Remembering a Play: Seattle, Meet Ken Griffey Jr.

Sports Remembering a Play
Remembering a Play: Seattle, Meet Ken Griffey Jr.

The big baseball story this week is the Pittsburgh Pirates calling up their young phenom pitcher Paul Skenes, which provides us with a great jumping off point to remember another hyped prospect: Ken Griffey Jr.’s historic debut with the Seattle Mariners.

He was just 19 years old when he made the big-league club, which is about two to three years before the most advanced prospects generally make the majors, and longer for the majority of other players. Being a teenager good enough to play in Major League Baseball is absurd, and the players to have done it with any kind of success doubles as a list of mostly Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.

It’s freakin’ hard to play Major League Baseball, let alone be good at it, to say nothing of exceling at it before you’re legally allowed to drink, but that’s exactly what “the Kid” did. After opening his 1989 rookie season struggling on a six-game road trip, Griffey only needed one pitch in his first Seattle at-bat to introduce himself to the hometown fans and launch a bomb that still reverberates throughout history to this day.

What a great piece of hitting. Being patient enough to take that ball to the opposite field is not something you see a lot of young players do, as the tendency for inexperienced hitters is to pull the ball (so to right field for lefties like Griffey, or left field for right-handed hitters). Sitting on it like that and taking it the other way with power is the mark of a professional hitter.

And he was only 19! If you have never watched Ken Griffey Jr. play baseball before, you are missing out on one of the most joyous experiences you can have as a sports fan. SportsCenter’s top 10 moments in Junior’s career is just a taste of how he electrified baseball for the better part of a decade.

Not only does he have the sweetest swing in baseball history, but his exploits robbing hits all over center field make him one of the most exciting defensive players ever too. I’d assert that no baseball player since Griffey has come remotely close to having his kind of cultural influence, and the fact that no player has had a video game named after him since Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is my main piece of evidence.

You know we live in hell because we were robbed of one of the greatest head-to-head chases in the history of sports between baseball’s most beloved and most hated players. Before he got hurt, Ken Griffey Jr. was on a close all-time home run pace with the widely reviled Barry Bonds (who like a lot of players, was an asshole, but he only achieved this widespread reputation because he was a real jerk to the press, who then made sure that everyone heard all about it).

Despite all his injuries later in his career, Griffey still is seventh all-time with 630 bombs, just 132 behind Bonds’ record. Imagine if Griffey had stayed healthy and was going head-to-head with Bonds to break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark near the end of their careers. I will go to my grave believing that baseball in that moment would have overtaken football as our modern national pastime. The coolest guy ever versus the prickly jerk to break the most hallowed record in sports? My God. Just imagine the takes.

That’s only something they get over on Earth-3. Whatever Trumpified one we’ve been stuck with blew Junior’s knee out and whispered in Bonds’s ear “if McGwire and Sosa can both be juicing and beloved like this, what’s stopping you?” The two players who defined the 1990s never really got a chance to finish the ephemeral story that the Kid began to write one soggy April night at the Kingdome in 1989, a year before Bonds would win his first of seven MVPs.

I cannot impress this enough upon the uninitiated and the younger folks who did not experience Ken Griffey Jr. in the moment—it was a moment. He was so freakin’ cool that Michael Jordan asked for his autograph! These were the years my brain was really beginning to turn on and as a kid playing baseball in the early 90s, I basically assumed that Ken Griffey Jr. was God.

In a similar manner to Allen Iverson and all other sorts of tattooed and casually dressed players helping to drag the NBA’s corporate structure into a more modern cultural stance, Junior launching nukes at the warehouse in Camden Yards while wearing a backwards hat during the Home Run Derby helped make one of America’s stuffiest institutions cool again for the first time in decades.

Man, I could watch that swing all day. There have been a lot of players since Griffey who have emulated his beauty and cited Junior as their inspiration, with one of my favorites being Carlos Gonzalez, another uber-talent whose career was cut short by injuries, but there will never be another Griffey.

We should never forget Griffey, but we also cannot forget him. He’s everywhere. Baseball is filled with tons of young talent making awesome plays every night while not being afraid to show their personality. It’s fun as heck to watch baseball right now, especially with Shohei Ohtani doing stuff no one has since Babe Ruth (but hopefully not since Pete Rose!) and is generally the biggest cultural force baseball has seen since Griffey. Hell, there’s even a young, hyped superstar doing all sorts of cool Griffey shit at the plate and in center field in Seattle right now.

ESPN created something called the Griffey Factor to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of his debut five years ago, where they ranked players according to who best fit his unique characteristics. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t give any player the full Griffey score, because as anyone who ever saw him play live knows: there will only ever be one Ken Griffey Jr.

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