"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Best Baseball Player I Ever Saw

Ken Griffey Jr. was the best baseball player I ever saw.

Sure, I can look at the numbers now and understand why everyone kept telling me that Barry Bonds was better, but I never really saw Bonds in his mid-90s prime. I was an American League fan who got all of his baseball through Yankee broadcasts when Griffey burst on the scene in 1989, and while I always loved numbers, I didn’t really dig much past what was available on the back of baseball cards or in the MacMillan encyclopedia until after Griffey was traded to Cincinnati.

Ken Griffey Jr. was the best baseball player I ever saw.

I wasn’t much moved by the big goofy grin, though I appreciated it. I always thought the backward cap schtick was corny (though not disrespectful as Buck Showalter and Willie Randolph tried to convince Griffey it was before Griffey got the final word in the 1995 playoffs). I never called him “Junior.” I just watched what he did on the field.

I still can’t see photos of the center field fence in the renovated Yankee Stadium without checking for the holes made by Griffey’s spikes on his wall-climbing theft of a Jesse Barfield home run (off Randy Johnson no less) in April 1990. That was just one of many spectacular catches Griffey made upon entering the league.

Then he started hitting: .300-22-80 in 1990; .327-22-100 in 1991; .308-27-103 in 1992. Then 45 homers in 1994, and a record home-run pace in 1994 before the strike stopped him at 40 in 111 games. In 1995, one of those spectacular catches broke his wrist and robbed him of half of the season, but he returned in August to help the Mariners execute the greatest comeback in regular season history, eliminating the Angels in a one-game playoff after trailing by 12.5 games on August 20 and six games on September 12.

The Yankees took the first two games from Griffey’s Mariners in that year’s inaugural Division Series, but Griffey homered three times in those two games, one of them coming off John Wetteland with two outs in the 12th inning of Game Two to give his team a brief 5-4 lead. Griffey homered in four of the five games of that series, hitting .391 with five of his nine hits leaving the yard. His ninth hit was a single off Jack McDowell that put the go-ahead run on base with his team trailing 5-4 in the 11th inning of Game 5. Moments later, he’d be racing around the bases to beat Gerald Williams’ throw home and score the winning run of the series, drastically altering the futures of both franchises.

Over the next four seasons, Griffey averaged 52 home runs and 142 RBIs (oh, and 19 stolen bases) for the Mariners while winning the 1997 AL MVP, his sixth-through-tenth Gold Gloves, and settling for second billing to the steroid-fueled home run barrage going on in the National League.

Griffey was voted to the All-Century team in 1999, along with Mark McGwire but ahead of the pre-enhanced Bonds (who ranked 18th among outfielders in the voting), but the day after the ceremonies to introduce the team prior to Game 2 of the World Series, Griffey’s neighbor, golfer Payne Stewart, was killed in a plane crash. Stewart’s death awakened a desire in Griffey to move close to his family in Cincinnati, and he asked for and received a trade to the Reds that February.

I remember hearing the news of the trade. It was shocking. Griffey was the best player in the game (to my mind and those of many others). He was an icon, the Babe Ruth who built Safeco Field with his bat and pulled the Mariners out of the second division. I had just been out to Seattle late in the 1999 season and saw Griffey make a great sliding catch in a 1-0 game at the new ballpark, which the Mariners had just moved into in July. They couldn’t possibly trade him.

But they did. The trade seemed laughable at the time. The Mariners got a quartet of players, none of whom could even reflect Griffey’s star, let alone rehang it. Mike Cameron turned out to be the best of the bunch by a long shot, living up to Griffey’s defensive reputation in center but proving a vastly inferior hitter despite a bit of pop and a willingness to take a walk. Brett Tomko was a dud. Antonio Perez became a minor league throw-in in the trade that sent manager Lou Piniella to Tampa Bay for Randy Winn. Right-handed reliever Jake Meyer never made it to the major leagues. Griffey, wearing the number 30 that his father wore with the Big Red Machine, hit 40 home runs and drove in 118 in his first year with the Reds.

