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Ken Griffey Jr. prepares for his proper baseball sendoff as the Hall awaits

The man who seemed the simplest and purest of baseball's stars was always the most complicated.

This story appears in the July 4–11 edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

On May 31, 2010, Twins closer Jon Rauch threw a 91-mph fastball to the lefthanded pinch hitter the Mariners had brought on to try to erase a one-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth. The batter’s swing still had the qualities that made it the most famous, and most beautiful, since Ted Williams’s: the easy torque; the perfect arc; the low, one-handed follow-through. The ball, though, bounced meekly to the second baseman. Nobody knew it right away, but they would never see Ken Griffey Jr. swing again.

Griffey had always promised that he would go quietly. He used to tell people that he would announce his retirement with a fax on which he had scrawled two words: HE GONE. There would be no valedictory tour for him, no final season of paeans and gold watches. “There’s certain people who like the fanfare and the waving goodbye, getting the rocking chair and the cowboy boots,” he says. “Not me.”

He didn’t play the next day, which was no longer unusual. At 40 he was batting .184, and he still had the same number of career home runs with which he had finished 2009, 630, at the time the fifth most ever. After that night’s game he hugged one teammate, backup catcher Rob Johnson, and packed up his place. At 5 a.m. he got into his Infiniti QX56 and pointed it southeast.

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Jay Buhner, the brawny outfielder, had become Griffey’s unlikely best friend—his “bald-headed brother from another mother,” as Griffey called him—during their 11 years together in Seattle. Buhner had retired nine years earlier. Late that afternoon he received a curious call from another friend.

“Dude, I’m here at a gas station on Interstate 90 in Montana, and I swear to God that Ken Griffey Jr. is filling up right next to me,” the friend said.

“Nah,” Buhner said. “He’s in uniform right now.”

“I swear—it’s him.”

Buhner called Griffey. “Dude,” Buhner said, “where the f--- are you?” Griffey told him. Griffey wasn’t angry or distraught, but he couldn’t stomach the idea that his mere presence on the team with which he had spent his first and best years, and to which he had returned after a decade away, might force it to give him distracting at bats. Not when his three children—especially 16-year-old Trey, who was approaching manhood—needed him home.

Griffey drove for 43 hours, consuming only two Mountain Dews. He spoke with the people who meant the most to him. His mother, Birdie. His younger brother, Craig. His friend Torii Hunter. He spoke with his dad, Ken Sr., three times; Griffey long ago assigned him a special ring tone, of a heavily aspirating Darth Vader revealing, “I am your father.” Other than that, he covered those 3,000 miles, across I-90 before weaving through the heartland to I-75, in silence.


The trip allowed him to come to terms with what he had left behind: all those long home runs and gymnastic catches in centerfield; a legacy as the star who stayed clean, during an era in which so many of its others were revealed to be tainted; a less-proud legacy, as one of the greatest players never to play in a World Series. The Infiniti’s walls insulated him from the shock that his abrupt departure had created among some fans. “It was almost like, ‘He owed me something,’ ” he says. “No. I gave you everything I got. There’s nothing left to give you out on that baseball field.”

When Griffey finally stepped out of the car, in the early morning of June 3, in the driveway of the six-bedroom Orlando-area mansion inside of which his family slept, he was at peace. It was as if he had emerged from 43 hours in a decompression chamber.

On Sunday, July 24, Griffey will be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, after having been named on a record 99.3% of ballots, all but three of the 440 cast. He will have already lived, often uneasily, in fame’s prism for nearly three decades. We feel as if we’ve known him since he was 19, when he came to us with astonishing gifts and a wide grin on a baseball card. As it turns out, the man who seemed the simplest and purest of stars was always the most complicated.

At home in Florida, Griffey takes pride in the contents of his 10-car garage.

At home in Florida, Griffey takes pride in the contents of his 10-car garage.

It’s late in the morning one day in early March, nearly six years after he drove away from baseball and 4 1/2 months before Cooperstown. Walter Iooss Jr., the Griffey of sports photographers, has arrived at his house to shoot his portrait. The two go way back. In 1997 they collaborated on a coffee-table book, Junior: Griffey on Griffey, and Griffey respects Iooss’s art. In retirement he has pursued photography himself, with a collection of gear Iooss deems better than his.

