Ken Griffey Jr. was among the top two or three baseball players of the 1990s. Thanks to advanced statistics, his place in such a ranking is fodder for one of those bar-stool debates that ultimately conclude with the words “Last Call!”
But throughout a decade remembered for the labor problems that splintered the sport and alienated the public, there is no doubt about the identity of baseball’s most recognized player. He was known as “The Kid.”
Ken Griffey Jr. was pictured on a candy bar, and the subject of a video game, and brand name for an athletic shoe manufactured by the company that launched an ad campaign touting him as a 1996 presidential candidate. His voice was heard in a season-three episode of “The Simpsons,” around the time his leaping catch doomed the Minnesota Twins’ storybook season in the enchanting movie, “Little Big League.” He made a cameo appearance on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
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How enthralled was America with Griffey?
Randy Adamack, senior vice president of communications for the Mariners, quantifies it with a number — 12 — more revealing than a 20-year old Q score.
“I used to go back to Ohio once a summer, with my children, to visit family,” Adamack said a few weeks ago. “I grew up about 65 miles northeast of Cleveland, a small town where the local newspaper would cover events like Little League baseball. One day I saw a full page devoted to 15 players who’d qualified for some tournament. Each was asked who his favorite baseball player was, and 12 answered ‘Ken Griffey Jr.’
“I still remember that because it was the mid ’90s, back when the Cleveland Indians had really good teams, pennant winners with a bunch of All-Stars. And yet 12 kids, probably big fans of the Indians, listed a Seattle Mariner as their favorite.”
Griffey’s allure during the 1990s was steeped in a combination of substance and style. Through 11 seasons between 1989 and 1999, he hit .299 while averaging 36 home runs and 15 stolen bases. He was named to the All-Star Game in 10 of those years, and won all 10 of his Gold Glove awards.
“The whole sport has watched each of his baby steps,” the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote in the spring of 1994, when Griffey became the first player to hit more than 20 home runs before June 1. “After becoming one of the youngest everyday players in history at 19, he was faced with a new question every year. Could he hit .300? Yes, at 20. Could he drive in 100 runs? That came at 21. Can he have back-to-back big years with 20 homers, 100 RBI and a .300 average? That was proved at 22.
“By last season it was clear that Griffey had ambition, durability, and enthusiasm. While far from diligent, he seemed to know the game’s nuances by a kind of high-spirited, hat-backward osmosis.”
Through 11 seasons between 1989 and 1999, Ken Griffey Jr. hit .299 while averaging 36 home runs and 15 stolen bases. He was named to the All-Star Game in 10 of those years, and won all 10 of his Gold Glove awards.
And though Barry Bonds — the National League’s answer to Griffey — was assembling similar numbers with the Pirates and then the Giants, Bonds’ cold and indifferent persona minimized his national marketing potential. Griffey had a brooding side as well, but when the lights went on and the stage was his, he occupied it with the flair of a natural-born entertainer.
The Home Run Derby, which has been held on the eve of the All-Star Game since 1985, was not an event Griffey annually anticipated with eagerness. He took pride in his all-around skill set — “I’m a hitter, not a slugger,” he was fond of saying — and had legitimate concerns the smooth swing that was his trademark could be corrupted by a prolonged competition requiring ferocious hacks at batting-practice pitches.
Displeased that ESPN had scheduled the Mariners for a Sunday night game at Texas, Griffey wanted no part of the 1998 frivolity at Denver’s Coors Field. He was tired and cranky – the Mariners were 37-51 at the break — and he’d already established himself as a Derby legend with a first-place finish in 1994, two years after he launched a ball that caromed off the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field of Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
Griffey was determined to participate in the All-Star Eve festivities only as an observer when, about 90 minutes before the first casual lob of a long night, something odd happened. Presented with a trophy for accumulating the most votes in fan balloting, 50,000 spectators booed him.
It was his motivation to pick up a bat and put on a show.
“I don’t like to get booed,” Griffey said a few hours later. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Griffey won the 1998 Home Run Derby with 19 long flies. He would win again in 1999, and return to display his power for the final time in 2000, when he took second. Griffey’s Home Run Derby totals: Three first-place finishes and three second-place finishes in eight appearances.
Because he belonged to a West Coast team that begins some 100 games a season shortly after 10 p.m. on the East Coast, Griffey’s national exposure was limited. He was seen in 16 playoff games during the 1990s, but never in a World Series.
The Home Run Derby can be annoying to some baseball purists – Chris Berman’s “back-back-back!” call has the dulcet sound of a jackhammer at dawn – but it helped introduce an entire generation of young Americans to a superstar with the backwards cap and radiant smile.
“Kids love watching it,” said Adamack, “and Junior was at his best with kids. If we had a request that involved him talking to kids, I could be 100 percent certain he was on board. If the request was for him to speak to some businessmen wearing ties, uh, well, the chances weren’t so good.
“His commitment to the Make-A-Wish foundation was amazing. He didn’t just show up and pose for a photo. He’d bring cancer patients into the clubhouse and interact with them on the field during warmups. He did whatever he could to bring some joy into their lives.”
Griffey’s ability to connect with the public — and kids, in particular — was like his swing: unforced and seemingly effortless.
“He has a real screen presence,” Andy Scheinman, the director of “Little Big League,” told Sports Illustrated for a 1994 cover story that depicted Griffey as baseball’s most marketable icon since Reggie Jackson became known as “the straw that stirs the drink” of the 1970s Yankees.
“When he is on the screen,” Scheinman said of Griffey, “your eyes just naturally go to him. He’s like Tom Cruise in that sense. We had a number of big name baseball players in the movie (Randy Johnson, Ivan Rodriguez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines), but when Griffey was on the field, it was like a different world. He’s just a huge, huge star.”
The ultimate validation of Griffey’s popularity during the 1990s was his election, in 1998, to Major League Baseball’s “All-Century Team.” Fans determined the roster of 50, and Griffey received more support (645,389 votes) than fellow outfielders Roberto Clemente (582,937), Stan Musial (571,279), Frank Robinson (220,226) and Barry Bonds (173,279).
In retrospect, the voting had more to do with an assumption the second half of Griffey’s career would mirror the first. It didn’t. After turning 30, he would receive MVP votes only once as the injuries mounted and his quest to play in a World Series deteriorated into a pipe dream.
By 2002, baseball historian Bill James, noting Griffey shared both a birthplace and a birthday with Musial, assessed The Kid’s accomplishments versus those of The Man.
“The second-best left-handed hitter ever born in Donora, Pa. on Nov. 21,” James wrote of Griffey.
Perhaps, but when it comes to baseball players whose marketing appeal endured for the decade between 1989 and 2000, Ken Griffey Jr. was second-best to nobody.
Through 11 seasons between 1989 and 1999, Griffey hit .299 while averaging 158 hits and 36 home runs. He was selected to play in the All-Star Game 10 times during that span and won all seven of his Silver Slugger awards.