By Robert Grayson
No, Ken Griffey Jr. is not be shown with his baseball cap on backward on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame – even though Junior made wearing a ball cap with the brim toward the back the coolest look around during his playing days.
Fashion statement aside, Griffey Jr. says he wants everyone to see the Seattle Mariners’ insignia on his plaque in the Cooperstown shrine. So the cap on his engraved likeness will appear on the plaque, brim forward, with the Mariners’ logo prominently displayed. Griffey is the first player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a member of the Seattle Mariners, something the Gold Glove center fielder is very proud of.
When the Baseball Writers Association of America announced Junior’s selection to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown earlier this year, he quickly acknowledged that he would be inducted into the shrine in July as a Mariner. The major league veteran played for three teams – Seattle, Cincinnati and the Chicago White Sox – during his illustrious 22-year big league career (1989-2010), but says, “I did most of my damage as a Mariner.” That damage included hitting 417 of his 630 career home runs while wearing a Seattle Mariners uniform.
Junior burst onto the Major League Baseball scene on April 3, 1989, at age 19, wearing his cap backward while taking batting practice and shagging fly balls in the outfield. The look caught on fast, but Griffey didn’t do it to create a signature style. The whole cap-backward trend started out innocently enough, Griffey recalls.
Griffey followed in his father’s footsteps. Ken Griffey Sr. played Major League Baseball for 19 seasons (1973-91) with four different teams – the Cincinnati Reds in the Big Red Machine days in the 1970s, N.Y. Yankees, Atlanta Braves and the Seattle Mariners. A dutiful father, Griffey Sr. brought his sons, Ken Jr. and Craig, to the ballpark with him. Junior loved to don his father’s Cincinnati Reds cap, run out to the field and catch fly balls. But there was a problem. Dad’s hat was a bit too big for the youngster.
“My dad’s hat was a size 7½, and I wore a 6-1/4,” the new Hall of Famer points out. “His cap was just too big, the brim kept falling over my eyes and I couldn’t see. But I wanted to wear my dad’s cap. So, finally, one day I just turned it around and it worked. I could see and I could play with my dad’s cap on. I just kept doing that, even though one day I got a cap that fit.
“Maybe it was a tribute to those days with him. I don’t know. I didn’t give it that much thought. It was just comfortable when we were practicing, sort of a way to be informal and casual before we got down to business and the official game started. I never thought people would pick up on it.”
But they did.
Soon, people around the world were wearing their caps backward, and Griffey was almost as well known for the way he wore his cap as he was for his outstanding play on the field. Though Griffey was usually seen smiling with his cap on backward, opponents never found him to be much fun. He was an offensive powerhouse and a defensive marvel. He sent baseballs soaring over the fence when he was at the plate, and climbed the outfield wall in breathtaking fashion when he was in center field, to rob opposing batters of round-trippers.
Many considered Griffey the best player of his generation. The Baseball Writers Association of America obviously agreed, electing him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, with 99.32 percent of the vote, the highest percentage any player ever received. “Wow, it’s something you dream of,” Griffey Jr. said of getting into the Hall of Fame. “Everybody was saying I would get in on the first try, but I didn’t take anything for granted. You can never be sure no matter what anyone says. So, I wasn’t sure I got in until I heard the results of the vote.”
A power-hitting center fielder for most of his playing days, Junior reflected back on his early years in the majors by saying, “I knew I could play baseball, but I didn’t know at this level until later in my career. At age 19, it’s pretty much about trying to survive day in and day out in baseball. As I got older, I started to realize my place in the game.”
Griffey Sr., a proud papa, sums it up best: “I played with some good ones – (Cesar) Geronimo was outstanding, and I played with (Dave) Winfield, (Don) Mattingly, (Pete) Rose, (Johnny) Bench, (Tony) Perez – and the guy who is not in the Hall of Fame and I think should be in the Hall of Fame, Davey Concepcion. But even with all those guys, Junior is the best.”
And Dad saw how good Junior was firsthand. In late August 1990, in the twilight of his career, Griffey Sr. signed on with the Seattle Mariners. He had been released a few days earlier by the Cincinnati Reds. Junior had been playing center field for the Mariners for close to two seasons and was wowing the Kingdome faithful.
The 40-year-old senior Griffey, a left fielder, told his 20-year-old son, “ ‘I’m going to cover three square feet in left field and you’ve got the rest.’ And he covered it. Smooth and easy. I didn’t have to worry. Before that, I had never seen him up close on a major league diamond. I began thinking, ‘This kid has a chance to be in the Hall of Fame,’ ” the elder Griffey recalls.
