Ken Griffey Jr.’s legacy is an important reminder for all of us who want to see the game played with honor and a little fun.
Baseball is supposed to be fun. I can imagine that with all the pressure of a long, grueling season, many MLB players forget what it felt like to make a running catch in Little League, or to blast a ball into the next field where the younger kids are playing (not that I ever have). Or to simply smell the fresh-cut grass in March and know that baseball is coming–to get welled up with anticipation when the lines are re-chalked every spring.
Ken Griffey Jr. made his Major-League debut just before my first birthday. My earliest memories of watching the Mariners with my dad are soaked with images of his swing and his smile. Griffey never forgot the pure joy he must have felt playing baseball as a kid. That joy was evident from from the time he was 17 and big league scouts were first starting to gush over his talent. That’s why we called him “The Kid.”
Griffey came up in during the most scandalous and embarrassing periods in baseball history since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. At the time, in grade school, I loved watching Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds smash a ridiculous number of home runs and tumble the great home run records from decades ago that many thought were unreachable. Then, in the massively disappointing and dark early-2000’s, we learned they were all lying cheaters.
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In the age of Alex Rodriguez-sized contracts and the steroids arms race to justify those contracts, baseball became big business. Players forgot what it was like to play the game like a kid. Griffey was the exception to a disappointing generation of juicers. He hit 630 home runs without once giving the steroids hounds a whiff of evidence he ever artificially enhanced his performance.
There must have been huge pressure on the Kid throughout the 1990’s to perform. Take the 1998 season. In the prime of his career, the reigning MVP was pitted against now known juicers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in a media-fueled home run race by midseason. Every day he must have heard about another blast by one of these hitters, followed by comparisons between the two and himself. Day after day, no matter what happened on the field, no matter how many home runs he hit (Griffey ended up third in MLB in home runs in 1998 with 56), he was always behind McGwire and Sosa. He was Mariners fan favorite (and my favorite), but outside of Seattle he was only third best.
The A-Rod types wouldn’t have taken it. They would have done what the others were doing to prove they were equals or their betters. Griffey didn’t care about that. He just wanted to play the game and help his team win. And have some fun in the process. Griffey, perhaps more than any player I’ve seen, exemplified what the game is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be for grownups to argue and come together over. But it’s also for the kids who still love the smell of the grass in springtime and who feel the pure joy of walking down to their seat at the ballpark with their parents. Who embodied that sense of joy and fun that baseball is supposed to have better than Ken Griffey Jr.?
Griffey is the reason I love baseball. He’s the reason we have Safeco Field. He’s the reason we have Major League Baseball in Seattle at all. He’s the namesake for my dog. And his legacy–beyond the stats, the all-time home run lists, awards, and even his weird later seasons with the Mariners–cannot be forgotten. And Sunday, our boy will forever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame to remind us all of the joy of the game.