John McGrath

John McGrath: Ken Griffey Jr. headed to Cooperstown with landslide vote

Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. smiles from beneath a pile of teammates who mobbed him after he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees in Seattle.
Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. smiles from beneath a pile of teammates who mobbed him after he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees in Seattle. AP file, 1995

“Trailblazer” is not a word Ken Griffey Jr. would use to describe himself.

“A trail-what?” I can hear him say, feigning confusion with a wince and a smile. “Trailblazer? Isn’t that some dude who plays basketball in Portland?”

But among the countless adjectives associated with Griffey, elected Wednesday into the Baseball Hall of Fame with a record 99.3 percent of the vote, trailblazer now applies. Griffey will enter the shrine as the first player to come within three votes of unanimity, the first Hall-of-Famer taken with the No. 1 overall pick of the baseball draft, and the first to have spent the prime years of his career with the Seattle Mariners.

Griffey’s trailblazing, by the way, won’t conclude with a midsummer acceptance speech. Sometime during the next year or so, the Mariners almost certainly will retire his jersey — No. 24 — an honor the team has yet to bestow on any player but Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, the ultimate trailblazer.

That the election results Wednesday denied Griffey a 100-percent mandate is a topical storm, as inevitable as it is unfortunate. Instead of celebrating the transcendent talent of somebody once regarded to be the best overall player in baseball, instead of emphasizing the unprecedented support of his candidacy — 437 of 440 voters returned ballots with a check next to his name — the narrative dwells on the defiant ones who didn’t.

Getting 440 people to agree on anything is a phenomenon restricted to presidential elections in places such as Syria, where rain is rare and landslides are common. The possibility all 440 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America would agree on a candidate’s worthiness as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer was remote and yet, because the candidate was Griffey, viable.

Blame can be put on Babe Ruth, whose record-setting reinvention of baseball from the “dead ball” era somehow didn’t impress 11 of the 226 writers who voted for the inaugural Hall of Fame class, in 1936. If The Babe wasn’t unanimous, I suppose the case goes, who is?

The oh-so-close election result, baffling to fans and bothersome to commentators, shouldn’t faze Griffey. He knows what he did and what he meant, and he knows that a 437-of-440 vote approximates a group hug — or at least an affirmation of their ability to ponder sustained excellence — from the writers he sometimes found contentious.

Griffey’s career was bookended in Seattle: A decade as a Mariners icon capped by an awkward departure, and then a swan-song return in his twilight years, capped by an even more awkward departure. There were highs and lows, but the highs were so high it seems petty to point out the lows.

The Hall-of-Fame plaque underscoring Griffey’s achievements — my thoughts and prayers are with the editor assigned to condense that litany — might mention the influential role he played in preserving the future of big-league baseball in Seattle. And though he had a little help from Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and fellow Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson, it’s true: The Mariners were pretty much gone in 1995, on their way to Tampa Bay, when Griffey returned from a wrist injury.

With his sweet swing intact, baseball fans throughout the Pacific Northwest encountered pennant fever for the first time. The fever produced Safeco Field.

Griffey had star power, and not just because he was a star with power. He convinced an entire generation of kids that baseball is nothing but fun, a deception evident to anybody challenged to hit a breaking ball delivered by the pitcher who’s just thrown a chin-high fastball.

Fun? At the professional level, baseball can be the most humiliating of sports. Your name is pronounced on the public-address system: “Now pitching, now batting.” Hiding like the basketball player disinclined to take the last-second shot that erases a one-point deficit is not an option.

Between that beautiful batting stroke and the elegant approach he took to line drives hit over his head in center field, Griffey exuded the casual confidence of an athlete born for the spotlight. He played a difficult game with so much style, he literally changed a style.

Before Griffey, baseball caps typically had been worn with the bill in front. He turned it around during warmups, during batting practice, during his many promotional photo ops.

Griffey’s signature habit could make him the first player to be depicted wearing a cap backwards on his Hall-of-Fame plaque.

Once a trailblazer, always a trailblazer.

Two for Cooperstown

The Baseball Writers Association of America made Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza the newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. To gain election a player needed to get at least 75 percent of the 440 ballots cast.

Name

Votes

Percent

1. Ken Griffey Jr.

437

99.3

2. Mike Piazza

365

83.0

3. Jeff Bagwell

315

71.6

4. Tim Raines

307

69.8

5. Trevor Hoffman

296

67.3

...

9. Edgar Martinez

191

43.4

▪ Complete voting results, 4B

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