Then the unthinkable happened. Griffey got hurt. Then he got hurt again. And again. And again. After hitting 249 home runs in a five year span from 1996 to 2000, he hit almost exactly half that over the next six seasons due to a laundry list of injuries, most of them to his legs including a hamstring injury that required the muscle be reattached to the bone with screws. Meanwhile, the Mariners, who had been forced to trade Randy Johnson in anticipation of his free agency a year before Griffey’s departure, then lost Alex Rodriguez to the Rangers via a record-setting contract the winter after Griffey’s departure, won a record 116 games in 2001.

It didn’t make sense. Without Griffey, the Mariners were thriving. With Griffey, the Reds were struggling. In Cincinnati, Griffey quickly became a drain on the roster and the payroll as the Reds struggled to break in outfield prospects Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and Wily Mo Peña while keeping a pasture open for Griffey’s brief stretches of availability. As early as 2003, the Reds were actively shopping Griffey, but it wasn’t until 2008, after Griffey had finally shifted to right field and enjoyed a largely healthy season in 2007 (30 homers, 93 RBIs), that they finally unloaded him, trading him to the White Sox for spare parts.

Griffey’s two months in Chicago gave him a last hurrah in center field and just his third trip to the postseason, thanks in part to his throwing out a runner at home in the Chisox’s 1-0 AL Central playoff victory over the Twins. After that, he returned to Seattle as a free agent, where he entertained his old fans and their kids with 19 home runs, but contributed little else as a designated hitter batting .214. He re-signed there this past winter, but never hit another home run, retiring on Wednesday with 630 in his career.

I take a look at what might have been during Griffey’s time in Cincinnati in my latest for SI.com, providing a quick-and-dirty tally of Griffey’s alternate-universe hit and homer totals, but I’ll always remember Ken Griffey Jr. as a Seattle Mariner, a human lightning bolt, streaking across center field to rob another hitter, racing around the bases, and unleashing thunder at the plate.

Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t the greatest player of his era, but he was close. He was the greatest modern-era major leaguer never to play in a World Series, and back when seeing was believing, he was absolutely the best baseball player I ever saw.

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1 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:01 am

great piece Cliff.

I've been thinking about it the last day or two, if someone had told you after Game 5 in '95 that this was about as good as it ever was gonna get for Griffey and the Mariners and that this would turn out to maybe be the best thing that ever happened to the Yankees you would've called them crazy. Well thats baseball Suzyn.

2 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:02 am

man, he killed us in '95. backwards cap wearin' so-and-so...
I tip my correctly worn Yankees cap to him though. Amazing player.
Nice tribute, Cliff.

3 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:03 am

I had forgotten about the whole Showalter/Willie "Cap Flap". That was how Buck could get annoying after a while.

4 Will Weiss   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:07 am

[0] Great writeup, Cliff. Many of us who played CF in Little League wanted to wear No. 24 because of him. If we weren't trying to emulate Don Mattingly, we were emulating Griffey. ... You also, despite his litany of injuries, do not hear of him ever being embroiled in PED scandals. A truly gifted player that we were very fortunate to see for his entire career.

5 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:12 am

[3] gotta admit, I was on Buck's side on that one, silly as it was.
I didn't like the backwards cap thing. Sloppy and unprofessional. I'm a pain in the ass about it with my sons, too, always straigtening out their lids when they get goofy with 'em. My wife thinks I'm a moron when I do it, and she's probably right. She also gets on my case about wearing a hat in the house. She might be right about that, too, but at least I wear it correctly.

6 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:15 am

The only time it's cool to wear your lid backwards is when your driving a boat. That's my rule.

7 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:17 am

[6] your, you're... (Christ I hate that mistake) proper grammar not one of my rules. Sloppy and unprofessional.

8 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:18 am

[5] oh yeah I can't do the cap indoors thing, but I chalk that up to going to Catholic school and having it drilled into me (I still can't grow my hair over my ears without immediately running to the barber).

I was young at the time, but to my 11 year old self it seemed like Junior was trying to "have fun" and Buck was acting like a lame teacher or parent. I understand it better now as I'm older, but I still think it was petty and unnecessary. But whatever, it was 15 years ago its just a kinda funny NY sports footnote like Sideburns-gate or Omar Minaya.

9 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:26 am

[8] exactly. It was lame of Buck to call him out, but he got a hearty harrumph outta me. I think part of it was the cranky Yankee vibe resulting from the futility of the 80s, and misery of the early 90s. I was still sorta bitter about baseball, and it seemed like a fine idea to call out the biggest star in the game for whatever reason.

and yeah, my wife went to Catholic school until 8th grade. Whenever she busts on me about the hat in the house (to be clear: I don't sit around the house wearing my hat, just passing thru) I remind her she married P.S. kid from Queens.

