Arguably the greatest player of his generation, Ken Griffey Jr. all but single-handedly saved baseball in Seattle with his monstrous home runs and breathtaking centerfield defense. Yet after shattering virtually all of the franchise’s offensive records before he reached the age of 30, Griffey broke the hearts of Pacific Northwest fans by forcing a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds.
As with all the greatest athletes, from Babe Ruth to Jim Brown to Michael Jordan, statistics provided only the barest glimpse of Griffey’s dazzling array of talents. No number of Gold Gloves could do justice to the sight of him racing back to scale the outfield wall and snag a baseball that had seemed destined for the bleachers. Neither could his plethora of home run titles convey the grace and ferocity of perhaps the smoothest left-handed power swing baseball had ever seen.
The son of former Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Sr., Junior spent much of his childhood in the Reds’ locker room during the heyday of the Big Red Machine, the great Cincinnati clubs that would capture back-to-back World Championships in the mid-1970s. The team camaraderie and dedication to winning above all else served as formative experiences for the child who would one day say “My teammates are more important to me than myself” and who would spend much of his own career trying to recreate the atmosphere he had found in his father’s world.
Junior’s precocious talents, meanwhile, allowed him and his dad to become the first father/son duo to play in the major leagues concurrently, the first to start in the same lineup and the first to hit home runs in the same game. But his athletic pedigree came at a price. Growing up as the son of a pro baseball player, Griffey acutely felt his father’s extended absences and a desire to spend more time with his own family would spur his decision to leave the Mariners after the 1999 season.
In 1987, Griffey was a two-sport star at Cincinnati’s Moeller High School (the alma mater of future teammate Barry Larkin). Just two years later, at the tender age of 19, he would open the season in center field for the Mariners. Seattle had made Griffey the first pick overall in the June 1987 draft, and after only a year and a half in the minor leagues — including a mere 17 games at the Double-A level — Griffey made the club’s Opening Day roster with a torrid spring performance in 1989. A non-roster player at the start of spring training, Griffey batted .359 during the exhibition season, driving in 21 runs in 26 games.
When the regular season began, Junior quickly proved that his presence in the lineup was more than a publicity stunt. He doubled in his first at-bat and homered on the first pitch he saw at Seattle’s Kingdome. When he tied a team record later in April by recording hits in eight straight at-bats, the rush was on to anoint him as the next Willie Mays. Although a broken finger in his right hand slowed what might have been a Rookie of the Year campaign, the youngest player in the major leagues finished his initial season with a .264 batting average, 16 home runs, 61 RBIs and 16 steals. More importantly, “the Kid” gave long-suffering Mariners fans a reason to come to the stadium and a brighter future to look forward to.
The next three years saw Junior steadily develop his power numbers while beginning a string of All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards that would span the 1990s. Griffey would bat as high as .327, launch as many as 27 home runs, and collect as many as 103 RBIs for a series of mediocre to atrocious Mariners teams. He also carried the burden of being the first baseball superstar in a city that had little or no baseball tradition. When Griffey won the MVP award of the 1992 All-Star Game by rapping three hits and taking Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux deep, he became the first Mariner ever to hit a home run in All-Star competition.
With his clean-cut looks and omnipresent smile, not to mention an abundance of “five-tool” talent and a penchant for photogenically robbing opposing batters of base hits, Junior quickly became the golden boy of baseball, one of the game’s most popular figures and the unchallenged flag-bearer for the Mariners’ franchise. Yet Griffey, unfailingly humble and reserved in public, never sought the attention he received and resisted reporters who pressed him to discuss his achievements. “I grew up like that,” he said. “My dad never brought the game home. So I was taught you don’t have to talk about yourself; other people will do it.”
Far less publicized than his on-field heroics, however, was his tireless commitment to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted wishes to terminally ill children. By some accounts, Griffey devoted more time to the Foundation than any other professional athlete.
In 1993, the budding prodigy took his game to a new level and began clouting round trippers with frightening regularity. At the All-Star game that year, the 23-year-old slugger showed off his newfound power during the Home Run Derby. Although he would lose the home run contest to Texas’s Juan Gonzalez (who topped him 46-45 for the AL home run crown that year), he became the first player to hit a ball on the fly off the B&O; Warehouse beyond the right field wall at Baltimore’s Camden Yards — a drive estimated at 460 feet.
