George Kenneth Griffey Jr. silently exited baseball on Wednesday, but nothing about his career was quiet.
He was a generation’s favorite player. Ask baseball fans between the ages of 20 and 30 who their favorite player was and Griffey will get the most votes — easily. He was always the “coolest” player in the game — the guy with his hat backwards in batting practice, crushing perfectly parabolic homers with that pretty left-handed swing. He leapt over center field walls and robbed home runs on what seemed like a nightly basis. He could throw and run and hit for average, too. Griffey was a five-tool player, no doubt about it.
I was fortunate enough to see Griffey play in person three times. Since I’m a bit of a nerd and keep all my tickets, I know which games these were. The first was on August 17, 1996, my older brother’s 14th birthday. Griffey was Brian’s favorite player, and Junior delivered for him that day at Yankee Stadium. In my ticket book I noted that “Griffey carried the team.” Thanks to the Internet, I know that this means he got three hits, including a home run, in a 10-3 Seattle win.
I saw Griffey again in 2005 at Shea Stadium against the Mets, when he was with the Cincinnati Reds. The last time I saw him was in ’06, again at Shea, when Griffey’s 548th career homer gave Cincy the lead and tied him with Mike Schmidt for 11th on the all-time list.
In addition to these in-game moments, I’ll remember Griffey for: putting his name behind one of the great video games of all time (even a sub-par gamer like myself regularly hit 650-foot bombs with Griffey, whose “batting circle” was the size of a hula hoop); his appearances in television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (when Hilary mistakes him for an NFL quarterback) and “The Simpson’s” (his enormous head prevents him from playing in the softball game), and the movie “Little Big League” (where he breaks viewers’ hearts by running a half-mile and robbing a home run to end the Twins’ season); an article I read about MLB’s ridiculous “Turn Ahead the Clock” promotion, for which Griffey encouraged his Seattle teammates to cut the sleeves on the t-shirts under their sleeveless jerseys, among other things (definitely worth a read).
But perhaps Griffey will be remembered most for something he didn’t do: steroids. He was a naturally-gifted slugger who hit a lot of home runs in his prime and — get this — fewer home runs as he got older.
Just as it’s sad to think about his potential career numbers had it not been for his injuries (and the strike), it was upsetting to watch Griffey’s skills diminish. But at the same time, it was refreshing. The steroid era made us forget that guys aren’t supposed to go from 18 homers to 55 in their twilight years.
Griffey reminded us that even the superstars lose their powers. When he had his, though, there was no better player to watch.