10 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:28 am

"but he returned in August to help the Mariners execute the greatest comeback in regular season history, eliminating the Angels in a one-game playoff after trailing by 12.5 games on August 20 and six games on September 12."


I'm not one to split hairs . . . but I think this is ONE of the greatest comebacks in regular season history.

How about the 1964 Cards? 1978 Yankees? 2007 Rockies September run to the Wild Card?

11 Will Weiss   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:38 am

[10] 1951 Giants? 1969 Mets? 2007 Phillies?

12 Shaun P.   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:42 am

"back when seeing was believing, he was absolutely the best baseball player I ever saw."

Damn skippy. All those times Griffey climbed the CF to rob someone, all those big hits - he just KILLED the Yanks. I hated him for it. My dad despised and cursed him for it. But yeah, in an AL-only world, he was absolutely amazing, and always against the Yanks too: .311/.390/.597 in 117 games as a Mariner versus the Yanks, pre-trade.

Amazingly, that's just a bit better than he hit overall in his pre-trade time in Seattle: .299/.380/.569. I guess he killed everybody.

Gotta respect the talent he brought, though. I remember when he got off to a rough start in Safeco in '99, and some blamed the trade on Safeco not being the hitters' haven the Kingdome was. Except, of course, that the Kid hit .278/.382/.616 in Safeco that year. It was the road where he really suffered, hitting just .228/.333/.407 there after Safeco opened. Not that I knew anything about splits back in those days . . .

13 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:44 am

I think one thing the statistical revolution did, and is in the process of undoing, is the equating of production, value and quality. It's not all exactly the same. One dimensional players can be incredibly productive and valuable, but there is something about appreciating the quality of a ball player as a fan which Cliff taps into here.

Griffey did so many things well, you can enjoy him in every facet of the game. Jeter took over that title for me, even with the understanding that he was below avg as a defender @ SS. Utley is the new king of it, I think.

Those players make watching the game more interesting and passing on the game to new fans more possible.

14 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:45 am

Thanks, Cliff.

15 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:48 am

[6] "...is when you're driving a boat." Hahahahah. You're very funny, Sliced.

16 Shaun P.   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:48 am

Its almost like he had two careers: pre-2001, he was the Kid, Junior, with that goofy grin and all the natural talent in the world, destined to do even more amazing things. 2001 and after, he was a disappointment, a guy who wasted his talent by coasting on it for too long, never working to stay in shape (or so the stories went when he was getting hurt over and over again), and never again being what he was before.

I much prefer to recall the Kid.

17 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:49 am

The thing I remember the most about Griffey ... had to be ...


He had the prettiest, most fluid, seemingly effortless swing I have ever seen. The ball would just fly off that simple, beautiful stroke.

(Mauer and Strawberry are close, but no cigar).

18 rbj   ~  Jun 4, 2010 10:55 am

Never understood the appeal of wearing the cap backwards. It's got a brim to shield your eyes. Why not use it? Otherwise why have a cap on at all?

I was in Seattle for a year (1993 - 1994), caught a few games at the Kingdome. Ken once hit a check swing opposite field home run. Saw Randy pitch also.

Missed out on their young phenom shortstop, name of Alex Rodriguez, wonder what happened to him. . .

19 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:01 am


At least he never wore the cap with the "5150" label still on the bill of the cap. :-)

(I never understood why kids do that ... )

20 a.O   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:03 am

No doubt he was great at playing baseball. But Cliff I am actually shocked that you fail to mention that he basically blackmailed the Mariners in publically stating that he would no longer play in Seattle and would only go to the Reds. That is why the "trade" looked so one-sided at the time. As a man, he was a selfish whiner and unable to lead, always ready to blame the media for his problems. His utter lack of class is why to me he will always be just a great ballplayer in his prime, but not one I respect.

21 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:29 am

[8] HAHA. I laughed hard at that. Dean Gallo gave me detention senior year because my hair was too long. Ah the memories!

