Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Celebrating 600

I wanted to take a break from all the Finals talk and take a moment to celebrate Ken Griffey, Jr.'s monumental accomplishment. Some may view this as taking the easy way out (and, they are probably right), but instead of re-creating the wheel, I figured I would share with you once again my article from May 12, 2006. It's hard to believe I wrote this over two years ago, but I just can't think of a better way to share my feelings about Jr. Not to mention that of all the entries I have written in this space, I am probably the most proud of this one. So, without further ado, let's celebrate the present by taking a step back in the past:

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Kid

One of the greatest things about sports is that on any random night something truly special can happen. Something that if you are lucky enough to see it live you might find yourself talking about it ten years later in some bar with a random stranger, and if you happen to miss it, you might find yourself full of regret. Well, in case you missed it last night, something truly special happened on the baseball diamond. 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 sorted 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 possibly 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 the kid. We knew that 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 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. So, that’s what we knew. What we soon learned is 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. Well, 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 had won his first Gold Glove. 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 really meant something. As if the mounting numbers weren’t enough, he played the game with an ease and joy that I don’t remember ever having 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 swing like The Kid. And, through it all, he just kept smiling. I honestly don’t remember one interview from those Seattle years where he wasn’t smiling, and where that hat wasn’t on backwards. It didn’t take long for his combination of talent and charisma to make a superstar. Hell, aside from Michael Jordan, there was no bigger star in the world of sports. None!

As the ‘90’s wore on, and The Kid morphed into “Jr.” somewhere along the way, 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, it rained 320 days a year in Seattle, and 90% of the people in Seattle were more likely to go to a coffee shop and talk about the time they saw Pearl Jam play a surprise show at some hole in the wall club than they were to attend a baseball game, The Mariners actually became 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 which 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 looked like this:

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 he was traded to his hometown team, The Cincinnati Reds, on February 10, 2000, 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 40 homers and 118 RBI. In 2001, however, it seemed like the roof caved in. The 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, injury after injury came, and Jr. only played 206 games over those three seasons. 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 exact same time Griffey was declining, people seemed to forget how amazing Griffey had once been. It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen in sports. I even had conversations with friends that tried to convince me that Griffey may not even be a Hall of Famer any more. Conversations like this, and the general dismissal of all Griffey had accomplished absolutely infuriated me. I mean, this was OUR Dimaggion, OUR Mays, OUR Clemente…how could people forget this?

Well, last season, 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. Nobody was happier than me, and as this season dawned I was hoping 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. Well, it only took eight games for that gimpy knee to rear its ugly head and send Griffey back to the DL. And, that brings us to last night.

So, there he was…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 Ken Griffey Jr. coming through. Well, suffice it to say, I’m lucky there were no odds makers in the house. 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. And, you know what? I’m okay with that, because no matter what, to me he will always be the greatest player of our generation. In other words, he is always going to be MY Dimmagio, MY Mays, and MY Clemente.