Fresh off his achievements at the All-Star game, Junior began a historic longball binge shortly after the midseason break. From July 20th through July 28th he homered in eight consecutive games, tying the major-league record set by Dale Long in 1956 and equaled by Don Mattingly in 1987. He just missed setting a new record when he doubled off the right-center field wall the next day. At season’s end he had set numerous team records — most of which have since been surpassed either by Griffey himself or by shortstop Alex Rodriguez — while batting .309 with 109 RBIs and 17 steals.
From then on, Griffey’s career became increasingly defined by power numbers — despite his continued insistence that “the home run thing is not important to me.” Still, when the players’ strike halted the 1994 season in mid-August, he had belted an AL-high 40 round trippers in just 111 games. The dazzling offensive display raised the question of whether Griffey could top Roger Maris‘ single season home run record of 61.
Any chance Junior had to pursue the record the following season ended on May 26th, when he broke two bones in his left wrist while making a spectacular catch of a drive by Baltimore’s Kevin Bass. He missed 73 games, but the Mariners managed to tread water until his mid-August return, and over the final six weeks of the season pulled off one of baseball’s most remarkable comebacks. Seattle made up a thirteen-game deficit to Anaheim, swiping the pennant from the Angels by winning a one-game playoff at the Kingdome. It was the first post-season berth and division title in franchise history.
Although the injury led to some very un-Griffey-like regular season numbers (72 games, 17 home runs, 42 RBI, and a .258 batting average), he more than made up for it with a spectacular post-season. He dominated the Mariners’ heart-stopping five-game Divisional Series triumph over the Yankees, belting five home runs (tying a post-season series record) scoring nine runs and driving home seven. He even scored the winning run in the eleventh inning of the classic Game Five by racing home from first base on Edgar Martinez‘s double into the left-field corner. By adding a home run in the Mariners’ five-game loss to Cleveland in the ALCS, he tied another record (jointly held by Bob Robertson in 1971 and Lenny Dykstra in 1993) for most total home runs in a post-season.
While the Mariners slipped back to the pack in 1996, Junior began an astonishing four-year run in which he clouted 209 round-trippers and racked up 567 RBIs. Despite missing 20 games with a broken bone in his right hand, Griffey set short-lived Mariners records with 49 home runs and 140 RBIs while batting .303 and scoring 125 runs.
But even that stellar performance was merely a prelude to his magnificent 1997 campaign, one which saw the 27-year-old superstar win just the ninth unanimous MVP in American League history. Leading the Mariners to their second division title in three years, Griffey posted gaudy numbers: 56 home runs (a total topped only by Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx in league history), 147 RBIs, 393 total bases and a .646 slugging percentage. For good measure, Griffey chipped in 15 steals and his eighth consecutive Gold Glove. His stature as the best player in baseball stood virtually uncontested.
After a disappointing four-game loss to Baltimore in that year’s Division Series in which Griffey managed just two singles in 15 at-bats, Junior would never again find life in Seattle so idyllic. Overshadowed by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa‘s historic home run chase in the National League, Griffey nearly duplicated his 1997 stats in 1998, collecting 56 of the quietest home runs and 146 of the most unheralded RBIs in baseball history. The pivotal event of the season may have been the team’s decision to trade ace left-hander Randy Johnson to Houston just before the trading deadline. To Griffey, the trade was evidence that the Mariners were unwilling to spend the money needed to make the team a contender.
At around $8.5 million a year, Seattle’s brightest star was a major bargain, and as the Mariners endured a two-year stretch of mediocrity in 1998 and 1999 speculation grew that Griffey might sign elsewhere when his four-year deal expired after the 2000 season. Fueling the rumors was Griffey’s decision to move his family from the Seattle area to a private community in Orlando, forcing him to spend most of the baseball season apart from his wife Melissa, son Trey and daughter Taryn.
