The smile or the swing: Which shone brighter? When it came to Ken Griffey Jr., it was like a Mike Trout versus Bryce Harper argument—or Mickey Mantle versus Willie Mays. Split the distance between any two of those twice-in-a-generation talents and you have The Kid, whose bloodlines made him a familiar name before he'd ever shown off either that wide, beaming grin or that powerful, picturesque swing at the major league level.
The son of a major league mainstay and the No. 1 pick of the 1987 draft burst on the scene as a 19-year-old—months younger than any of the aforementioned stars—in 1989 and quickly began carving out his place in history and in the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. At the plate and in the field, Griffey was a human highlight film, clouting home runs and stealing them, and with his camera-ready charisma, he stole the spotlight as well, bringing new fans to baseball and invigorating older ones who dared compare him to legendary Hall of Famers. By the time that he challenged Roger Maris's single-season home run record in 1994, it seemed possible that he could reach Hank Aaron as well.
Alas, he did not. Though Griffey clubbed more homers through his age-30 season than any player who had come before him, a seemingly never-ending series of injuries dimmed that famous smile and made his thirties a slog, even as he maintained a sterling reputation amid the game’s endless performance-enhancing drug scandal. By the time he reached the rarefied air of 600 home runs in 2008, Barry Bonds had beaten him to Aaron's record and Sammy Sosa to that round-numbered milestone, both amid controversy and a deluge of PED allegations.
But while we can spend all day wondering what might have been when it came to Griffey, it's time to celebrate the reality of his accomplishments. His 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, four home run titles, an MVP award and the No. 6 ranking on the all-time home run list are nothing to sneeze at, and more than enough to guarantee that he'll receive his bronze plaque in Cooperstown next July—the only player on this year's ballot about whom that can definitively be said.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Avg. HOF CF
Both Griffey and his father, Ken Griffey Sr., were born in Donora, Penn., birthplace of an even more famous baseball icon, Stan Musial. The senior Griffey's father, Joseph "Buddy" Griffey, even played on the integrated Donora High School team with Stan the Man in the late 1930s. By the time the senior Griffey was drafted by the Reds in the 29th round in June 1969, wife Alberta was pregnant with Junior, who was born on Nov. 21 of that year (Musial's birthday, incidentally), on the heels of Griffey’s first professional season. Griffey Sr. would debut with the Reds on Aug. 25, 1973; become a Big Red Machine lineup staple the following season; win World Series rings in '75 and '76; and earn All-Star honors three times. All told, he racked up 2,143 hits, 152 homers and a .296/.359/.431 batting line in 19 seasons with the Reds (through 1981 and again from '88–90), Yankees ('82–86), Braves ('86–88) and Mariners ('90–91 as a history-making teammate of his son).
Griffey Jr. spent much of his childhood around the Reds at Riverfront Stadium, playing with the children of Pete Rose and Tony Perez (future major leaguers themselves) in the presence of their famous fathers. By the time he was 10, Griffey's baseball skills were so advanced that his mother had to bring his birth certificate to competitions to prove his age. At 12, he was being thrown batting practice—curves and sliders as well as fastballs—by his father in Yankee Stadium, though the family remained in Cincinnati during the school year. The good times in the Bronx lasted until Yankees manager Billy Martin singled out Griffey and brother Craig (who played in the minors from 1991 to '97) for their rowdiness in the wake of a blowout defeat. Junior carried the grudge, telling The New York Times in 1991:
"Martin told one of his coaches to go up to my dad. He wanted us out of there. Just me and my brother, nobody else. Not Lou Piniella's kid. Not Graig Nettles's kid. Not Don Baylor's kid…
"I hold it against them and I will always play harder against the Yankees.… It'll never change. Every time we play these guys, I try a little extra."
For what it’s worth, including the postseason, Griffey hit .315/.395/.615 with 41 homers in 599 plate appearances against the Yankees during his career.