22 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:29 am

A-Rod had a good quote (h/t LoHud):

“He could literally be playing Nintendo at 6:45 or 6:50, and at 7:06 he’d make a Spiderman catch,” Alex Rodriguez said. “And then in the (bottom) of the first he’d hit one in the upper deck at the Kingdome, 475 feet. And do it all with a smile. You look at yourself and you’re like, ‘Damn. I’ve been getting ready since 5:45 for the game.’ I wish you guys had the opportunity to see what I saw for seven years... I came in at 17 straight out of Westminster High School and I got to see our Michael Jordan for a long time. Our Tiger Woods. The best of the best"

23 Mattpat11   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:32 am

I like Griffey, but I think the number one thing I'll remember about him is that he held a silly grudge against Billy Martin for at least a decade after Martin died, but retold the story with George Steinbrenner as the villain so he wouldn't look so bad.

24 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:34 am

[21] oh thats right!! was Morris there when you were there? The photography teacher, he used to stand by the front door and hand out DCV's as we came into the building every morning...he was fun.

25 williamnyy23   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:34 am

In many ways, the last decade has tarnished the greatness of Griffey's first. Even though a handful of players had better overall numbers than Junior, Griffey still has a strong case for being the player of the 1990s. A 152 OPS+ and 10 gold gloves in CF is pretty compelling.

Even before the end of the 90s, however, Griffey's image as a happy go lucky ballplayer was starting to give way. Also, by the end of the decade he was surpassed as a hitter and player by two members of his team: Edgar and Arod. That seemed to further bring out the moody side of Griffey, who always had a tinge of melancholy beneath his broad smile (as evidenced most starkly by his suicide attempt).

Interestingly, the continued revelations about steroid use might actually bring more people back into Junior's corner. Whereas his injuries and decline in the 2000s were held against him during those years, they may now become a badge of honor.

Also, Junior made his announcement 23 years to the day he was drafted. I am not sure he if did that on purpose, but it does give a nice symmetry to his career.

26 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:36 am

[24] Morris the photography teacher? We had Morris the spanish teacher who was infamous for giving out detentions. When I was there he'd be in his 4th floor classroom looking out the window, see a kid without socks and yell down and throw a detention slip down to him. I think it's probably same Morris as I think he did photography too now that I think of it. His brother played for the Cardinals I remember that.

27 williamnyy23   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:40 am

[22] And that's the other side of the steroid argument. When you are 25, you can play Nintendo as pre-game prep, but once you start getting older, that won't cut it. Steroids aside, guys like Bonds and Arod were/are notorious for methodical preparation. Griffey, to say the least, was not.

Junior always seemed to have the attitude that playing baseball was fun, not work. I think that's the biggest reason why he didn't become the best player ever.

28 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:42 am

[25] I wouldn't say that he was surpassed by Edgar in the later Seattle years.

Junior from '97-'99 averaged .291/53/142 with a 151 OPS+, Edgar over those same three years was .329/27/99 with a 158+. the gap in BA is kinda startling, but once you take into consideration defense and the fact that Junior averaged 20 steals a year to Edgar's 3...I'll take Junior.

29 williamnyy23   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:44 am

[28] That's why I said "hitter". Griffey was still the better all around player, but Edgar was the better hitter (better than Arod at the time too).

30 Mattpat11   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:47 am

[29] Going by the old and always scientifically accurate "fear" test, in the late 90s, as a young preteen, no one in baseball scared me more than Edgar.

31 seamus   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:52 am

I don't do the X was better than Y thing myself. It's like how I am with music. People will say "How many favorite bands do you have?" And the answer is simple. "A lot". I know folks enjoy the conjecture and that's cool. But Griffey was a great player no matter how you shake it. I don't care whether or not he was the best.

32 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:52 am

[29] well you said "hitter and player" by Edgar and A-Rod, I didn't realize you meant respectively. I agree with you about the "happy go-lucky image," that was mostly a media construct trying to market a "Baseball Jordan" coming out of the strike.

[26] yeah thats definitely him, he had a bunch of professional looking baseball shots he took framed in his classroom. George Brett stands out in my mind.

33 williamnyy23   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:54 am

[30] I think every Yankee fan would agree. Aside from being a terrific hitter, I think what also fed into that fear of Edgar was his 1.888!!! OPS against Mariano in 20 PAs. I think that says all you need to know about how great Edgar was.

34 williamnyy23   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:55 am

[32] You're right...I left out the respectively. Sorry about that.

