Junior on the cover of Sports Illustrated following 1995 playoff victory over Yankees

Junior on the cover of Sports Illustrated following 1995 playoff victory over Yankees

Note: Several years ago I wrote this article on the occasion of Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame and in acknowledgement of his stellar career. Now, with his first ballot election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame,  I am publishing this revised edition. Here’s to Junior–the greatest baseball player I have personally ever seen…please read on..MA.

On Saturday, 10 August, 2013 at Safeco Field the Seattle Mariners enshrined in their team Hall of Fame the greatest player ever to don Mariner flannels and one of the greatest ever to play the game. If you have been a Mariners fan or even a baseball fan for a while, I don’t need to speak his name for you to know who I’m talking about; for it can only be Ken Griffey Jr. On that day he took his place among the other six members of the Mariners Hall, a stellar group including Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, Alvin Davis, Randy Johnson and longtime broadcaster Dave Niehaus. All of these men made significant contributions to the Mariners, but the simple truth is Junior outshines them all. We all knew then that his induction into the Seattle Hall of Fame was but preamble to what surely would be a first ballot landslide of acceptance into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when the time came.

We were right. That time came on January 6, 2016 when The Baseball Writers Association of America voted Junior into the Hall in his first year of eligibility with 437 of a possible 440 votes–the highest approval percentage (99.3) in Hall of Fame history. As Mariners fans know, it is an honor that Junior richly deserves. It’s not for nothing that Safeco Field is called “the house that Griffey built.” In evidence consider the following:

*Griffey played a total of 12 seasons with the Mariners including the first 11 seasons of his career. During those 11 seasons he compiled a batting average of .297, an on base percentage of .379, hit 398 home runs (36 per season avg), scored 1063 runs (97 per season avg.) and drove in 1152 (105 per season).

*Across that 11 season period he was an All Star 10 times, won the Gold Glove 10 times, the Silver Slugger 7 times, was the 1997 American League Most Valuable Player and was the 1992 All Star Game MVP. He even won the All Star Game Home Run Contest 4 times.

'95 playoffs vs Yankees: Junior scores winning run in game 5

’95 playoffs vs Yankees: Junior (bottom of pile) scores winning run in game 5

*Junior is often remembered for his heroics during the Mariners’ magnificent run to the 1995 AL West Division title and his dash around the bases to score the winning run against the Yankees in the playoffs that year. That was the season that ignited baseball fever in Seattle and saved the Mariners by creating enough demand to get Safeco Field built.

*Despite this it was his play over the next four years that secured his place in the Hall of Fames and his place in baseball history. Between 1996 and 1999 Ken Griffey Jr. averaged 52 HRs per season, while driving in 142 runs per season and scoring 123! It was and is a four year stretch of excellence that stands with or exceeds any similar stretch by any of the great hitters of history including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds or Hank Aaron.

Griffey was fearless in his outfield play

Griffey was spectacular in his outfield play

As great a hitter as Junior was, his outfield play was every bit as spectacular. I have lost count of all the unbelievable catches and throws he made from his position in centerfield. Aware of the greatness we were witnessing, and not wanting to miss any of it, I made a point of seeing as many games as possible when Griffey was in his prime with the Mariners. I saw his first game ever at the Kingdome and witnessed his first Kingdome hit; a home run. I saw his last home game in 1999 at the brand new Safeco Field before the M’s traded him to Cincinnati. I have a picture of the scoreboard from that game that shows his career home run total to that point, frozen in time at 398. My wife Tammy and I were rooting for his 400th that day but, alas, that event would not occur until the following season when Junior was with the Reds. I was at the Kingdome that day in 1995 when he crashed into the wall and broke his wrist while making that incredible spider man catch. We thought we were seeing our season go down the drain only to see it resuscitate when Griffey returned for that phenomenal sprint through August and September to the playoffs. He gave new meaning to the term “five tool” player. Perhaps never has there been a player who combined the ability to hit, catch, throw, run and hit for power like Junior in his prime; and he is by far the best baseball player I have personally seen play. And though he played in the “steroid” era there never has been a hint of suspicion about the source of his power and greatness; Junior did it all without performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

398 HRs frozen in time:Griffey's last game at Safeco before being traded to Cincinnati

398 HRs frozen in time:Griffey’s last game at Safeco before being traded to Cincinnati

Across his 22 year career, the last year of which he returned to Seattle, he hit a total of 630 HRs while compiling nearly 2800 hits and driving in 1836 runs. He is the 6th greatest Home Run hitter in Major League history and two of those ahead of him, Alex Rodriguez (687) and Barry Bonds (762) are notorious for their use of PEDs. After Griffey left the Mariners for the Cincinnati Reds following the 1999 campaign his career declined and across the next 10 seasons his production tailed off. All those years of chasing down fly balls on the unforgiving Kingdome Astroturf finally caught up with him as injury after injury curtailed what could possibly have been a run at the all time Home Run record. Despite this, as anyone who had a chance to see “the Kid” in his prime can tell you, there was never a player who played the whole game, hitting and defense, harder or better or with more grace than Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey turned on the pitch, like a cobra striking...

