How Ken Griffey Jr. defined a decade
The 1990s belonged to two baseball players. Both sons of former big leaguers, both outfielders with impossibly sweet swings from the left side. Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds were cut from the same cloth and, together, they dominated a decade of baseball as the best players in the game.
On paper, they were so similar. On the field, they were in their own class. But in the minds of a generation of baseball fans, they couldn’t be more different.
One was a brooding misanthrope, as skilled on the field as he was wholly unconcerned with his perception away from it.
One is a beloved icon of the game. Known as “The Kid’, he was the youthful face of baseball for a generation.
How could two players so similar occupy such different places in the collective baseball unconscious? Why was Ken Griffey Jr an entire generation’s favorite player while Barry Bonds collected MVP awards in relative obscurity before a dubious assault on the record books that only made him more reviled than ever.
The Ken Griffey Jr. phenomenon is a miracle of both marketing and achievement, the perfect star to capitalize on the shifting landscape of the 1990s. He was the ideal star for the Sportscenter generation, a human highlight video with style and swagger when the game sorely lacked both.
Junior hatched, fully formed, as the ideal baseball folk hero when he broke into the big leagues at 18. He shared the field with his father, hitting back-to-back home runs in a feel-good story even the most casual fan embraced. He thrived immediately, becoming a mainstay of the All-Star game and Home Run Derby.
He was the first baseball player to ever receive his own custom shoe from Nike. A signature video game bore his name. For all his victories off the field, all the backwards cap joie de vivre and sales savvy, Junior became a legend with his bat and his glove.
His highlights played on a loop inside the minds of fans for years, that perfect swing launching baseballs with uncommon ease, his instincts and speed hawking balls seemingly from foul pole to foul pole.
He was, in a word, awesome. Not in the throwaway manner we all use that word today. Griffey Jr. inspired awe, he made us believe each swing, every pitch, would produce a majestic drive. There wasn’t a line drive he couldn’t run down, a fence he couldn’t scale to create outs from balls destined for the seats.
He homered in eight straight games in 1993. He hit 56 home runs in consecutive seasons, a total reached by only 12 men in the history of the game. He finished with 630 home runs, bested by only five players. He won ten Gold Gloves for his superlative play in center field and an MVP award in 1998.
Ken Griffey Jr. was a breath of fresh air at the exact moment baseball needed it. He transcended the game before the strike of 1994 and was the youthful face ready to play opposite Cal Ripken in MLB’s image rehabilitation.
Everybody, no matter where they lived or which team they cheered for, loved Griffey. The loved the idea of Griffey, his backwards hat sticking in the craw of a crusty generation of self-serious scribes and they loved his ability to explode off their TV in a singular moment straight out of a videogame.
I don’t know that I especially cared about Cal Ripken during his fateful march towards history, but you better believe I cared about Ken Griffey Jr. This lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan featured an iconic Griffey poster on his bedroom wall.
Junior was a superstar in its purest, most distilled form. To know him was to love him, and everything in the 1990’s sporting landscape made sure fans knew him. The combination of power and speed didn’t seem real until he strolled into another stadium, the stands full of local kids in “24” jerseys, and blasted a pitch into the far reaches of the upper deck.
The ‘90s belonged to Ken Griffey, Jr. Once he moved to Cincinnati and the calendar rolled over to the new millennium, his injury-fueled descent began. Some might say too much, too soon, but the standard set in that first decade was impossible for anyone to maintain or equal.
Even though he was bad for almost as long as he was good, even though he spent nearly as much time in red as in teal (to say nothing of his brief time in White Sox grey!), Junior’s time in Seattle lives forever in the memories of baseball fans everywhere.
The Kid is gone from the public eye now, retired from baseball at 44-years old. No matter how far into the past his highlights slip, nobody who watched him play will ever forget. Everything about Junior made it impossible.