Ken Griffey, Jr.
1: You have to start with the swing. People call it fluid, and while I get that, it doesn’t go far enough. It was elemental, natural; it looked so easy that it couldn’t possibly have been the product of something so human as practice. That’s both unfair to Junior and the highest possible praise. Of course it got trademarked, of course it was copied by every kid I knew, but then, so did Harold Miner’s free-throw routine. But Griffey’s swing wasn’t a novelty any more than gravity is. It was a smooth, steady, perfect arc, no more and no less.
It looked like a refutation of every cliche about how *hard* hitting is. How can THAT be hard? There are many, many reasons why so many of the guardians of the game’s “dignity” seemed put off by Griffey (and we’ll get to more of them), but his swing was exhibit A in the prosecution’s argument that Griffey didn’t try hard enough. Griffey’s swing highlighted that he was in every sense a natural. Edgar Martinez’s swing was the product of a decade of hard work and slow, incremental improvement in everything from weight transfer to eyesight. Griffey’s swing essentially never changed, and as soon as he grew just a tiny bit from the reedy teenager he was in 1989, his in-game power was plus-plus. It was the baseball equivalent of Jordan’s jumpman pose, and every bit as electrifying and inimitable.
2: After his incredible minor league season for San Bernardino in 1988, Griffey fever built throughout the Northwest in the winter-spring of 1988-1989. A dominant spring training made it impossible for the M’s to keep him down, and thus he started the 1989 season as the starting CF – at age 19. It all worked out, but while it wasn’t strictly unprecedented, this focus on a #1 draft pick was rare. If you look over the list of 1-1 draft picks, you know what I mean. There are some good players: Jeff Burroughs won an MVP, Rick Monday was a solid player, Harold Baines, Darryl Strawberry, etc. But remember that the M’s had already had a crack at this – they took another HS OF, Al Chambers, 1-1 in 1979. They’d employed 1976 1-1 guy Floyd Bannister, and had another 1-1 guy in Mike Moore in 1981. While Moore and Bannister were contributors, they weren’t phenoms, and the less said about Chambers’ M’s career the better. The hype surrounding Griffey was both understandable and yet also somewhat risky.
Strawberry’s rise with New York helped a lot, as the young RF won the Rookie of the Year award at 21 in 1983 and became a perennial all star before injuries and drugs took their toll. But the big parallel, at least for those of us growing up in the Northwest, was Jose Canseco. Canseco was already something of a folk legend by the time he made his debut for the Tacoma Tigers in 1985, and Canseco laid waste to the minors that year, becoming a must-see guy at Cheney Stadium. In the process, he helped sweep aside the cynicism that many had about “prospects.” The term “bonus baby” wasn’t a complimentary one, and while the MLB draft had done away with the bonus system, it hadn’t produced superstars. If Strawberry started to change that, Griffey made it something baseball nerds started to focus on. A few years later, Chipper Jones would go 1-1. In 1993, the M’s struck gold again with Alex Rodriguez. The draft was no longer an opportunity to grab a high-floor college 1B at artificially-low prices – this was a chance to transform an organization, and it no longer seemed like a crapshoot.
3: I remember watching Griffey’s first MLB at-bat against Dave Stewart with my parents. I was nervous, standing up, peering in at the old TV tuned to channel 11. I went nuts as he drove the first pitch to CF for a double, and felt lucky to be an M’s fan for the first time in my life.* I also remember his home debut, but for that one, I was in my room, listening to the game on the radio. KSTW broadcast a few dozen games each year, and my recollection is that the M’s home opener wasn’t on the list. Essentially no home games were, due to blackout restrictions and the fact that the M’s only ever sold out Bat Night/Fan Appreciation night. The overwhelming majority of games were radio only, and to really have a sense of baseball’s biggest stars, you had to subscribe to ESPN (my family didn’t), or catch This Week in Baseball on the weekend. As a result, baseball was even more regional than it is now. I’d visit California and talk about Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, and most kids wouldn’t know who I was talking about, or they’d know them from seeing a baseball card or an at-bat in an All Star Game.
As a baseball-obsessed kid, I knew the AL well enough, but the National League was a foreign country. Tim Raines was great, but I couldn’t have imitated his batting stance. I knew Andre Dawson’s face, but not what he was *like* as a player (other than “good”). The lack of interleague play (or M’s world series appearances) was a huge part of that for me, but the biggest one was the paucity of televised baseball games, which is one of those things that make you realize just how different TV, media in general, and thus life in general was not that long ago.
In 1990, baseball first appeared on cable TV, with ESPN signing a $400 million deal to show 6 games a week for 4 years. A separate MLB TV contract went to CBS, who’d show the AS Game, the World Series, and a Game of the Week, also beginning in 1990. The CBS deal went for a whopping $1.8 billion, and baseball’s lucrative marriage to TV was consummated. CBS lost money on their deal, but think about what this meant for ESPN. No national network had ever shown more than a game a week, and now ESPN would show baseball all the time. To sell late night west coast games nationally, they needed stars – they needed people to know WHY they should stay up and watch a game broadcast from the Kingdome in a league or division their local club didn’t play in. In 1990, Ken Griffey Jr. hit .300/.366/.481 at a time when the league slugged .385. He was 20, and always smiling.