“You have to understand: I’m his dad. We played catch in the backyard. I threw batting practice to him. I wanted him to be the best he could be, but until I played with him professionally I never thought of him as a Hall of Famer. But then, being there, every day, watching him make those catches, hitting the ball, it struck me.”
Oftentimes, fathers and sons share special moments together, but the major league diamond has given Ken Sr. and Jr. some memories of time spent together that most dads and their male offspring just can’t equal – like the night of Aug. 31, 1990.
Junior was playing center field and batting third against the Royals. The Mariners put the elder Griffey in left field and batted him second. It was the first time a father and son had ever played in the same game for the same team. First time up, Senior hit a single up the middle and Junior followed with a single of his own. They both scored, the first time a father and son both got a hit and scored a run in the same game, let alone the same inning. Seattle defeated the Royals 5–2 that night. The baseball world was abuzz about the Griffeys, but the best was yet to come for the duo.
On Sept. 14, 1990, the Mariners were at Anaheim Stadium to play the Angels. Once again, Griffey Sr. was batting second and Junior third. Kirk McCaskill was pitching for the Angels.
After Harold Reynolds led off the game for Seattle with a walk, Griffey Sr. came to the plate and McCaskill got two quick strikes on him for an 0-2 count. Then Griffey Sr. lifted a changeup over the center-field fence for a home run. Junior was there to greet his dad, who smiled and said, “That’s how you do it, son,” the elder Griffey notes. “Then, I looked back and I knew he was thinking home run. I could see it in his eyes.”
For his part, Junior recalls thinking, “I got to try and do this. I was thinking home run.”
But McCaskill gave the younger Griffey nothing to hit, running the count to 3–0. “I was thinking, it’s not going to happen,” Junior says. Dad was thinking the same thing as he recalls sitting on the edge of his seat watching the action from the dugout.
The younger Griffey was given a green light on the 3-0 pitch and McCaskill threw him a two-seam fastball down and away, a pitch most hitters would have smacked for a harmless ground ball. “I didn’t think anyone could hit that pitch,” the senior Griffey notes. But Junior was determined, and he sent the ball into the left-field stands. “When I saw that, I could only think, ‘He’s the man,’ ” Griffey Sr. says.
The Griffeys now had a record that may never be broken, a father and son hitting back-to-back home runs. To this day they are still the only father and son to hit a home run in the same game, let alone back-to-back.
There were high-fives all around the Mariners dugout, as father and son shared a smile and an embrace. “My dad tried to get me to think about what we had just done. He was in dad-reflect mode. But at my age at the time, you don’t think about things like that. To me, it was just the first inning of the game, and I’m thinking we’ve got a lot of game left,” Junior contends. “My dad kept saying do you realize what we just did. We just went back-to-back. Nobody’s ever done that. Now, let’s do it again.”
As it turned out, the Angels won that game 7-5, but it didn’t put a damper on history. “Somehow, the first inning, that’s all I remember about that game,” Griffey Sr. says with a chuckle.
There is also a bit of a good-natured father-and-son rivalry between Senior and Junior, in particular over a catch each made at Yankee Stadium during games that took place five years apart. Despite the lapse in time between the two catches, both grabs were eerily similar. The debate between father and son over whose catch was better goes on.
Dad’s catch came on Aug. 19, 1985, when the elder Griffey played for the Yankees. With the Yankees leading Boston 6-5 in the top of the ninth inning, Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett sent a ball screaming into the left-field stands. But wait: Griffey Sr. scaled the left-field wall, reached into the stands and caught the ball to rob Barrett of a home run. Griffey Sr. hit the ground hard on his backside after making the grab, did a somersault, headstand and backflip before standing up, ball in glove.
It was Junior’s turn on April 26, 1990. The Seattle Mariners were at Yankee Stadium to battle the Bronx Bombers. The younger Griffey was playing center field for the Mariners. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Yankees right fielder Jesse Barfield came to bat against Mariners ace Randy Johnson. Barfield sent the ball to deep straight-away center field in what appeared to be a sure home run, roughly 408 feet from home plate. Junior was playing Barfield in right center.
But, never losing sight of the ball, Junior streaked seemingly effortlessly over to deep center. As the baseball began to sail over the center-field wall, Griffey Jr. leaped up against the padded wall, stretched over the fence with his glove and left Yankee fans speechless as he grabbed the ball and turned Barfield’s potential round-tripper into a long out. He landed standing up with a big smile on his face.