At Moeller High School—which had previously graduated Buddy Bell and Barry Larkin—Griffey starred as a running back and wide receiver on the football team, which won a state championship in his junior year, and in the outfield for the baseball team. He set home run records at the school and was the first pick of the 1987 draft by the Mariners, from whom he received a $160,000 signing bonus. Mariners scouting director Roger Jongewaard (who had previously drafted Darryl Strawberry for the Mets) compared Griffey to former NL MVP Dave Parker, capable of 25 to 30 homers per year; Braves general manager Bobby Cox, who oversaw his father at the time, called Griffey the best prospect he had ever seen.
In his first pro season, the 17-year-old Griffey tore up the Northwest League, hitting .313/.445/.604 with 14 homers in 54 games for the Mariners' Bellingham affiliate, good enough for Baseball America to anoint him the league's top prospect. After tearing up the Class A California League and tasting Double A for a 17-game stint in 1988, he impressed the Mariners so much during spring training in ’89 that he made the big club. ''We were one team that could afford to bring a 19-year-old up,'' said Jim Lefebvre, manager of a team that in its 12 years of existence had never won more than 78 games in a season nor claimed a signature franchise-type player. The 19-year, 133-day old Griffey stroked a double off Athletics ace Dave Stewart in his first plate appearance on April 3, 1989, making history in the process by joining his father (by then back with the Reds) as the majors' first active multigenerational combination.
A week later, Griffey hit his first major league homer, off the White Sox' Eric King. The majors' youngest player impressed observers with his outstanding defense and his baseball IQ. By May, he even had a candy bar named after him, though he was allergic to chocolate. Despite missing nearly four weeks with a broken pinky, he finished the year batting .264/.329/.420 with 16 homers, 16 steals and 3.2 WAR—the best showing by a teenage position player since Mel Ott tallied 3.8 WAR as a 19-year-old in 1928. Griffey finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Orioles reliever Gregg Olson and Royals swingman Tom Gordon.
Still the majors' youngest position player the following year, Griffey took a step forward, hitting .300/.366/.481 with 22 homers, a 136 OPS+ and 5.2 WAR, good for 10th in the league. Billed as "The Natural," he graced the cover of the May 7, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated and drew comparisons to Mays (for his over-the-shoulder catches), Roberto Clemente (for his powerful arm) and Al Kaline (for winning a batting title at age 20, though Griffey would never do that at any age) from writer E.M Swift. The article also noted the young Griffey's discomfort being interviewed, his clowning during batting practice and his reliance upon raw talent rather than preparation. "I still can't tell you who's who," Griffey told Swift. "I don't know who's pitching tonight. I don't even know the schedule. How am I supposed to know who's pitching? I couldn't care less. He's still got to throw me something I can hit."
Thanks to the exposure and his highlight-reel caliber play, Griffey was voted into the AL's starting lineup for the All-Star Game. In late August, after his father was released by the Reds (batting just .206/.235/.286), he was snapped up by the Mariners. On Aug. 31, the pair made history again when Ken the Elder batted second and played leftfield and Ken the Younger batted third and played center; in the first inning, they collected back-to-back hits off the Royals’ Storm Davis. On Sept. 14 against the Angels' Kirk McCaskill, they hit back-to-back first-inning home runs, another impressive first:
The reinvigorated Griffey Sr. hit .377/.443/.519 with three homers in 88 plate appearances, good enough to be asked back the following season, though after two months, he was sidelined by a bulging disc in his neck, the result of a spring training traffic accident that eventually required surgery and ended his career. Junior got off to a relatively slow start, hitting .280/.361/.446 with nine homers in the first half, but while he led all AL players in the All-Star voting, his performance wasn't enough for some. Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley questioned his focus and effort level in print, lighting a fire under the 21-year-old star, who told the Los Angeles Times, "It was a bad article, but it came out good because it made me think about the person I want to be and what I can accomplish in this game." Griffey hit .372/.437/.606 with 13 homers in the second half, helping the Mariners to 83 wins, their first season above .500. His 7.1 WAR ranked second in the league, and he collected All-Star and Gold Glove honors for the second of 10 straight times.