Still, setting up the shot takes some persuasion on Iooss’s part. Griffey, no longer as lithe as he once was, claims not to own a suit (“A what? A who?”) before producing one, from a closet otherwise full of Nike golf shirts in every conceivable color. He says that he does not have a bat (“Why would I have one of those?”) but finds one. He genuinely doesn’t own a hat. “I got visors,” he says. “I got more visors than the Old Ball Coach,” referring to Steve Spurrier, the former headman at Florida and South Carolina.

Finally besuited, and with stick in hand, Griffey stands where Iooss has directed him, in the center of his house’s grand entrance hall. He’s perfectly positioned in front of a wall of windows, through which one can see his pool, with its exactingly engineered rock formations, and a grove of palm trees. Iooss’s finger hovers above his shutter button. There is just one problem. Ken Griffey Jr. won’t swing.

“A swing,” he mutters. “Everybody wants a swing.”

Every man’s house is his domain, his refuge. Griffey zealously subscribes to that concept. A visitor who has been permitted through its remote-controlled front gates will encounter 250 pounds of square-headed dog, two adult Cane Corsos and a Rottweiler puppy. “One of my dogs, Flo? She don’t like a whole lot of people,” says Griffey. The property is bordered by a seven-foot wall on three sides, and on its fourth by a lake that is home to alligators that grow up to 12 feet. Griffey, who changes his cellphone number as many as five times a year, built the house a decade ago, but he doesn’t know any of his neighbors. “What am I gonna do, borrow some sugar?” he asks.

Griffey keeps baseball hours, staying up watching reruns of crime shows on the Ion cable network until its schedule ends at 3 a.m. “Sometimes I’m like, Wow, Criminal Minds is deep,” he says. His house has a 10-car garage, and he spends a lot of time with its customized occupants, which would impress anyone who knows about cars and has gotten past the dogs. He’s got a Range Rover, a Mercedes, a Ford F-150 Raptor truck, a chromed-out motorcycle and the same model of Porsche, he says without evident concern, as the one in which actor Paul Walker died. In the back of his driveway, too large for the garage, is a 45-foot Featherlite luxury coach that he has named the Rolling Projects.

He is particularly fond of his Rolls-Royce Wraith, which costs $304,350 at its most basic, which Griffey’s isn’t. It is the second Wraith he has owned. “I bought one, and Trey gave me a hard time about it because he saw on TV that they killed, like, 15 bulls to make the interior,” he says. “I just got rid of the car ’cause I didn’t want to hear about it. But I liked the car. So I bought another.” He presses a button on the car’s door frame. “Anyone need an ­umbrella?” he says, pulling one out of a secret compartment, his eyes shining with delight. The windows of each of Griffey’s vehicles are tinted a glossy, impenetrable black.

Griffey is aware of his enduring image. To most, he’s still the Kid, carefree and ever young. “A couple things I’m gonna be remembered for: the hat backwards and the swing,” he says. “And the smile.” Underneath it all, though, there was more going on than he wanted anyone to realize. He always had that sweet stroke, but for a long time he couldn’t do anything with it when one man was watching.

He was three when Ken Sr. debuted with the Reds, in 1973, the first season of a 19-year career that would produce 2,143 hits and that he would end, remarkably, as his own son’s teammate. Senior devoted his winters to his boys. “I was lefthanded, and he had no problems with lefthanded pitchers,” he says of Junior. During the season, though, Senior was mostly gone. “Everyone thinks he was raised on the field,” he says, “but the only kid on the field all the time was Pete Rose Jr. because he was the batboy. I was away from spring training, in February, until mid-October. I rarely got the opportunity to see him play.”

As Junior developed into a phenom at Archbishop Moeller High, ­Senior’s playing schedule meant he could attend only three or four games a year. Junior would crush the ball, except in those three or four games. “A hundred scouts in the stands, I’d be fine,” he says. “When my dad was there, all I wanted was for him to see—hey, he got a hit. That was it. I couldn’t do it. He’d ask my mom, ‘Hey, is he that damn good? ’Cause he can’t get a hit in front of me.’ ”

By 1987, when he was a 17-year-old high school senior, Junior was all but ­assured of being the draft’s top pick. Senior had been traded to the Braves, and one afternoon before a road game in Cincinnati he accompanied Bobby Cox, then Atlanta’s GM, to watch his son play. Junior whiffed during his first two at bats. Around 3 p.m., Senior had to leave for River­front Stadium. Later that night he returned home.

