Wednesday June 30, 2010
Memories of Junior
On June 2, 2010, Ken Griffey, Jr., “The Kid” when he came up, “The Natural” on his first Sports Illustrated cover, “Junior” very quickly and forever after that, retired from Major League Baseball. It wasn't exactly a Ted Williams-ish exit. Two days earlier, in the bottom of the 9th, with the Mariners down by a run and a man on first, Junior, pinching hitting for catcher Rob Johnson, one of the few players on the team with a worse batting average than his, grounded into a fielder's choice off of Twins' closer Jon Rauch. Then Michael Saunders, all of 2 years old when Junior broke into the bigs, pinch ran for him. And that was that.
I missed his beginnings. Junior signed with the Mariners about the time I graduated from college (June 1987), and he broke into the bigs when I was getting ready for grad school (April 1989), so I wasn't paying much attention. Plus I was in Minneapolis, or Taipei, or New Brunswick, and when I finally arrived in Seattle in May 1991 I maintained a Minnesota preference for Kirby Puckett. The first time I saw Junior at the Kingdome he went 0-4. “So much for that,” I thought.
I think I fell in love about '93. He made spectacular catches routine and hit mooonshot homeruns into the upper deck. During the homerun derby in Baltimore, wearing his cap backwards, Junior became the first player to hit the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field stands on the fly; there's still a plaque there commemmorating the event. In July he tied a major league record by hitting 8 HRs in 8 straight games, and for the season he hit 45 homers and led the league in Total Bases with 359, but he finished fifth in the MVP vote behind no. 4 Juan Gonzalez (who led the league in HRs with 46), no. 3 John Olerud (who led the league in batting, OBP and OPS), no. 2 Paul Molitor (who led the league in hits), and the winner, Frank Thomas, who led the league in exactly nothing but whose team, the White Sox, won the West. Griffey was still stuck over in Seattle, which had great, budding players, and a famously irascible manager, Lou Piniella, and the team finished over .500 for the second time in its shabby history but still finished fourth in the AL West with a 82-80 record. You look at the '93 MVP numbers and it looks like a wash among the top 5, so why not give weight to the Gold Glove in center field rather tha the lump at first base? But the Baseball Writers Association of America preferred, as it always does, winning teams and semantics over “valuable” to defense. The writers probably figured: Junior's only 23. He'll get better.
He did. I was at the game June 24, 1994 when Junior hit HR no. 32 and you couldn't help but add up the on-pace possibilities. 62? 70? Esquire magazine ran a short feature on him that summer called “Roger and Him,” all about The Man Who Would Break Roger Maris' Home Run Record, but Junior stopped at 40 along with the rest of the baseball season in August. When Newsweek ran a cover story on the baseball strike they put Junior on the cover with a broken bat. MVP SchmemVP, Junior represented the sport.
The sport returned in late April 1995 and so did he: a 3-run homer on Opening Day as the M's beat the Tigers 5-zip before a sparse crowd at the Kingdome. A month later he was gone again: shattering his wrist making an impossible catch against the right-centerfield wall. For three months we held our breath. Could he come back? Would he be the same? The wrist is so important. Think Hank Aaron and his early cross-handed batting stance, and how that mistake strengthened his wrists, and how he wound up hitting 755 homeruns. 1995 turned out to be a magic season for the M's, the “Refuse to Lose” season, and, though Junior helped spark it with a walk-off homerun against John Wetteland and the New York Yankees on August 24, other players dominated. Edgar won the batting title with a .356 average, Randy won the Cy Young award, going 18-2 with 294 strikeouts, and Jay Buhner ruled the September to Remember. Yes, Junior dominated the Yankees in the ALDS, with five homeruns in five games, but it was Edgar who killed them: 7 RBIs in Game 4 and the double down the left-field line that scored Junior from first in Game 5 and finally put the stake into their cold, cold Yankee hearts.