4: This Drew Fairservice piece from way back in 2014 gets at Griffey’s international reach – the way Griffey was every kid’s favorite player, no matter which team they cheered for. There were so many ways to demonstrate allegiance. His jersey started popping up everywhere (this would’ve been unthinkable in, say, 1985). He had a video game. Kids everywhere started wearing their hats backwards.
Buck Showalter famously spoke for a generation of baseball lifers when he grumbled, “a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” That sounds like a bizarre thing to say, but I think Showalter sensed that baseball’s culture and American culture were changing a bit. Baseball’s famously resistant to this, but it happens nonetheless, and with Griffey becoming the face of a game, Showalter and company were doomed.
Let’s be clear: people groused about the hat because it was easier than grousing about race. Griffey became the young, black face of baseball at a time right as hip hop moved from niche to mainstream tidal wave, remaking American culture as it broke. This, his own efforts with Kid Sensation not withstanding, wasn’t Griffey’s doing of course, but yet again I find it really hard to remember what it *felt* like before Griffey’s arrival.
When Junior was drafted, in the summer of 1987, the R&B charts were dominated by the last vestiges of soul, with Jody Watley, Michael Jackson, Cameo and even Aretha Franklin scoring hits. LL Cool J actually charted, but with a treacle ballad, not an actual rap song. In 1988, the stars aligned, and nearly the entire catalog of formative, genre-defining, sine-qua-non albums came out all at once – Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”, NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”, Eric B and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.” Hell, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s debut came out then, too, bringing a safe version of the form to millions, and Sir Mix a Lot’s debut album represented the Seattle area’s contribution. That set the stage for 1989, when rap broke through into the mainstream with Tone Loc, De La Soul, and Young MC cracking into the pop charts.
It goes without saying that this trend wasn’t universally welcomed. NWA made rap seem dangerous and violent and Public Enemy was challenging on a number of levels to people who found Michael Jackson’s “Bad” a poor influence on the youth of the country. Griffey was just a bystander, but you know that Buck Showalter’s talking about something more than Griffey’s shirttails when he’s talking about Griffey’s shirttails. Black culture had remade American culture, again, just as ESPN was redefining sports media, and just as Griffey was redefining the M’s. Griffey and the M’s then made the implicit links between the young superstar and hip hop explicit through the most successful stadium experience change since the invention of the night game: walk-up music. Griffey came to the plate to Hip Hop Hooray, as essentially everyone who grew up in the northwest within 10 years of my age knows, and the M’s became the first team to play a specific song for each player in the line-up in 1993.
5: Along with the cable boom and the rise of hip hop, Griffey was also associated with another important economic and cultural trend of the late 1980s: the baseball card boom. As this Economist article details, the slowly simmering auction market began to boil when a monthly price guide hit shelves in the mid-80s. People began buying cards in order to sell them for a profit, and card companies took notice.
Upper Deck entered the market in 1989 and tried to establish themselves as the upscale alternative to industry standards Topps, Donruss and Fleer. With color photos on both sides (unthinkable!) and prices that reflected the fact that cards weren’t purchased solely by ten year olds anymore (there’d be no bubble gum to mar the glossy sheen on Upper Deck cards), the set became an instant hit. And everyone knew the set by its most famous card, the one featuring a player who hadn’t debuted when the set hit the market.
The card combined the price-obsessed mania of the card boom with the game’s most famous prospect. If you’re going to speculate, why not go all-in and speculate on a player who hadn’t debuted? I was 12 and, like pretty much every one of my friends, saved some money and bought Upper Deck #1. I put it into a hard plastic case and kept it in a closet to prevent sunlight from damaging the hologram on it.
Instantly, the card was selling for $20-30, and prices kept going up. A friend at school got one as a gift; someone had paid $50 for it. I winced, shaking my head and wondering how an adult who could raise a child, drive a car and earn money could be so slow, so thoughtless, so idiotic as to move on The Card so late. (But what could you expect from the generation that put 1952 Mantle rookies in the spokes of their bike wheels. The mind reels). An entire swath of preteens, myself among them, were sure that we had solved the growing problem of college affordability by striking early and investing in Griffeys.
A few years later, I visited my Grandfather in Orange County, and we went to visit a cousin of his, who lived a few towns away. I wasn’t thrilled to visit a childless, middle-aged couple, but my grandfather mentioned that they collected cards, too. I remember thinking that they’d probably be the smartest members of our family.
