Twenty-one years ago today, Reds Country got an early Valentine’s Day gift as Ken Griffey Jr. arrived at the airport to be greeted by thousands of diehard Cincinnati fans. Cupid shot an arrow from Seattle that would have fans standing in long lines to finally get season tickets for the first time. A new era in Cincinnati Reds baseball had begun.
Some, myself included would argue that Griffey Jr. was the most dynamic player in the history of baseball. No other player has been able to captivate fans, from the often duplicated never replicated swing, his range in the outfield, swiping bags, robbing home runs… Griffey Jr. could do it all when he was on the field. No matter what was happening, every eye was upon him alone.
Ken Griffey Jr. landed with the Reds 20 years ago today.
That new era promised to be one of excitement and winning tradition that would take Reds fans back to the glory days of being in the hunt for a championship year-in and year-out. Plans were already in the works for what we now know as Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati was heavily investing in their baseball franchise and Griffey Jr. was going to get the Reds over the hump.
“The Kid”, as Griffey Jr. was affectionately known, was drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 1987 MLB Draft, and spent a little more than one season in the minor leagues before making his big league debut in 1989. Griffey Jr. got his first hit in his first at-bat.
Teaming with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson, the Mariners of the 1990s was the dynasty that never came to pass. That was partly because of another dynasty taking shape in the Big Apple, the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers laid claim to players like Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, and Derek Jeter.
A series of injuries dominated Ken Griffey Jr.’s time with the Reds.
Ken Griffey Jr. compiled 1,752 hits, 398 homers, and 1,152 RBIs during his time in Seattle. However, those numbers didn’t translate to his time in Cincinnati, as injuries piled up quickly during Junior’s first couple seasons in the Queen City.
Despite only playing 945 games in nine and a half seasons with Cincinnati, Griffey Jr.’s name still finds its way into the Cincinnati Reds record books. Griffey Jr.’s 210 home runs rank ninth in team history.
I’ll never forget Fathers Day 2004, watching Griffey Jr. cross home plate in St. Louis to be embraced by his teammates after hitting his 500th home run. Junior finished his congratulatory trot with a big hug from his dad and family.
While some would consider Junior’s career in Cincinnati a failure, I don’t. Had Griffey Jr. been able to stay healthy, he would’ve broken almost every individual batting record known to baseball. As it stands, “The Kid” currently ranks seventh in Major League Baseball with 670 round-trippers.
For many years I’ve missed seeing that ear to ear grin Griffey would showcase when doing something unfathomable to those around him. Much like Michael Jordan’s shrug in the 1992 NBA Finals after hitting six three-pointers against the Portland Trail Blazers. Griffey Jr. would often showcase that smile just to let you know, “Yeah, I am that good.”
Albeit some would argue putting Griffey Jr. and Jordan in the same breath to be blasphemous, I completely disagree. No Griffey Jr. didn’t win six championships, as a matter of fact, he didn’t even get one… which is an absolute travesty. But, what Ken Griffey Jr. did for the sport of baseball was just as important as what Michael Jordan did for for the sport of basketball.
Some would argue Griffey Jr. saved baseball in a time when the fate of the sport was unknown. After the strike-shortened season in 1994, Griffey Jr., in his prime, would have some of his best seasons the next several years. Posting career-highs in almost all categories, winning an American League MVP along with being an All-Star and Gold Glove recipient year in and year out.
Ken Griffey Jr. also revolutionized baseball in a similar fashion to what we saw from Michael Jordan in basketball. Griffey appeared in major motion pictures, had video games made in his name, and his iconic Swingman logo was the equivalent to the Air Jordan brand. Never had a baseball player been so uniquely branded and packaged.
It almost brought a tear to my eye back in 2016 seeing Ken Griffey Jr. garner 99.3% of the vote for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I’ll be forever thankful that I was able to sit in the ballpark on many occasions and watch the sweetest swing of all-time; one that I and many others my age often emulated. For me, Junior will be the greatest baseball ballplayer of all-time.