My hero turned 50 years old today. That’s right, the man who will be forever known as “The Kid,” has reached the half-century mark. Happy birthday, Ken Griffey Jr.
Through the course of his 22-year career, Griffey embodied everything that was great about the game of baseball. From the fans’ perspective, you could see he never took himself too seriously as he always had a smile on his face and kept things loose with his signature backwards hat. However, for me, he represented more than just baseball. Griffey was a role model and a sports hero.
As a kid, I looked up to Griffey like he was Superman. There was no ball in center field out of his sprawling reach. If a ball was within reach of the top of the wall, he brought it back. I’ll never forget the day in 1995 when my dad told me Superman was broken. Griffey had broken his wrist when he leaped and crashed into the center-field wall hands and feet-first at the Kingdome in Seattle. As it turned out, my hero was more Spider-man than Superman—a little reckless, but always a flair for the dramatic. The play has gone down in the annals of Seattle Mariners history as the “Spider-man catch.”
Having grown up a baseball player myself, everything I did on the field (game or practice) was modeled after my hero. Every time I stepped up to the plate was the same routine: walk behind the umpire holding the bat by the barrel, step in the box, sweep dirt to the front, sweep it to the back, dig a hole for my back foot, then step out for a quick practice swing, because that’s how Griffey does it. “Crouch down in your batting stance a little more,” my coaches said. No thanks, that’s not how Griffey does it. “If you flip your hat around the sun won’t be in your eyes.” I don’t care, this how Griffey does it.
I’ll never forget moving to a new state before my 13-year-old baseball season and getting moved to the outfield from catcher for a change of pace. I couldn’t have been more excited; I was just like Griffey. In my first game in the new league I took a ground ball in left field and, just like I had watched Griffey do so many times, fielded it in-stride and made a perfect throw home to put out the runner at home plate. Internally, I was losing my mind; I’d never made such a play before. On the outside, cool and collected. Because that’s how Griffey does it.
In an era of juiced-up ball players hitting 500-foot home runs and routinely notching 45-homer seasons, Griffey was the one who did it clean. He had the flow of the sweetest swing in baseball as the bat gracefully glided through the strike zone, then sent balls sailing over the outfield wall of 44 big-league ballparks. And you always knew when watching on TV when the ball was leaving the park, because of the way Griffey forcefully dropped his bat and slowly strutted out of the batter’s box to watch his handy work leave the yard.
The same year Griffey broke his wrist with the Spider-man catch, I also learned what it was like to cry tears of joy. My family was living in Utah at the time, so M’s games were few and far between on our TV. Because of this, I stayed up late every night to watch the 1995 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. With the Mariners trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Joey Cora took a short lead off third base with Griffey on first. Edgar Martinez roped a line drive to the left-field corner. Cora scored easily to tie the game. Griffey wheeled from first and was waved around third to go home. The relay came to catcher Jim Leyritz, but the throw was late as Griffey slid feet-first into home.
The Mariners won 6-5 and advanced to the franchise’s first-ever American League Championship against the Cleveland Indians and my nine-year-old self experienced tears of joy for the first time.
Yes, there was the demand to be traded from Seattle after the 1999 season. It broke my 13-year-old heart. But after watching Opening Day of 2000 and seeing my hero wear red and black as a Cincinnati Red, all ill feelings immediately washed away because I realized he just wanted to go home and dammit he looked good in red.
After 22 seasons that included 630 home runs, 13 All-Star Games, 10 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, and one MVP, a 40-year-old Griffey Jr. called it a career partway through the 2010 season amid clubhouse turmoil. The 2010 Mariners were a clubhouse divided under manager Don Wakamatsu and—as he had always said he would do—Griffey called team president Chuck Armstrong from a gas station somewhere in Montana to let him know he was hanging it up as he drove home to Orlando.
The final appearance Griffey made in Major League Baseball came May 20, 2010 when he fittingly lifted the Mariners to a 4-3 walk-off win over the Toronto Blue Jays. It felt like a piece of me left professional baseball that day in June with Griffey, but I’ll always have the memory of Griffey throwing a peace sign my way while standing on the center-field porch at Safeco Field.
Some people’s childhood heroes are immortalized in comic books, action figures, and movies. Mine is immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Happy birthday, Junior.