I don’t remember their names, and I don’t remember if they fed us. I just remember the two of them sitting on a couch, ignoring Wheel of Fortune, and making their way through box after box of unopened cards. I forget the set, but they were after an insert card- if you got 10 or whatever of them, you could mail them in and receive some other, presumably rarer, cards. They had dozens of envelopes full, and diligently worked to fill more. That it was joyless was besides the point – there’s money to be made, and even my friends and I treated it like work. What it was was overwhelming. I couldn’t compete with this. I had a Griffey, but these people probably had cases full of alternate Griffeys ordered from Upper Deck’s secret menu. I collected for another year or so, but had largely dropped out by the time the crash came. Too many sets, too much production and irrational exuberance all played a role, but it didn’t help that there wasn’t a repeat of Griffey mania.
6: Dave wrote about Griffey’s odd career path at Fangraphs back in January – that Griffey’s first 10 or so years is what we think about when we think of Griffey, and so it doesn’t really matter that he aged poorly. That’s true, in a way, but then, it’s always tough to measure someone against the inner-circle guys in the hall of fame – those guys are in the inner-circle specifically BECAUSE they aged well and thus accumulated a ton of career value. But Griffey’s interesting in that he was durable enough to become a clear, obvious, easy first-ballot choice after so many great players of the 1980s saw their careers nosedive.
Look at a list of Hall of Famers by position and you see a curious distribution for center fielders. If you played CF in the 1920s, you’re probably in. The Mays/Snider/Mantle grouping of superstar CFs in the 50s/60s is in, of course. And then they just sort of stop. There are a few reasons for this, but it looks pretty clear that the Hall (or rather the writers who select members) has radically changed their standards. Lloyd Waner is in, but not Alan Trammell?
It’s clearly not the only reason, but the horrific aging curves for many 80s players plays a role in the era’s representation. Dale Murphy was a two-time MVP, but after a terrific 6-year peak, he cratered, hanging around for several more years as a below-average player; he’d gone from 7-8 WAR in one season to below-average over night. Eric Davis was, in many ways, a beta version of Griffey – he hit for power, played a great CF, and had 80-grade speed to boot. But even his peak years were marred by injuries, and as they accumulated, his playing time kept dwindling. Tim Raines had a long career and completely deserves to be enshrined in the Hall, but a mid-career swoon from about 28-31 or so held down his counting stats. Edgar Martinez’s career arc looks great, but it started too late, thanks to the M’s org bizarre belief that he wouldn’t hit for enough power to play 3B. Like with Raines, Edgar’s omission is just silly and makes the Hall worse, but it’d be a moot point if he didn’t get his first significant playing time at age 27. Kirby Puckett made it to the Hall, but even his career was curtailed by an eye injury after fewer than 1800 games played, fewer than Edgar managed. Don Mattingly played about the same number of games as Puckett, but knee problems meant his peak was over at 28; he slugged .335 at age 29, and while he’d play a few more years, he’d never be a power hitter again. Darryl Stawberry accumulated 40 bWAR in his first 9 seasons, and then just 2 more in 8 seasons after turning 30. Dwight Gooden had a *12 WAR season* at the age of 20 and then settled into a decade of being merely pretty good as he battled arm issues and addiction.
Compared to Hank Aaron, Griffey’s career arc looks disappointing, but so does everyone else’s. Compared to a wide swath of the game’s biggest stars in the years surrounding his debut, it looks fine. Injuries robbed us of a few more great Griffey years, but I’m just thankful that his full-speed, walls-be-damned style in CF didn’t turn him into a west coast Eric Davis.
7: Griffey took over a team that had never had a winning season. M’s attendance was deservedly last in the AL in 1988, but Griffey’s star power bumped it by nearly 50% by 1990. He was the face of a game that was just learning how to use TV to market itself. His style and charisma lit up America’s most straight-laced sport. No matter what he was feeling inside, he exuded joy on the field; my favorite part of his famous catch in Yankee Stadium in which he robbed Jesse Barfield of a home run, was his sheer, unbridled happiness as he ran back in, past a motionless Barfield. It was as if Griffey realized only when he came down that he was physically ready to do anything – he jumped not sure if his body could actually do what his mind wanted it to, and landed knowing he could do anything.
Griffey was incredible to watch, and it is mind blowing to reflect on just how different the M’s were or baseball was or everything was in the years before he arrived. Griffey made change and growth seem cool. You’re scared about high school? What would Griffey do? Scared to talk to girls? Don’t be so dour; smile and have fun. Your growing awareness of mortality and death makes you sad? Uh…hmmm, that’s gonna..well, here, watch a Griffey dinger!
I feel so fortunate to have watched Ken Griffey Jr. play. I have and will continue to talk to my kids about it, and try to make them understand why he meant a lot to me. Ken Griffey Jr. will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this morning, and while I hope he shakes up the Hall the way he shook up baseball, I just hope I can learn the lesson Griffey’s career seems to teach us. Treasure new and unique talents instead of lamenting that they don’t fit the mold of previous ones.
* Also debuting that day was Omar Vizquel. The trade that brought a lanky left-hander named Randy Johnson came a bit less than two months later, in late May. Across town, the Sonics had an electrifying rookie of their own, a 6’10” athletic freak seemingly forged from raw highlight film. Kemp would be joined a year later by another top draft pick, Gary Payton. It was an important time in Seattle sports, is what I’m trying to say.