I have been fascinated by the Ken Griffey Jr. situation virtually from the day he arrived in the major leagues, in part because it was such a joy to watch him play through his years in Seattle, and something less than that as he struggled in Cincinnati.
I was in Cincinnati for the closing of Riverfront Stadium (you can’t make me use the corporate name if I don’t want to) in 2002, and at a press conference during the festivities I got to talk with some beat writers about The Kid. And I was amazed how down they were on him they were, virtually to a man.
I mention this because with news that he’s headed back to Seattle for a homecoming of sorts, it puts the focus back on a player who was once widely considered the heir apparent to break the all-time home run record. I can remember writing columns in 2000 taking note of that very same idea. And then it all went poof.
As I look at Griffey’s lifetime log, two things jump out at me. The first is that from 1996-99, he averaged 52 home runs per season. My guess is that the only people with four-year stretches that exceed that are named Bonds, Sosa and McGwire. No wonder we thought he was going to break Henry Aaron’s all-time record.
And the second thing I noticed was that Griffey’s career had an Aaron-like demarcation from the first to the second half, and now also boasts the oddity of both players returning at the tail ends of their careers to the city where they enjoyed their greatest success.
Aaron’s first 12 years were in Milwaukee, and I always found it interesting to note that he already had Hall of Fame numbers by the time the ball club headed south to Atlanta.
Griffey, too, had the Hall virtually locked up by the time he arrived in Cincinnati, at which point their trajectories diverged dramatically. Aaron essentially tacked on a second HOF career over his final 11 years; Griffey, on the other hand, struggled mightily in the National League, albeit saddled with a string of injuries. He still has his Hall of Fame plaque, but the story line has changed has changed.
It was such a great story for those opening chapters – and his clout in our hobby didn’t hurt, either – that you can’t help but be saddened that it didn’t have a better ending.
At the very least, I hope his homecoming arrangements work out better than Henry’s did. At Griffey’s peak, there was nobody else in the game that was as fun to watch at the plate, with a big sweeping swing and a follow through of mythical proportions. My guess is that’s what the people in Seattle are remembering.