Griffey was always one of my favorite players. When he came into the league in 1989 he played 127 games, bat .264, slugged .420, had 61 RBI and hit 16 homers. As a 19 year old rookie, that ain't a bad stat line. He was an All Star thirteen times; he was a Gold Glove winner ten times; he was a Silver Slugger Award winner eleven times.
I'm not a huge baseball guy, but when writers and other players would talk about Junior having "the prettiest swing in baseball," even I got what they meant by it. It was like the ball slowed down for him - like he always knew where it would be - and he so fluidly put his bat right on it. Graceful and easy and smooth. Pretty.
And he never cheated or doped to do any of it, in an era when nearly everyone around him did.
As SF Chronicle Sportswriter John Shea wrote,
Griffey is fifth all time in home runs with 630. Of the players in the top 10, five ended their careers before 1977: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. Four got there with paper trails to performance-enhancing drugs: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire.Junior didn't.
I liked him when he came up because he was a breath of fresh air to baseball. He was young and handsome - I dug the fade haircut - and sublimely talented, and he wore his hat backwards, and he was a breath of fresh air. It seemed like even though he was from baseball royalty (his dad was a star with the Reds and the Yankees) he never acted like it.
He flat out played - every ball, every out, every pitch. He loved the game, he loved his job, he had fun doing it, and he gave the game his whole effort, every time. His catches - beyond the fence, over the shoulder, fully stretched out - are you kidding me? He was grace and athleticism in motion. He had a megawatt smile and just exuded his enthusiasm.
Watch this video, starting at the 2:00 minute mark, and then watch him smile as he runs back to the dugout. How can you not love this guy? How can you not love the game he plays?
He gave Seattle some of its best sports memories. In the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees, Seattle lost the first two games and was on the verge of elimination. Junior solo homered in the bottom of the 8th to bring the M's within one, and then in the bottom of the 11th, down 5-4, he was on first when Edgar Martinez hit a double. It's the bottom of the 11th, remember, in the final game to determine who gets to play Cleveland for the American League Pennant. Junior sprinted - flew - around the bases to home from 1st on a double, sliding safe and scoring the winning run.
Pandemonium, as they say, ensued. And there was that smile.
(You can watch it here. )
How much did Seattle love him? After he left the M's for the Reds, he returned for Interleague play in a new uni and his hometown fans still gave him a ten minute standing ovation.
Without the injuries he suffered in Cincinnati, he "no doubt" would have won the all time home run title instead of Barry Bonds, according to Joe Buck, Mike Scioscia and others. The fact that in spite of his injuries he never turned to performance enhancing drugs to speed a recovery speaks to his character and his respect for the game.
I don't watch as much baseball now as I did in the 1990's. I'm sure there's some kid out there who truly loves the game, who sprints out to his position in the outfield at every half inning, who sees every game - every pitch - as a personal challenge and an opportunity to do his best. I don't know who he is, though, and he's not my age and prolly doesn't share my birthday, and he's prolly not as charismatic or handsome as Griffey was, and he prolly doesn't have that megawatt smile, and for sure - for absolute, positive, 100% sure - he's no Junior.
I guess I'll just have to look forward to all of the highlights again when Junior gets into Cooperstown. I won't have to wait that long. It'll be on the first ballot.