Despite the team's improvement, Lefebvre and the Mariners parted ways after the 1991 season, and the team backslid to 64–98 in '92 under one-and-done manager Bill Plummer. Griffey set a career high with 27 homers but missed 15 games due to a wrist sprain and slipped to 5.8 WAR, still a strong showing for a 22-year-old. His play really took off the following year under new manager Lou Piniella, who gave him the occasional reminder that he was capable of more. "People have said I don't play hard all the time. People have said I turn it on and off," Griffey told the Los Angeles Times. "[Piniella] makes sure to remind me when I get off track.... But I think my concentration is better than it was a few years ago." Griffey finished the year hitting .309/.408/.617 with 45 homers; the last two marks both ranked second in the league, his 8.7 WAR was first and his 171 OPS+ third for the 82-win Mariners.
Seattle slipped back below .500 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, but Griffey gave the baseball world a charge. He set a record by homering 22 times though the end of May, enough to trigger an SI cover story by Tom Verducci, who amid the game's rising tide of offense caught up with the breakneck pace of several stars:
The marks in question are genuine. And none of the chases is purer or figures to be more thrilling than Griffey's run at Roger Maris's record 61 home runs. "That record can't be gerrymandered very easily," says Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. "I've always thought that short of a great pennant race, the one thing I'd like most to see is someone challenge Maris's record."
…"That man doesn't feel any pressure," says [Kevin] Mitchell, who played with Griffey in Seattle in 1992. "He just goes out and has fun. It doesn't surprise me at all what he's doing, because the man is unreal. He used to tell me in the outfield, 'How come this game is so easy to me, Mitch?' You can go ahead and put an S on his chest because the only thing that's going to stop him is kryptonite."
Not everyone was so enamored of Griffey’s chase or his youthful exuberance. In July, The New York Times Magazine quoted Yankees manager Buck Showalter criticizing The Kid’s demeanor: "I shouldn't say this publicly," Showalter said, "but a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game's boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat's on backward, and his shirt tail's hanging out.... To me, that's a lack of respect for the game."
Whether or not he had Showalter’s respect, Griffey had 30 homers by the end of June and 33 by the All-Star break, but he hit just seven more—enough to be on pace for 58, shouting distance of Maris, and still enough to lead the league—before the players went on strike on Aug. 11. He finished the year at .323/.402/.674, ranking third in slugging percentage and second in WAR (6.9). That summer, he also added a cameo on the movie Little Big League, and after the season, he finished second in the AL MVP voting behind Frank Thomas.
Griffey's follow-up to that tremendous year was interrupted when he broke his left wrist crashing into a wall while making a catch; he underwent surgery to implant a metal plate and seven screws and missed 73 games. The Mariners—who by now had an offense that also featured Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez and Jay Buhner, not to mention ace Randy Johnson in the rotation—fell to 51–50 and 12 1/2 games behind the Angels on the day he returned but went 28–16 the rest of the way, tying Anaheim for the AL West lead and then beating the Angels in a Game 145 play-in, giving the franchise its first postseason berth.
Griffey made up for lost time in the Division Series against Showalter’s Yankees, hitting .391/.444/1.043 with five homers in 27 plate appearances. His pair of homers in Game 1 and a 12th-inning shot in Game 2 went for naught as the Mariners lost the first two games of the best-of-five series, but he hit pivotal homers in wins in Games 4 and 5 and scored the series-winning run, motoring home from first base on Edgar Martinez's 11th-inning double—"The Double," in Seattle parlance, the hit credited for helping to generate the ground swell of support that secured the Mariners a new taxpayer-funded stadium within a week of the series ending. Though Griffey hit .333/.440/.571 in the ALCS against the Indians, the Mariners fell in six games; that was as close as Griffey would ever get to playing in a World Series.