“How’d you do?” Senior asked.

“I did O.K.,” Junior said.

“No, how did you do?”

“Well, I was 3 for 5, with two home runs.”

Junior didn’t get his first hit in front of Senior until later that year, when his parents had driven their RV out to Arizona to watch him play for the Mariners in an instructional league. It was a hard single. “I said, ‘You O.K. now?’ ” Senior says. “ ‘Yeah, I’m fine, Dad.’ From then on he couldn’t stop hitting.”

From the Vault (1988): At 18, Griffey is born to be a big leaguer

If minor league pitching proved no match for him, the stresses of his new, high-profile life did. “All I want to do is be a normal kid,” he’d tell his father. “Junior, you’re not a normal kid,” his father would say. One night not long after his 18th birthday, he swallowed 277 aspirin. “He didn’t even tell us he was in the hospital,” says Senior. “When we found out, I was so mad at him, I didn’t even want to see him, after the doctor said that he was fine. It didn’t make any sense. I think he was upset at the world because of who he was: Ken Griffey Jr., this big-time athlete. A lot of pressure on him. I told him, there’s no pressure on you unless you put it on yourself.”

Though Junior has discussed his suicide attempt at times in the past, he won’t anymore. “We don’t even talk about it,” he says. “It happened. After it, I think my dad and I were able to talk a little closer.”

Junior debuted for the Mariners 15 months later, and by then he had developed coping mechanisms to deal with the masses of people who were drawn to him. “For me it was, Why does everybody want me?” he says. “I just want to play baseball.” He became known as the Natural, not only because of his skills but also because he claimed never to know the names of anyone he played against, even Cal Ripken Jr. That wasn’t true.

“Think about it: My dad played against Cal,” Griffey says. “Of course I knew who the guys were. You want the real answer? If I told you, ‘Hey, yeah, I know this guy,’ then what’s your next question? It’s, Where do you know him from, what do you think of him? If I say I don’t know him? It’s, O.K. Why would I want to talk about what I know and what I don’t know at 19, 20? Like Michael Jackson and Rockwell sang, All I want to do is be left alone . . . in my twilight zone.”

He met his wife, Melissa, during his rookie year in Seattle. She didn’t know who he was at first, but quickly learned the best way to end an argument with him. Once, early on, he upset her in a shopping mall in Bellevue, Wash. “I’m with Ken Griffey Junior!” Melissa shouted. Every child in the mall came running after him. Melissa never did that again.

Mimicked by millions, Griffey’s backwards hat became a central part of his image as a player.

Mimicked by millions, Griffey’s backwards hat became a central part of his image as a player.

Griffey didn’t begin to feel even small comfort with his fame until 1994, the year he turned 25. He had by then lent his voice to the beloved “Homer at the Bat” episode of The Simpsons, and he had signed his first big endorsement deal with Nike. In ’94 he appeared in the movie Little Big League and released his own Super Nintendo game. The real change, though, came in January of that year. That was when Melissa gave birth to the couple’s first son, Trey, and when life started to make sense to Junior, who announced he wanted to shed his youthful nickname. “I have a son, so I don’t think it’s proper for me anymore,” he said. “He’s the Kid now.”

Their daughter, Taryn, was born the following October, but the Griffeys wouldn’t make a third addition to their family for seven more years. Melissa had been adopted, and she always wanted to give to a child what her parents had given her. She never called her husband at the ballpark, but on one early May afternoon in 2002 she did. “There was a baby born today, here in Florida,” she said. “I want this one.” She brought him home, and she and Junior scrambled to come up with a name for him. They decided on Tevin. Griffey didn’t meet his new son until a week later, when he flew home during an off day and signed the paperwork.

