thing to Mr. Griffey, it means the world to me.
By Ray Flowers