Junior missed another month in '96 (hamate bone) and still hit 49 homers, but in the new era that was only good enough for third place. In '97 he was finally injury free and finally won that MVP award but it already felt different. He wasn't even the Kid anymore, A-Rod was, and though he finally hit 56 homeruns, everyone, even Brady Anderson, was suddenly hitting 50 homeruns. Moreover, his team, the lowly Mariners, who stormed ahead in '95, and seemed, in '96 and early '97, on the verge of a dynasty, was already being undone by awful relief pitching and awfuler moves. Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin. Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. In July '97, with Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala forever blowing ballgames, M's GM Woody Woodward went out and got three relief pitchers: Bad (Mike Timlin), Badder (Paul Spoljarec) and Baddest (Heathcliff Slocumb). To get them he gave up what felt like the future: another Jr. (Jose Cruz), catcher Jason Veritek and pitcher Derek Lowe. It didn't even work short-term. The M's got killed by Baltimore in the '97 ALDS, three games to one, and from the right-field stands I watched Junior flub a chance at a great play. The ball went off his glove. I'd never seen that before. I thought: “What is that? He normally gets that.” The next season was worse. We lost Randy Johnson in July, and while Junior was blasting homeruns it wasn't at the pace of the two testeronic monstrosities, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who ruled the summer. Junior was a diminished figure in the steroids era. The M's were a diminished team in the Yankees era.
In February 1999 I got to interview Woody Woodward for a local magazine. Afterwards the M's front office, who thought it would be a puff piece, called my editor to complain about “being ambushed,” but under the circumstances I thought I'd been polite. I hadn't sworn at him, for example. I hadn't threatened him, or yelled at him, or told him what he could do with his Healthcliff Slocumb. One of the Qs and As:
Is there a plan to keep Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season? Is it even feasible given the huge contracts that are being signed today?
Right now I’m going after it like it is. But...we also need to be strong enough as a team that they will want to play in Seattle.
They didn't. It was rumored Griffey didn't much like the House that Griffey Built, which opened in July 1999, and after the season he demanded a trade to one of three teams, then one of one team, the Cincinnati Reds, and like that he was gone and the sourness lingered until early April 2000 when his replacement Mike Cameron scaled the wall in dead center field to take away a homerun from Derek “Effin'” Jeter, and Safeco Field went wild: giving Cameron a standing O as he trotted in, giving him a standing O as he batted the next inning, giving him a standing O as he walked back to the dugout after striking out on three pitches. We thought baseball wouldn't be fun without Junior but that night we realized it might. And it kinda was, in 2000 and 2001, but it still wasn't the same. That presence was gone. Those possibilities were gone. There was still too much What Might Have Been.
Junior in the NL was like the Beatles after the break-up: Not bad, but you wondered what happened to the magic. Junior dominated the 1990s. Every year he'd won a Gold Glove. Every year he'd been elected to the All-Star team—usually with the highest vote total. Nine of the 10 years he'd received MVP votes and five times he finished in the top 5. He was named Player of the Decade and named to the All-Century team and one wondered where he would stop. The answer? Right there. In the NL he never won a Gold Glove, played in only three All-Star games, received MVP votes just once, in 2005, his comeback year. He was always injured, limping, overweight. After a time, after the bitterness went away, you silently cheered him on. C'mon, Junior! Lose weight. get in shape, come back. Phillies great Richie Ashburn once said, of the strategies devised to keep playing ball, “I wish I learned early what I had to learn late,” but you got the feeling Junior didn't even learn this late. When he returned to Seattle last year, a nostalgic afterthought, and put 18 more homers between him and the black mark of Sammy Sosa, he was an old man of 39. The same age as Mariano Rivera, who helped the Yankees win their first World Championship since 2000. Junior helped the Mariners think they had a chance—for the last time.
I wasn't there at the beginning but I was there at the end. Not Junior's last game on Memorial Day, but the first Major League Baseball game without Junior on a roster. As he drove home to Florida, M's management played the tribute video they'd probably had in the can for 14 months and the grounds crew created a “24” in the dirt out by second base, and me and my friend Jim watched this team, once mighty, once a potential dynasty, now as weak and characterless as the day he arrived to save them, eke out a win in extra innings. But there was nothing electric about it. There was no future in it. The M's are still a backwards-looking franchise that doesn't even have a definitive victory to look back on. In the 1990s they had three of the greatest players ever to play on the same team, Junior, A-Rod and Randy, and they couldn't get past the ALCS. Two of those players now have rings from other franchises. The last will go down as the greatest player in baseball history never to be in a World Series.
Godspeed, Junior. You deserved better.