Ken Griffey Junior
February 10, 2000, will go down in Reds history and in baseball history as the night when one of the biggest trades in the history of our sport took place, when the Michael Jordan of baseball came home to Cincinnati. – Cincinnati Reds General Manager Jim Bowden
For a generation of baseball fans, growing up in the 90’s, Ken Griffey Jnr. was baseball. His defensive play was jaw dropping, gliding across centerfield with grace and crashing into walls risking life and limb to make the play. His swing was one of the smoothest and picturesque leading to a whole host of little leaguers trying to emulate its swift explosiveness. In fact, during his time in Seattle, many experts were predicting that one day we would be speaking his name in the same context as Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and that if anyone was to pass Hank Aaron’s homerun record it would be The Kid.
As a child Ken Griffey Jnr was no stranger to Big League club houses. While the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine was dominating the National League in the 1970’s, Ken Griffey Snr. was a big part of that team, patrolling the outfield. When it came to his own game, Junior was seen as a natural, playing at such an advanced level with apparent ease. It was no surprise that he was drafted first overall in 1987 and it didn’t take him long to get all the way to the Majors and perhaps, due to his heritage, this helped him to settle in quickly.
In 1989, aged just 19 he was a firm favourite to be Rookie of the Year but in what would sadly become a trend, Griffey would get injured breaking his hand slipping in the shower and missed a significant portion of the year.
In 1990 he would not only be joined by his father on the Mariner roster but would win the first of many Gold Gloves for defensive excellence. These two elements would come together in a memorable play where Griffey Snr. set himself under a fly ball, calling for the catch only for his son to glide in front of him snatching the ball out of the air for the third out of the inning on his way back to the dugout with a big grin on his face.
Between ‘93 and ‘99 it would be easy to call Junior the best player in baseball. Not only was he setting the standard for defensive play in the outfield but he would average 44 homeruns, 115 rbi, 107 runs, 15 stolen bases whilst hitting .297. That was all with two shortened years due to the strike and time missed through injury – he broke his wrist making a phenomenal catch. He finally won an MVP award in ‘97 batting .304 with 56 homeruns , 147 rbi and 125 runs scored and he duplicated many of those numbers the following year too.
By the end of the 1999 season, Junior Griffey was at the height of his powers and his contract with Seattle was at an end. Expressing an interest to play nearer his family home in Orlando, he tested the free agent market and despite more lucrative offers, opted to join the team where his father had made his name, The Cincinnati Reds.
Griffey And The Reds
Griffey’s first season as a Red was met with mixed reviews. Although he hit 40 homeruns and drove in 118 (more than respectable numbers), those numbers were the lowest he had recorded since 1995. Many thought it was merely a matter of Junior acclimatising to a new league and expectation was high going into the 2001 season but this would prove to be the beginning of a nightmare for Ken Griffey in Cincinnati.
Since joining the Reds, Griffey has played in just 65% of the teams games due to constant injury problems. The injuries would include hurting his shoulder diving for a catch that would have saved the game, tearing his hamstring off the bone sliding to make another catch to breaking his wrist wrestling with his kids and pleurisy. In total he has had problems with both knees, his right shoulder and bicep, his hamstrings, his groin, his left foot and right ankle all in the space of eight years. Where once he was the omnipresent face of baseball, now he is the source of conspiracy theories as to how he could be so snake bitten.
Theories run from the idea that everything came so easy to him that he let his conditioning go, to the notion that playing on Astroturf all those years in Seattle had wore him down but the common theme is one of bad luck. No matter the reason why, what is evident is that the injuries have taken their toll on Griffey. His swing no longer has that same lightning speed through the zone and his speed that made him one of the greatest outfielders to ever play the game has all but gone. Going into the 2007 season Reds management decided that Griffey would no longer be the teams first choice in centerfield but would be moved to a corner outfield slot.
One of the fastest players to reach 300 homeruns in his career, Junior would have to wait until 2004 to get to 500 while his great contemporary, Barry Bonds, was going from strength to strength. In 2007 Griffey was climbing the all time homerun list, looking to become the seventh player to hit 600 while Bonds was on the march towards breaking the all time record of 755 many thought Junior would be the one to break.
The Legacy of Ken Griffey Jnr.
To this day Griffey remains one of the most popular players in baseball but whereas fans used to get excited to see what he would do year in and year out, that has been replaced by a hope that he will simply stay healthy for a full year. It says a lot about him that when some players leave a club they come back to boos, when Junior finally returned to Seattle in an opponents jersey he was greeted by cheers. Even the PA, instead of treating him like any road player, gave him the full treatment in his first at bat, introducing him with enthusiasm and the same music they used to play in his Mariner days.
In 1999 baseball celebrated the millennium by naming its’ All Century Team and Ken Griffey Jnr. was easily the youngest player named in that group – a group that didn’t feature Barry Bonds. Even given his woes in Cincinnati, he was also named one of the outfielders in the All Time Gold Glove Team in 2007 as one of the best defensive players of the last 50 years, once again proving that people haven’t forgotten his days in Seattle.
It speaks volumes as to just how good Junior Griffey was in his early days that even with all the hurt and effectively missing three full seasons, the bulk of which would have been in his prime years, he could still end up very close to Willie Mays in the all time homerun list. As it stands he is already in sixth place in that prestigious group and that is on top of the 10 Gold Gloves.
Once upon a time a 21 year old kid playing in Seattle with his dad was earmarked for great things. Four years later there were a lot of people suggesting he could break the biggest of baseball records. Four years after that people were already suggesting he could be the greatest of all time. Four years after that there were worries he was washed up.
He may not be on cereal boxes or endorsing computer games any more but few will question his Hall of Fame credentials. In a generation informally known as ‘The Steroid Era’ no one ever doubted Ken Griffey’s integrity. Like many of the greats he made everything look so easy and effortless but he also made it look fun. The smiles might not have been so easy to come by in Cincinnati and his body may have slowed due to injury but he hasn’t stopped trying yet and fans everywhere are still hoping for a healthy Ken Griffey Jnr. if only to see that amazing swing again.