“That was a big moment for me. It was the first time I ever robbed someone of a home run. I had practiced that move ever since I was 3 years old, climbing up the walls in my mom’s house and driving her crazy. So when I made that catch, I felt I could let go and laugh,” Junior says.
“When I was growing up we didn’t play on fields with fences. You hit the ball and just kept running. So I didn’t have a chance to make a catch like that, though I always wanted to.”
Both father and son note that they argue over whose catch was better. “He’ll say his was and I’ll say mine was,” Griffey Jr. says.
“Mine was better because it saved the game,” Griffey Sr. says.
Responds the younger Griffey, “I have to disagree because I nailed the dismount. So, mine was better.”
Griffey Jr. would go on to make many more spectacular catches throughout his career. In fact, he became a human highlight reel during his playing days, setting a high bar for other outfielders looking to make a defensive mark in the big leagues. Yet, Griffey Jr. says, “There is only one first time, so that catch will always stand out in my mind.” And he whispers, “It was better than my dad’s.”
The new Hall of Famer would compile a collection of great memories as a Mariner. During his first 11 seasons in Seattle (1989-99), he batted better than .300 seven times, led the American League in home runs four times (1994, 1997-99), was the American League RBI leader in 1997, and won all seven of his Silver Slugger awards and all 10 of Gold Glove awards with the team that drafted him first overall in the 1987 amateur draft. He was also the 1997 American League Most Valuable Player while with the Mariners and represented Seattle 10 times on the American League All-Star squad.
Griffey Jr. was such a big star in Seattle that when the star’s wife, Melissa, gave birth to the couple’s first child, son Trey in 1994, the Mariners wasted no time. Half joking, Mariners then-General Manager Woody Woodward sent Trey a contract, set to take effect in 2012. Trey, who is a receiver for the University of Arizona Wildcats football team, prefers the gridiron, at least for now, he says.
But one of Junior’s fondest memories came in the 1995 season, when the Mariners made their playoff run and ended up tied for first in the American League West with the California Angels at the end of the regular season. The Mariners and Angels met in a one-game playoff to decide the division title, and the Mariners won the game 9-1. The Mariners made the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Griffey and company would play a strong Yankees team in the best-of-five 1995 American League Division Series (ALDS). The Yankees won the first two games of the series in the Bronx. The remaining three games would be played at the Kingdome in Seattle, and the Mariners felt they had a good chance to recoup, especially with their ace, Randy Johnson, starting Game 3. Griffey Jr. remembers that the Seattle fans were firmly behind their team, adopting the mantra “Refuse to Lose.”
The Mariners won Game 3 and then took Game 4, despite giving the Yankees an early 5-0 lead. Griffey hit a home run in the sixth inning to help Seattle take a 6-5 lead before the Yankees tied the game in the top of the eighth. The Mariners scored five runs in the bottom half of the eighth to put the fourth game in the win column for Seattle.
In Game 5, the Yankees were leading 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Junior smacked a homer to bring Seattle one run closer. Then with the bases loaded, Yankees pitcher David Cone walked Mariners pinch-hitter Doug Strange to tie the game at four runs apiece. The game went into extra innings.
In the top of the 11th inning, the Yankees scored a run and, now with a 5-4 lead, New York seemed to be on the way to a victory. But in the bottom of the 11th, Seattle second baseman Joey Cora led off with a drag-bunt single. Griffey singled to right and advanced Cora to third. Edgar Martinez then hit a double to the left-field corner, scoring Cora, but also sending Griffey on an explosive run from first. Griffey rounded third with fierce determination and raced for home, sliding in with the winning run to give Seattle the series. “It was the loudest I ever heard a crowd,” Griffey Jr. says, thinking back on how the fans in the Kingdome reacted after his slide.
That exciting 1995 season and the incredible ALDS were said to have saved Major League Baseball in Seattle. There were rumors at the time that the team might be moved. The Mariners went on to lose the best-of-seven 1995 American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians in six games. But the heart the Mariners showed in the 1995 ALDS really helped build the fan base in Seattle, Griffey recalls. The Mariners were in Seattle to stay.
After the 1999 season with the Mariners, Griffey expressed a desire to play closer to home. Though born in Donora, Pa., he had lived in Cincinnati ever since he was 6 years old. His dad, Ken Sr., was a legendary player for the National League powerhouse Cincinnati Reds, and the Reds were more than happy to trade for the younger Griffey, now 30, and add him to their roster. The Mariners and their fans were nowhere near as happy to see their biggest star head to the Midwest.