With a strategy of stockpiling promising young talent (bolstered by the fast emergence of pitchers John Halama and Freddy Garcia, two of the three prospects acquired in the Johnson deal) the Mariners looked towards the future — beginning with the mid-summer opening of Safeco Field, a brand-new natural grass stadium with a retractable roof. Before the new park opened, Griffey put his stamp on the last game at the Kingdome by belting the final home run in the stadium and later robbing Rangers’ outfielder Juan Gonzalez of a homer with a spectacular leaping catch.
The Mariners hoped that Safeco Field would help entice Griffey to stay, but the new stadium — sometimes referred to as “The House that Griffey Built,” since a referendum to build the stadium had passed during the euphoria of the club’s 1995 playoff run — may have hastened Griffey’s departure. For all its aesthetic offenses, the Kingdome had served as a launching pad for the offensive fireworks which had helped Griffey reach 350 career home runs at a younger age than anyone than anyone in history. Safeco, on the other hand, was clearly a pitchers’ park where well-hit fly balls died on the warning track in the damp Pacific air.
Whatever the reason, it was obvious that Junior wanted to be elsewhere. After reaching the All-Star break with a .310 batting average, he hit just .255 the rest of the way. Even his league-leading 48 round-trippers seemed perfunctory. Griffey remained mostly silent on his plans for the future, but showed little interest in signing a multi-year extension with the Mariners that would have made him the highest-paid player in the game. All along he insisted that his hesitancy had less to do with money than with his desire to play for a championship team, as his father had. “I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “The one thing you can’t buy in this game is that ring.”
The Mariners, meanwhile, found themselves at a critical juncture in their franchise’s history. In Griffey and superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez, Seattle owned perhaps the two most sought-after players in the game, both of whom could become free agents after the 2000 season. Re-signing both to long-term contracts would cost in excess of $250 million, but losing one or both to free agency would be a public relations disaster.
Realizing the bind they were in, new CEO Howard Linder and GM Pat Gillick met with Griffey early in November only to learn that their franchise player had little intention of re-signing with the club. Unwilling to let Junior leave without getting anything in return, the team called a press conference the next day to announce that the team was trying to accommodate Junior’s desire to be traded to a contending team closer to his family home in Orlando.
Although he had said as early as 1998 that “the only other team I’d play for is Cincinnati”, Griffey submitted a list of four teams (Reds, Mets, Astros and Braves) to whom he would accept a trade. Reportedly, Griffey declined to include the Yankees on the list because of a longstanding grudge against George Steinbrenner, who had once kicked the 12-year-old Griffey out of the club’s locker room.
In December, public sentiment turned against Griffey when Junior vetoed a trade to the Mets that would have sent the Mariners a bonanza of young talent, including starter Octavio Dotel, closer Armando Benitez and speedy outfielder Roger Cedeno. Although he later claimed he had rejected the deal because the Mariners had given him only 15 minutes to reach a major life decision, many felt that Griffey, who had a reputation for being hyper-sensitive to criticism, simply had no desire to play in the media maelstrom of Gotham.
Regardless of the reasons, it soon became obvious that Junior was only interested in following his father’s footsteps to the Queen City. Receiving a death threat in the mail that mentioned his family “was pretty much the last straw as far as me staying in Seattle,” Griffey announced — a stance that robbed the Mariners of any leverage, since the Reds knew that if they couldn’t work out a suitable deal, they could always sign him as a free agent after the 2000 season.
The long fiasco finally ended in early February, when Cincinnati agreed to part with outfielder Mike Cameron, starter Brett Tomko, minor-league pitcher Jake Meyer and minor-league infielder Antonio Perez for the man who had just been named the youngest member of baseball’s All-Century Team. To finalize the deal, Griffey’s agent, Brian Goldberg, negotiated a nine-year contract with the Reds for around $116 million — far less than what he could have made on the free-agent market. “I’m finally home,” Griffey said at a press conference on February 10th in Cincinnati, surrounded by his father (now a Reds’ bench coach) and two children. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It’s where you feel happy.”
At the start of the 2000 season, the 30-year-old Griffey had already hit 398 round trippers. He was tabbed by no less an authority than Hank Aaron himself as the player most likely to challenge Hammerin’ Hank’s career record of 755 home runs.