Griffey turned on the pitch, like a cobra striking…

An instance that typifies this comes to mind. It was early in the 1998 season at a game at the Kingdome; I forget who the M’s were playing but I have never forgotten the moment. It was in the early innings and Junior came to the plate with two men on. For some unknown reason the pitcher tried to sneak a fastball by Griffey, middle in. Big mistake! With that incredible bat speed, Junior turned on the pitch like a cobra striking. The audible crack of the bat was followed by the ball soaring out towards right field with that parabolic arc you can extend in your mind’s eye–and see that it is way, way out-a-here…upper deck! The aesthetic of the moment suspended me in time. It was as if I saw in Ken Griffey Jr. at that moment the magnificence of all the great players of the past; Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Mays–and the incomparable Hank Aaron. Their legacy lived on in the great player I now saw before me.

I looked around at the people near me, looking for someone to share this with, but I was so moved that I could not speak. The next morning, though I had not played the guitar for years, I sat down and wrote a song about what I had experienced the night before. From whatever aesthetic reservoir we all posses but can’t always reach, the melody and lyrics spilled into my mind and I jotted the words down as follows:

That’s Aaron’s swing / Though uniquely your own

Clemente’s arm / Has somehow been re-grown

Dying triples / To centerfield they go

You’re our Mickey Mantle / You’re our Joltin’Joe

 

That’s Mays’ speed / Somehow it’s been reborn

Ted Williams’ stance / But in a different form

Middle in fast balls / To upper deck they go

You’re our Mickey Mantle / You’re our Joltin’ Joe

 

That’s Babe Ruth power / The ball it takes its flight

And Jackie’s grace / Again is in our sight

 

That’s Shoeless Joe  / Roamin’ centerfield

Above the fence he goes / Home Runs he steals

The living legacy / Of past stars grows

You’re our Mickey Mantle  / You’re our Joltin’ Joe

I told my wife Tammy that the song was called “Junior” , and I played it for her.

She cried.

Copyright © 2013

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

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6 Responses to The Greatest: Ken Griffey Jr. Enters The Hall of Fame-by Mark Arnold

  1. Richard Douglass says:

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for that story. I was not in Seattle during Ken Griffey’s tenure with the Mariners, so never caught the fever, nor saw him play. But baseball fans of any persuasion certainly knew who he was and admired his performance. Being of an earlier era, I became aware of baseball while living in a Cleveland suburb at the ripe old age of about 7. We did not have a TV yet, but I still recall listening to some of the 1948 World series games on the radio. We definitely had the fever. Bob Feller was my boyhood hero, and while with family I went to several live games, I am not sure I ever saw him pitch. But I do recall seeing Lou Budreau play, and save a game against the Philadelphia Athletics by pulling the batter off the plate and pinch hitting for him. To this day I can name most of the players of that fine late 40s’ early ’50s Cleveland Indians team. The only signed baseball I own is a Bob Feller ball. I also saw Nolan Ryan pitch, and the story of that game will have to wait until another time. I am a fan of pitchers more than batters, so I would have to say that for me the greatest player I know for sure I saw play was Nolan Ryan. In all the Cleveland games I saw, I am not sure if there was a Boston or New York game in the mix. So I cannot say that I saw Ted Williams or Joe Dimagio play. Perhaps with more straight wire . . .
    Regards,
    Richard

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks for feedback Richard, and for sharing your baseball memories! Awesome that you got to see Bob Feller AND Nolan Ryan. I probably saw Junior play live 75 times or so across the years and saw a number of his home runs and great catches. During his prime he was as great as they come! L, Mark

  2. Hi Mark. I really enjoyed your article. As always, you put the bat solidly on the ball and knock it out of the park. Stan

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks Stan! This one was overdue, since he was voted in 2 months ago. I loved watching Junior play and am so glad we had him here in Seattle for the time that we did. L, Mark

  3. Tammy says:

    I cried again just now… LOL
    But then I often cry when I experience art that really communicates!
    This article and poem/song and the memory of seeing Junior and the years he was here… are art… well stated and we’ll lived.
    Thanks Mark and Junior!

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