In the last years of his life Buck O'Neil, the great spokesman of baseball, would often be asked to name his favorite modern players. He always mentioned just one name: Ken Griffey Jr. When asked why, he would say, simply, "He could play in any era."
This is the irony of the brilliant career of Ken Griffey Jr.: He belonged to any era in baseball history, except perhaps his own. He played a graceful centerfield, like Joe DiMaggio. He hit long home runs with a lefthanded swing so sweet that it should have been set to music. He exuded joy—the way Kirby Puckett did, the way Willie Mays did, the way Stan Musial did. His game was seemingly timeless.
Yet in so many ways Griffey did not fit his own time. Yes, there was something oddly fitting about Griffey's retirement announcement last week being overshadowed by Armando Galarraga's imperfect game (page 44). Griffey's brilliance was often obscured by the imperfections of his era.
He was, perhaps, the greatest young player the game has ever known. He grew up around baseball, of course, as the oldest son of Ken Griffey, one of the most exciting players of the 1970s. Junior, as he was called from a young age, was the first pick in the 1987 draft. He played a mere 129 games in the minor leagues and was called up at 19—in time not only to be a teammate of his father's but also, on Sept. 14, 1990, to hit back-to-back home runs with him. It is staggering to think about the odds against a father and son hitting back-to-back home runs in a big league game.
By the time he turned 30, Junior had already hit 398 home runs, more than any player at that age (until his onetime Seattle teammate, Alex Rodriguez, surpassed him six years later). He had led the league in home runs for three consecutive years, something that no centerfielder had done. And he was no ordinary centerfielder. He had won 10 consecutive outfield Gold Gloves; only Mays and Roberto Clemente had accomplished that feat.
He also had the reputation—much to the consternation of Barry Bonds, among others—as baseball's best player. See, as great as Griffey was in those days, he seemed even greater because of the smile he had on his face, the youthful exuberance of his game. He was hardly the first big league player to be called Kid (a moniker bestowed upon Williams, Gary Carter, Kid Nichols, Kid Gleason and so on), but he wore the nickname best. He was The Kid, Junior, the very essence of youth.
At 30 Griffey encouraged a trade to his hometown Reds, the team for which his father had made his name. This was just one of the ways that Griffey cut against the grain of his own time—what other superstar today would demand a trade to a small-market team such as Cincinnati? It never quite worked. Griffey hit 40 home runs in his first year back home, but over the next seven seasons, mostly because of leg injuries, he would be in constant pain; he averaged fewer than 100 games per season. He would never win another Gold Glove. He would lose his youthful verve. After 11 consecutive All-Star Games he would play in only two more the rest of his career.
In other words, he aged. Once there was no shame in that. Mickey Mantle aged rapidly in his 30s too. But in the early 2000s the expectation was that players could play at peak level for much longer than before. Bonds had his most remarkable hitting seasons in his late 30s. Roger Clemens led the league in ERA at 42. Of course a dominant theme of Griffey's era was steroids, and while no one can ever know for sure, Junior always did seem apart from the performance-enhancing culture. He did not even like to work out. As he limped toward the end of his career, he found that bulkier players had reached the landmarks that were supposed to be his. Bonds passed Aaron's home run record. Sammy Sosa got to 600 home runs before Junior did. Rodriguez set himself up to break all the records. It's hard not to notice that all of them have been linked to steroids.
Griffey's final season, at age 40, was mostly sad—he hit .184 and was involved in a minor stir in which anonymous teammates claimed he fell asleep during a game—but his retirement gives us a chance to think about Griffey when he was young and invincible. I once asked him how he would like to be remembered. He could be cantankerous in his later years, and this was not the sort of question he liked to answer, and he asked back, "How do you think I should be remembered?" And I thought of a big smile, a cap on sideways and a lefthanded swing that should have been set to music.