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.