Griffey hit 40 homers with the Reds in 2000. But between 2000-04, he suffered a number of injuries that hindered his game. “I think what helped me through that period was having a dad who had gone through it. He would say at 20, 30 you’ll be fine. When you get to 35 to 40, you’re still going to be fine, but you’re not going to be able to do it every day. You’re going to have to pick and choose the days you can do it. It made sense,” Junior notes. “You just have to play as long as you can and do the things that you can to get yourself out there. Nobody’s going to be great all their life. There is going to be a time when you’re going to slow down. It’s going to happen. You play hard enough, long enough, things are going to break down.”
Still, Griffey Jr. reached a number of milestones while he was with the Reds. On June 20, 2004, for instance, the new Hall of Famer hit his 500th home run. He had a resurgence in 2005, hitting 35 round-trippers for Cincinnati, the most home runs he had slammed in a season since 2000, his first season with the Reds. Add to that 92 RBI and a .301 batting average, and Junior looked like a kid again at 35 years old. He was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year. He tacked on another 27 home runs in 2006, including his 550th career round-tripper on June 27.
During the 2007 season, Griffey made his first return trip to Seattle since he had been traded to the Reds in 2000. He never expected the reception he would get when he arrived on June 22. The Mariners prepared a special ceremony for him, complete with a 15-minute highlight reel of his finest moments in a Mariners uniform, of which there were plenty. Fans packed Safeco Field in Seattle, holding signs declaring “Seattle Junior” and “The House that Griffey Built.” The crowd gave Junior a four-minute standing ovation. There was no doubt that Ken Griffey Jr. was still a fan favorite in Seattle.
The interleague series between the Mariners and the Reds went from June 22-24 and Griffey got big ovations throughout the weekend. He hit two home runs in the game on Sunday, June 24 to give the Reds a 3-2 win. After the series, Seattle fans started a petition to bring Griffey back to the Emerald City.
“I’ll be honest. When I went back to Seattle for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. But the fans have always embraced me. I will always be grateful to Seattle for a lot of things. You know about the great plays. But I was just a teenager when I first came up. They let me be a teenager, go out there, make mistakes, improve, develop, get better. They let me have fun and learn how to be a pro,” the 46-year-old Hall of Famer says.
On June 9, 2008, Griffey hit his 600th career home run, as his career in Cincinnati was winding down. Griffey remained with the Cincinnati Reds until July 31, 2008, when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. But at the end of the 2008 season, Griffey became a free agent and re-signed with the Seattle Mariners. He was with the team until his retirement in June 2010. Griffey Jr. now works as a special consultant with the Mariners, evaluating talent and working with young players. In addition to his 630 home runs, the hard-hitting, left-handed batter had 2,781 hits, with 1,836 runs batted in, and .284 lifetime batting average. He played in more than 2,671 games, and also had 524 doubles.
“When it comes to memories, I would have to say that playing on the same team as my dad ranks right up there. Also watching guys like Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Kirby Puckett play against my dad, and then for me to have the chance to play against them as well, man, that was special,” Junior points out.
“These guys treated me like I was a little brother to them. I’d go into a town and they’d take me out to lunch. So a lot of the memories I have of these guys are not just on the field, but off the field as well.”
Often called “The Kid” in his playing days, there was no way Ken Griffey Jr. could reflect on his Hall of Fame career without giving his mom, Alberta (“Bertie”) Griffey, a great deal of credit for his success. “I have a mom who saw a whole lot of big leaguers play. When I was a kid, it was Mom who took me to my games, to my practices, did the whole shuttle thing that moms do. She would relay things to me from my dad. My dad would say something. She had a way of saying it much differently than my dad would say it. You know how dads can be sometimes. She knew my swing. She knew if I was fielding right, and what I needed to do to fix things,” he remembers with a fond look on his face.
“She was able to say, ‘You’re doing these things wrong. You’re doing these things right.’ As I got older, it transferred over to my dad because there were certain things he could tell me that she couldn’t. But it all starts with the moms. You have nicer rides home with them, even if you have a bad game. Moms have a way of smoothing things over.”
Flashing his trademark smile, Junior says that, even when he was in the bigs, “My mom could always tell me what I was doing wrong. Again, she watched enough baseball to be able to do that.” Then, with his father within earshot, the younger Griffey added with a twinkle in his eye, “She even told my dad what he was doing wrong. I thought I’d throw that in. Sorry, Dad.”
Without missing a beat, Senior said with a big grin, “You have no idea, son. No idea.”
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.