Seattle couldn't even get back to the postseason in 1996, and Griffey couldn't avoid the disabled list. Though he lost three weeks to a broken hamate that required surgery, he hit .303/.392/.628 with 49 homers (third in the league) and an AL-high 9.7 WAR. The Total Zone system estimates his defense to have been worth a whopping 32 runs above average for the season, a fraction of a run behind Devon White (1992) for the best showing by a centerfielder in major league history to that point. Finally able to avoid injuries in 1997, he put together his best offensive season to date, leading the league with 9.1 WAR, 56 homers (including 24 over the final two months) and 147 RBIs and batting .304/.382/.646—the last mark also the AL's best. He was a unanimous choice for AL MVP, but the Mariners, who again won the AL West, lost to the Orioles in the Division Series.
In 1998, while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made their assaults on Maris's record in the NL, Griffey looked as though he might do so in the AL as well. He hit 33 homers through the end of June, a 64-homer pace, but a 14-game drought in July and a six-homer August cooled him off; he again finished with an AL-best 56, a performance that got lost in the shuffle amid the majors' other headline-makers. He finished a distant fourth in the AL MVP voting, though he had nothing to complain about relative to teammate Alex Rodriguez, whose 8.5 WAR and 46 homers as a shortstop merely earned a ninth-place finish. Despite the combined 102 dingers from their top two sluggers, the Mariners finished 76–85, having traded Johnson to the Astros along the way.
Griffey's time in Seattle was running out as well. He entered 1999 halfway through a four-year, $34 million extension, and that season, while busy hitting .285/.384/.576 with a league-best 48 homers, he rejected a record-setting eight-year, $148 million extension offer. In November, with the team having finished just 79–83, he told the team that he could not envision re-signing following the 2000 season and requested a trade so that he could be closer to his home in Orlando. In mid-December, the Mariners and Mets neared agreement on a trade that would have sent Griffey to New York in exchange for three players from among a group containing pitchers Armando Benitez, Dennis Cook and Octavio Dotel and outfielder Roger Cedeno, but Griffey exercised his 10-and-5 rights to veto the deal. At that point, he told the Mariners he was only interested in being traded to the Reds. In February, he got his wish, heading to Cincinnati in exchange for centerfielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Brett Tomko and two minor leaguers. He also agreed to a nine-year, $116.5 million extension (including a raise on his previous 2000 salary) of which nearly half the salary was deferred—a much less lucrative deal than the one he declined, underscoring his stance that the move that wasn't about money.
To that point in his career, Griffey was riding a streak of 10 straight All-Star/Gold Glove seasons and had hit 398 homers, 19 more than any other player through his age-29 season (he had turned 30 in November) and 56 more than Aaron had to that point in his own career. A run at the all-time record appeared well within his grasp—even moreso when Griffey hit 40 homers in his first season as a Red, his seventh year out of eight reaching that plateau, and expanded his lead over Aaron’s pace to 72 homers.
Alas, the Reds, who hadn't made the playoffs despite winning 96 games in 1999, slipped to 85 wins in 2000 and wouldn't finish above .500 again for another 10 years. Near the end of April 2001, Griffey strained his left hamstring and missed seven weeks. It was the start of a six-year stretch during which he averaged just 92 games, 21 homers and 1.1 WAR per season due to a mind-numbing litany of injuries that sent him to the DL: right patellar dislocation (2002), right hamstring strains ('02, with surgeries in '04 and '05), right shoulder dislocation ('03, with surgery later that year), right foot breaks ('03, with surgery, plus '05), left knee debridement surgery ('05) and a dislocated toe ('06). Only once in that span did Griffey play more than 111 games; in 2005, he played 128 games, hit 35 homers and totaled 3.7 WAR. The injuries eventually robbed him of his chances to reach 3,000 hits and to top Babe Ruth's mark of 714 homers, and perhaps Aaron's 755.