As it had for his father, Griffey’s job kept him away from his family for most of the year, but he had access to two things that his dad didn’t: modern technology and an enormous amount of money. As Trey and Taryn gravitated to sports other than baseball—football and basketball, respectively—Griffey hired a videographer to record every one of their games, and he watched them in the clubhouse before his own. While many view the trade he helped engineer from Seattle to Cincinnati before the 2000 season as a mistake, and a neat demarcation of the beginning of his decline, he never regretted it. It allowed him to spend spring training at home in Florida, affording him an extra month and a half a year with his family. “I got to see them grow,” he says. “They got to see me.” Cincinnati’s relative proximity to Orlando—and a private plane—also enabled him to attend his kids’ games in person, even during the season.

Trey is now a 6' 3" wide receiver at the University of Arizona, and Taryn is a point guard there. Griffey often shoots their games with the rest of the sideline shutter­bugs. His love of photography is genuine, but it is also strategic, in that it allows him to watch his kids in peace. “Would you tap somebody on the shoulder if they’re like this?” he says, as he pantomimes raising a camera to his eye.

Not long after he arrived home from Seattle, in 2010, he was on the road again, behind the wheel of the Rolling Projects, his 45-foot luxury coach, as Taryn’s AAU season had begun. He drove it to Chicago; Sewanee, Tenn.; Atlanta; Augusta; back to Atlanta; and to New Orleans. The bus’ name is ironic. He started calling it that after he registered the looks he’d receive when people, not recognizing him in his sunglasses and golf shirts, saw a black man stepping out of such a vehicle. They would ask him if the bus’ owner would let them have a look inside. He was the owner, he said, and no, they couldn’t.

Inside his home, Griffey authentically plays the role of the proudly beleaguered dad. “I’m probably one of the most expensive Ubers in the country,” he says with pleasure. He has to protect his closets from his sons. “Tevin wears a size-11 shoe. I wear an 11. I come home, and he’s wearing my brand-new Kobes. I’m like, Yo, that’s mine!”

In the outside world, though, things have always been different. “I explained to my kids at an early age: I’m a normal dad with an ab­normal job,” he says. His children weren’t allowed to write his name on forms, only their mother’s. When their father’s name was demanded, they wrote George, his given first name. Still, people knew. “If another kid made a mistake, they wouldn’t get said nothing to, but if they made it, they’d get yelled at,” Griffey says. “I explained to them, a lot of things aren’t fair.”

Griffey never cared if his kids won or lost, as long as they tried, but when he isn’t photographing their games, he forces himself to watch with a stony stillness. “I’ve got friends who have kids, and they go to games and cheer, but I sit with my arms folded,” he says. “I can’t allow people to see me excited because they’ll be like, Oh, there he goes, he only cheers for his kids. And if they think I’m a d---, who do they take it out on? My kids. They can’t take it out on me. But they can take it out on them.” When you’ve got fame like Griffey’s, it trickles down through the generations, for better and for worse.

By attending his son Trey’s games at Arizona as a member of the media, Griffey can watch in relative peace.

By attending his son Trey’s games at Arizona as a member of the media, Griffey can watch in relative peace.

Marriage can be a tricky institution for pro athletes, especially after the cheering stops and one sort of life becomes another. Griffey’s parents divorced in 1999, eight years after his father retired. This October, though, Griffey and Melissa will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary.

“Retirement’s been way easier than I thought,” says the pony­tailed, placid Melissa, whose day seems unaffected by Iooss’s photo session. “I thought it’d be a huge transition, because things aren’t as glamorous when it’s over. Meaning, things change if you allow them to. We haven’t.”

“Communication,” Griffey says of their relationship’s secret. “Knowing roles and boundaries. I’m more of the sports side. I’ll talk to the coaches. She’s more the administrator. After I’d been home two weeks, I looked at my wife and said, ‘You did this all by yourself?’ ”

Stability and loyalty are important to Griffey. He has always employed the same agent, ­Cincinnati-based attorney Brian Goldberg, a friend of his father’s who now represents both Griffeys. He’s long had the same lawyer and accountant, and most of the same friends. At one point Iooss asks to borrow a landscaping cart, to move some of his gear around Griffey’s property. “Just ask Dan,” Griffey says. “Dan’s my guy. Matter of fact, he was with me back in ’96, when we were shooting the book.”