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SEE ALSO: Ken Griffey Hall of Fame Flashback
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In a game with virtually no guarantees, Ken Griffey Jr. came as close as anyone could to being an active Hall of Fame player.
“If you could build a perfect player, it would be Ken Griffey Jr.” said Rusty Kuntz, a Mariners coach in Griffey’s rookie year of 1989.
Kuntz jokes now: “I could have said that the first time I saw him play in a Spring Training game.”
On Jan. 6, Griffey’s accomplishments became immortalized with election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the leading vote-getter in history. Griffey received a stunning 99.3 percent of the votes, getting named on all but three of the 440 ballots submitted.
He joined Mike Piazza as the Class of 2016, inducted July 24 in Cooperstown.
It’s a fitting coronation for a player who stands sixth on the all-time home run list with 630, was the youngest member of the All-Century Team named in 1999, won 10 Gold Glove Awards and seven Silver Slugger Awards, and was voted as an All-Star starter 13 times (five times as the majors’ leading vote-getter).
Describing himself as “humbled and honored” by his honor, Griffey became the first No. 1 overall draft pick to gain election—fulfilling the promise that everyone saw.
If ever a person was born to play baseball, it was George Kenneth Griffey Jr. Indeed, his very birthdate (Nov. 21) and birthplace (Donora, Pa.), both of which he shares with Hall of Famer Stan Musial, presaged his eminence.
His dad, Ken Griffey Sr., was a member of one of the most celebrated teams in history, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.” Young Ken and his younger brother, Craig, would roam the clubhouse with Petey Rose, Eduardo Perez, Pedro Borbon Jr. and other sons, mentored by some of the greatest players in history and lovingly cared for by the white-haired manager, Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson.
“Baseball raised him,’’ Ken Griffey Sr. said. “All Sparky said was, ‘If we win, the kids could come in the clubhouse.’ And we won a lot.”
It’s no wonder that Griffey was imbued with a ballplayer’s sensibilities to go along with his natural talent. At the outset of his career, when a reporter noted that he was in his first Spring Training, Griffey corrected him: “This is my 11th—10 with my dad, and one with the Mariners.”
The promise began to become reality at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, when Mariners area scout Tom Mooney recommended Griffey for the top overall draft spot and recalls him as “a man among boys.” It could be seen in Griffey’s first batting practice session at the Kingdome after the draft, when he wowed veterans like Alvin Davis.
“A few of us were questioning how good a 17-year-old kid could really be,’’ Davis recalled. “He shows up, and he’s the real deal. The legend kind of built from there.”
Griffey doubled off Dave Stewart in his first major-league at-bat in Oakland in 1989, and homered off Eric King on the first pitch he saw at the Kingdome. He hit a two-run homer to win a game in his first pinch-hitting appearance in May. All of the feats were interspersed with a series of breathtaking catches that drew the national spotlight to Seattle, a place it had rarely landed.
The Griffey legend grew exponentially in 1990, when he and his father on Aug. 31 became the first father-son duo to play together in MLB history. They hit back-to-back singles in their first joint game, then upped the ante two weeks later with back-to-back first-inning homers off the Angels’ Kirk McCaskill. Griffey still calls that the greatest thrill of his career.
But from early on, virtually everyone who assessed Griffey’s talent cited his five-tool ability, which was undeniable.
“There is nothing he couldn’t do on the baseball field,’’ added Griffey’s long-time Mariners’ manager, Lou Piniella.
But it was his sixth tool—maybe call it charisma, or electricity, or joie de vivre—that truly made Griffey stand out. The filmmaker Ken Burns called it “joyous abandon,” and it drew fans to him like a magnet. The Griffey signature, of course, was his backwards hat. Early on, some baseball hardliners complained that Griffey was disrespecting the game, but the real story is much more endearing. As a youngster, young Ken would borrow his dad’s Reds cap, which was so big it would fall over his eyes. In order to be able to see when he’d shag balls or play catch on the field, he turned the hat around.
Griffey requested a trade to Cincinnati in 1999 in order to be closer to his family, but not before helping to make baseball so popular in Seattle that the team’s threat of moving out of town in the mid-1990s instead resulted in funding for Safeco Field. Former team president Chuck Armstrong always referred to the facility as “The House That Griffey Built.”
Griffey returned to Seattle in 2009 before retiring in June of 2010. Many believe the toll of playing on the unforgiving Kingdome artificial turf for more than a decade contributed to the injuries that marred the second half of Griffey’s career.
But by then, Griffey had already earned his Hall of Fame plaque.
“His mind worked at a different level,’’ said Griffey’s longtime Mariners teammate and close friend, Jay Buhner. “The rest of us, every now and then, we’d get locked in. He seemed to play his whole career at that level.”
Larry Stone is a columnist for the Seattle Times