35 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 11:56 am

[30] he hit .317/22/103 lifetime against the Yankees...thats just obscene. I mean Edgar was a hell of a hitter and I think he should be in the HOF, but against us he turned into a cross between Babe Ruth and King Kong.

36 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 12:03 pm

looking at Edgar's numbers lifetime against the Yankees vs Ortiz they're remarkably similar...but as scary as Ortiz was in his prime no one comes close to Edgar in my mind.

Part of that is probably age, but even on his own team I was more scared of Manny than Ortiz...you always had the feeling that Ortiz fattened up by a)never being pitched to inside and b) having a legit HOFer behind him. Edgar on the other hand could've been in a lineup with 8 Harold Reynolds's and still hit .300 against the Yankees.

37 Sliced Bread   ~  Jun 4, 2010 12:03 pm

uch, Edgar. fuggin' murderer.

38 Raf   ~  Jun 4, 2010 12:12 pm

In game 5, that was Gerald Williams who made the throw from LF, not Dion James.

I thought Griffey was the coolest thing going at the time. How great was it to play with your dad? I loved to see camera shots of them goofing off on the bench. It always seemed like he was having fun at the ballpark. I also dug that he was willing to defer his salary to help the M's pick up a player (though they could've made some better choices).

Griffey was good, and he knew it. I enjoyed watching him in his prime, and even though things didn't end the way they should've the first time he left, I can appreciate the sentiment of a player wanting to "go home." I also remember the media hammering him a few times when he complained about the travel (among other things), but it seemed to me that they wanted to remember him as "the Kid" even though he was by that time married with children.

39 Raf   ~  Jun 4, 2010 12:16 pm

A lot of Edgar's reputation was built during the 95 ALDS. I knew he was a formidable batter before then (he had already won a batting title a couple of years prior), but that series introduced him to a national audience. Jeez .571, that's just ridiculous.

40 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 4, 2010 12:44 pm

Speaking of players saving baseball in their cities, I just received an MLB tweet from the Blue Jays:

The Yankees are in town this weekend. Tickets start at $14 http://www.bluejays.com/tix/4bqq52

How baseball has fallen in that town, that they have to advertise that the Yanks are in town.

41 OldYanksFan   ~  Jun 4, 2010 2:10 pm

A lot of Catholic school hat stories here. I know when I wore a cap to Temple, forwards or backwards, they made me rip off the brim!

If asked, I might have said Bonds was the best player, but after reading this and thinking about it, you may be right. With Bonds, we will never know how much of his numbers were elevated by PEDs, but I suspect quite a bit. The problem with Junior, as someone pointed out, was he did not have the work ethic, and simply relied on his amazing talent. I have no doubt that Griffey was born a better player then ARod, but ARod is self made, adding a tremendous work ethic to his great talent.

Griffey's career was somewhat Mantle-esque in that he was very near the top in God given ability, posted great numbers, but never reached his potential due to injuries and lack of work ethic. I don't think you can think of either without thinking 'what if'.... because if what if had occured, either could have been THE BEST there ever was.

42 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 4, 2010 2:48 pm

[41] I never thought of the Mantle comparison, but that seems so dead-on accurate. Good call.

43 thelarmis   ~  Jun 4, 2010 3:18 pm

this piece and thread is pretty great. i'm a big Griffey fan.

sweetest swing i ever saw. picture perfect.

i'm a BIG fan of wearing the hat backwards. when i do wear a baseball hat, it's always my Yankees hat and it's always backwards. i don't understand how anyone can call that 'disrespectful', but anyway... i don't like the flat brim or esp the off-to-the-side look, which throws off balance.

yeah, i think there were other regular season comebacks that are on par or better than the M's of the mid-90's.

Cliff - this was beautiful writing: "but I’ll always remember Ken Griffey Jr. as a Seattle Mariner, a human lightning bolt, streaking across center field to rob another hitter, racing around the bases, and unleashing thunder at the plate."

that's how i'll remember him too, wonderful backwards hat, smile and all! : )

44 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jun 4, 2010 6:09 pm

I could swear Baseball Prospectus did an analysis in light of the Mets' 2007 collapse that showed the 1995 AL West to be the biggest collapse/comeback in history based on their postseason odds, but I'm a bit too frantic today to find it for you all.

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