Adding insult to injury, in February 2002, former teammates Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young and ex-coach Ron Oester publicly complained that Griffey was a divisive presence in the Reds' clubhouse for skipping pregame workouts. Amid that dreary stretch, Griffey connected for his 500th home run against the Cardinals' Matt Morris in Busch Stadium on June 20, 2004—Father's Day, with his dad in the house. He was the 20th player to reach that milestone:
Finally relatively healthy, the 37-year-old Griffey played in 144 games in 2007 to go with a .277/.372/.496 line. He earned All-Star honors for the 13th and final time, but his decline in centerfield (-14 runs) limited his value to 0.6 WAR. On June 9, 2008, he connected for his 600th homer off the Marlins' Mark Hendrickson, the sixth player to reach that milestone. Just over six weeks later, on July 31, he was traded to the White Sox for Nick Masset and Danny Richar; though he hit just .260/.347/.405 with three homers after the deal while playing through a torn meniscus that would require off-season surgery, the White Sox won the AL Central. Griffey went 2-for-10 amid a Division Series sweep by the Rays.
A free agent that winter, the 39-year-old slugger surprised the baseball world by agreeing to return to the Mariners on a $2 million deal with $2.5 million in potential incentives. Though he hit 19 homers while serving as the team's primary designated hitter, his .214/.324/.411 showing was nothing to write home about. He was even less productive the following season, and shortly after a report alleged that he was asleep in the clubhouse during a game (a charge Griffey and manager Don Wakamatsu both denied), he announced his retirement.
By the numbers, Griffey is an obvious Hall of Famer, though it's fair to wonder just how impressive his numbers might have been had it not been for the injuries. Had he simply maintained his actual 2001–09 level of production—116 OPS+ and 21 homers per year while averaging 106 games and 431 plate appearances—across, say, 145 games per year during that span, he'd have picked up another 324 hits (pushing him to 3,105) and 70 homers (pushing him to exactly 700). Given that he was more or less a league average hitter in a few of those years while playing at less than 100%, one can only speculate as to how much higher he might have gone. ESPN's Jayson Stark, with the help of SABR’s David Vincent (“The Sultan of Swat Stats”), estimated that Griffey might have landed in the 730–755 range had he been healthier earlier in his career as well; certainly, another 20 homers from that lost half season in 1995 would have made up much of the remaining ground. Cliff Corcoran’s estimates, made upon the occasion of Griffey’s retirement, are in the same ballpark.
Playing "what if" with Griffey's career only goes so far, because we risk failing to appreciate what he was, which was pretty special. Beyond his sixth-place ranking on the all-time home run list, he's seventh in extra-base hits (1,192), 13th in total bases (5,271), 15th in RBIs (1,836) and 30th in slugging percentage (.538). Despite compiling just 7.5 total WAR over his final 10 seasons, his 83.6 WAR is 35th all-time among position players, third among No. 1 picks (A-Rod and Chipper Jones have him beat) and fifth among centerfielders behind Mays (156.2), Ty Cobb (151.0), Tris Speaker (133.7) and Mantle (64.7). His seven-year peak score of 53.9 and his JAWS of 68.8 trail only that quartet as well, with the latter more than 11 points above the average Hall of Fame centerfielder. If you're wondering when the last time a player ranked among the top five of his position in JAWS was elected, the answer is 2009, when Rickey Henderson (third among leftfielders) gained entry. Between Griffey and Mike Piazza (fifth among catchers), this year's ballot could have two such players, or three if voters were to elect Bonds (first among leftfielders), although that's an issue for another day.
Unlike Bonds, Griffey avoided any entanglement in the PED scandals of the era, which helped to paper over the difficult final decade of his career. In light of that and his numerous accomplishments, many have suggested that he should be the first player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame. Sorry, ladies and gents: That simply isn't happening. Even with the voting body having been reduced by roughly a quarter via the Hall of Fame’s latest rule change, that's still nearly 500 men and women who collectively aren't likely to agree on what day of the week it is. Inevitably, an attention-hungry voter will leave Griffey off his or her ballot, and he'll join the company of Aaron (97.8%), Ruth (95.1), Mays (94.7), Ted Williams (93.4) and every other player who deserved unanimity but was deprived of it nonetheless. The guess here is that Griffey will receive upwards of 95% of the vote, perhaps even challenging Tom Seaver's 98.84% for the all-time record.
Not that it matters. The number to beat is 75%, and once Griffey does so, he'll take his place alongside the aforementioned legends and show off that famous smile one more time.