Friday, May 12, 2006

The Kid

One of the greatest things about sports is that, on any random night, something truly special might happen. Something that, if you are lucky enough to see it live, you might find yourself talking about ten years later in some hotel bar with a random stranger. Well, last night was one of those random nights. No, despite the fact that I take a sick delight in any misfortune that befalls the Yankees, I’m not talking about Hideki Matsui breaking his wrist. Although, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nope, I am talking about Ken Griffey Jr. turning back the clock with a three run walk off homer in the bottom of the 11th inning.

I know that you might be asking yourself, “why should I care about Griffey hitting a game winner on May 11?” Well, I’m going to tell you why. Since the Summer of ’98, four things have happened to baseball fans: 1) McGwire and Sosa captivated us in the summer of ’98; 2) Barry Bonds launched a sordid assault on the record books; 3) BALCO; and 4) We forgot that Ken Griffey Jr. is the greatest baseball player of the last quarter century. The first three are topics for another day, but the last…well…it’s time to refresh our memories. So, strap on your seat belts, sit back and relax, and enjoy the ride. First stop…1989.

On April 3, 1989, a 19 year old kid with a chronic case of perma-grin and his hat turned backwards started in center field for the Seattle Mariners. At the time, we knew a few things about that kid. We knew his Dad was a pretty good ball player in his own right. We knew that the Mariners had taken him number 1 overall in the ’87 draft, and we knew it only took him a year in the minors to make his way to the Show. And, we knew that the kid was nicknamed, well, The Kid. That’s what we knew. What we soon learned was that The Kid was a gem of our generation. You know, a player that makes old men say things like “these guys today are good, but none of them compare to (fill in the blank).” Our Grandfathers had Dimaggio and Williams. Our Fathers had Mays, Mantle, and even Clemente. It quickly became clear for our generation there was only one true gem…The Kid.

By the time he was 20 years old, The Kid was already an All Star and Gold Glove winner. By the time he was 21, he had his first 100 RBI season, and by the time he was 23, he hit 45 homeruns. Remember, that was back when 45 homeruns meant something. As if the mounting numbers weren’t enough, he played the game with an ease and joy that I have never seen before or since. There was no ball out of his range in the outfield. The centerfield wall was a mere inconvenience, and his swing was so sweet that every little boy in America was begging his father to teach them to hit left handed so he could emulate it. And, through it all, he just kept smiling. I honestly don’t remember one interview from those Seattle years in which he wasn’t smiling and wearing that hat backwards. The Kid's combination of talent and charisma led to instant superstardom. Hell, aside from Michael Jordan, there was no bigger star in the world of sports. None!

As the 90’s wore on, somewhere along the way, the media stopped calling him The Kid and started referring to him simply as "Jr", but not much else changed. He kept hitting homeruns, driving in runs, winning gold gloves, and most remarkably of all…he actually put Seattle on the baseball map. Despite the fact that they played in an airplane hangar; despite the fact that it rains 320 days a year in Seattle; and despite the fact that 90% of the people in Seattle were more likely to spend their nights looking for the next Pearl Jam or Nirvana than attend a baseball game, Jr. actually turned the Mariners into a winner. By 1995, the Mariners were a playoff team, and they took out the Yankees in a classic come from behind 5 game series. In that series, Jr. hit .391 with 5 HR, 7 RBI, and 9 runs scored. Yea, he was pretty good.

By the end of his eleventh season in 1999, Jr. was 30 years old and his career numbers were:

.299 Batting Average

398 HR

1152 RBI

10 Gold Gloves

10 All Star Appearances

1 AL MVP

1 MLB Player of the Year

So, the 20th Century closed with little doubt that Jr. was the best player of the 90’s, and we had no reason to believe that his reign wouldn’t stretch through the better part of the new decade. In fact, when, on February 10, 2000, he was traded to his hometown Cincinnati Reds, it looked like Jr. would play out the second half of his career and ride into the Hall of Fame in storybook fashion. Things went according to plan his first season with Jr. hitting 40 homers and driving in 118 runs. In 2001, however, the roof suddenly started to cave as injuries began to mount.

If it wasn’t the knee it was the hamstring, and if it wasn’t the hamstring it was the shoulder. From 2002 to 2005, Jr. only played 206 games. His numbers crashed, his aura faded, but worst of all, for the first time since we knew him, the smile was gone and the hat was turned straight. In short, he was no longer The Kid or Jr., instead, he was now just Ken Griffey Jr. He was just another guy on a crappy team that wasn’t earning his paycheck. I’m not going to lie to you, it was hard to watch. Worst of all, because guys like Bonds, Pujols, A-rod, Vlad, etc…were putting up other worldly numbers at the same time Griffey was declining, people seemed to forget about the Kid and Jr. Instead, media and fans alike allowed Griffey's new found struggles to somehow diminish his once unassailable greatness. The change in perception was so startling that I actually had friends try to convince me that Griffey may not even be a Hall of Famer. Conversations like this, and the general dismissal of all Griffey had accomplished prior to the injuries, absolutely left me baffled and infuriated. I mean, how could the media and the fans forget so quickly? For God's sake, this was OUR Dimaggio, OUR Mays, OUR Clemente…how could people forget this?

Well, last season, much to my delight (and relief) Griffey gave the world an emphatic “not so fast” when he managed to stay healthy for 128 games, belted 35 HR, and drove in 92 runs. Consequently, as this season dawned, I was hopeful that, at age 35, Griffey could start one final push, in the twilight of his career, to leave no doubt that he was best player of our generation. Unfortunately, it only took eight games to realize that the final push is, in all likelihood, not coming. Griffey's gimpy knee forced another trip to the DL, and frankly, until I was flipping channels last night, I didn't even know that trip was over.

So, there he was last night…fresh off a month long stint on the DL, digging in with two men on base, down two runs, one out in the Bottom of the 11th. Six years ago, I would have put even money on Jr. coming through in this spot. Last night, however, I wouldn’t have taken 20-1 odds on this ending well. Suffice it to say, I’m lucky there were no odds makers in the house last night. As the ball soared out of the park, Griffey raised his arms as he started that patented trot around the bases, his teammates charged out of the dugout like they had just won Game 7 of the World Series, and as they mobbed Griffey as he crossed the plate something special happened…we saw that smile again!

I’ve seen the replay about 15 times now, and I’ve come to a realization…He will certainly never be The Kid again. He probably won’t even be Jr. again. But, from time to time, at moments like this, we still might get a glimpse of those guys again. Or, we may not. And, you know what? I’m okay with that, because I've seen enough. No matter what the future holds, nothing will ever change the fact that Ken Griffey, Jr. is MY Dimmagio, MY Mays, and MY Clemente. And, that makes me smile.