Lost in the fallout from the boxing match on turf that was the Bengals-Steelers playoff game was an important piece of news for Cincinnati Reds fans who grew up idolizing a certain outfielder.
Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame earlier this month, good news for a city that is still dealing with the national fallout from the aforementioned playoff “game.”
In the time since his election, Griffey Jr. has stated that he will don a Mariners hat in his Hall-of-Fame plaque, and that makes perfect sense. Just a simple trip over to Baseball Reference makes that obvious, as Jr.’s batting average with the Mariners was 22 points higher than it was during his oft-injured tenure with the Reds.
That tenure had a rather profound impact on me personally. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan prior to Griffey’s arrival, but I knew enough about the game to know how great a player he was. Whenever I booted up the ol’ PlayStation (the original grey one that was about as energy efficient trying to use a hamster to power a city), I made sure that immediately after I started Triple Play ‘98 I would go into the roster editing section and trade Griffey Jr. to the Reds. Putting him in a lineup with Barry Larkin and Deion Sanders would’ve created a baseball juggernaut had I known anything about the art of pitching. Apparently, throwing fastballs right down the middle of the plate to speed things up so I can get back to hitting isn’t an optimal strategy.
Anyway, the point is I would always trade Griffey to the Reds and when that actually happened I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that the Reds had just acquired arguably the best player of the decade. At the time, players like that didn’t play in Cincinnati. Sure, Barry Larkin was a great player in his own right, but unfortunately I never really got to appreciate Larkin until just before he retired.
Griffey Jr. was different. Even though I didn’t watch too many games or consider myself a baseball fan, I knew how special he was and what the addition of him could do to the Reds. Unfortunately, none of that was to be. Griffey Jr.’s injuries have been documented all over the place and even if you don’t understand the medical terms, it’s not hard to figure out that they robbed Cincinnati of a chance to watch one of the greatest players in MLB history grow into his prime.
Arguably the most fitting thing about Griffey Jr.’s career is how it ended: quietly. There was no year-long goodbye tour or weird retirement gifts. When Mariano Rivera retired, the Tampa Bay Rays gave him a gigantic statue of himself made out of sand. What exactly is he going to do with that? To be fair, the Minnesota Twins gave Rivera a chair made out of bats he broke, so I suppose it balances out.
Regardless, neither of those things happened. Griffey Jr. retired his way, on June 3, 2010 just before the Mariners were to take on the Twins. Prior to the season, Junior had said he would retire if he ever felt he was becoming a distraction, and sure enough he called it quits right there. His last base-hit was also fitting, as it was a walk-off single a few weeks prior.
There were still some fantastic moments during Griffey Jr.’s tenure with the Reds. The milestone home runs, always seeming to fall around Father’s Day, leap to mind. Yet, my personal favorite memory of Griffey Jr. was him leaping for joy at first base as Adam Dunn hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Indians. When I went back and looked for footage of that home run, I discovered the player in question was not Jr. at all, but in fact Felipe Lopez.
My apparently shaky memory aside, that’s the Griffey Jr. I’m going to remember. I’m not going to remember the trips to the disabled list, the trade that eventually sent him out of Cincinnati and to the Chicago White Sox, or any of that. I’m going to remember a player who could change the entire complexion of a baseball game with one swing of a bat or one leap in the outfield. I’m going to remember the player who made wearing a hat backwards seem like a cool thing to do. I’m going to remember the player who stayed clean in an era that made it difficult to do so.
I’m also going to remember the walk-off home run he hit to win the World Series for my imaginary Reds the first time I played through a season of Triple Play ‘98. It’s a shame he never had a chance to do that during his actual career.