On January 6, 2016, Ken Griffey Jr. (b. 1969) is voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Griffey, who started his professional career and had his best years with the Seattle Mariners, receives the highest total in the history of voting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He is the first player drafted and developed by the Mariners to achieve Major League Baseball's highest accolade, that of Hall of Famer.
Griffey's selection seemed preordained, based on his accomplishments. He ended his 22-year career with 630 home runs, sixth best on the all-time list, and 1,836 runs batted in, 13th all time. He was voted an All-Star 13 times. From 1990 to 1999, he won 10 Gold Glove awards as the American League's top centerfielder and seven Silver Slugger awards as the position's top hitter.
In his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Griffey received 437 of a possible 440 votes, a record 99.3 percent. The previous high was 98.84 percent, set by pitcher Tom Seaver (b. 1944) in 1992.
George Kenneth Griffey Jr. grew up around baseball greatness. His father, Ken Griffey Sr. (b. 1950), played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1973 to 1981. The Reds, aka the Big Red Machine, were the dominant team in baseball when Griffey Sr. joined them, and young "Junior," as he was commonly called, became a regular and accepted presence in their clubhouse. By the time he was a senior at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, he was regarded as one of the best young players in the country.
The Mariners selected him with the first pick in the 1987 Major League Baseball draft. Some of the team's veterans were dubious. After all, how good could a 17-year-old be? They soon found out. In his first appearance in Seattle's Kingdome, taking batting practice after being introduced as the team's top draft choice, he hit line drives all over the field, and then, warmed up, began belting pitches into the outfield seats -- all the while talking and joking, totally relaxed and enjoying himself. "He was making the Kingdome look small," Mariners first baseman Alvin Davis (b. 1960) recalled later ("The Natural").
Young Griffey, who was quickly nicknamed The Kid, was what baseball scouts call a five-tool player, meaning he could hit for power, hit for a high average, and run, field, and throw at a high level. Starting with Bellingham of the Northwest League, he excelled for three minor-league teams over two seasons and was invited to 1989 spring training with the Mariners. It was generally assumed he would be sent back to the minors for more seasoning. Instead, he dominated Cactus League pitching and won a job as the Mariners starting centerfielder. He was 19. "Not only was he far and away the best player on our team at that point," said catcher Scott Bradley (b. 1960), "he was the best player in Arizona (spring training)" ("The Natural").
A Legendary Career
Griffey's career took off, literally from the start. He hit a double in his first at-bat. He homered in his first Kingdome at-bat. His batting average that season was a respectable .264, with 16 home runs and 61 runs batted in. Moreover he established himself a fan favorite. Still a teenager, he clowned during warmups, usually wearing his hat backward, and he played with obvious enjoyment, flashing a big smile as he made the game look easy. More feel-good moments followed when his father joined the team in 1990 and played in left field, alongside his gifted son. They made baseball history that year, becoming the first father-son duo to hit back-to-back home runs.
Growing in stature, Griffey hit .300 in 1990 and better than that in the next three seasons, including 1993, when he tied a Major League record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games, and in 1994 when he had 40 home runs and finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting. He missed more than half of the 1995 season after breaking a wrist by crashing into the outfield fence to make a spectacular catch, but returned in time to help the Mariners reach the playoffs for the first time. He was the center of an iconic moment, scoring from first base on a double by Edgar Martinez (b. 1963) in the eleventh inning to beat the New York Yankees and send Seattle to the American League Championship Series.
The next four years saw Griffey at the peak of his considerable powers. From 1996 to 1999, he averaged 52 home runs and 141 runs batted in, astounding numbers for a player never suspected of having used muscle-producing steroids. In 1997, when he hit 56 home runs and drove in 147, he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player. Writers called him a once-in-a-generation talent. Mike Cameron (b. 1973), who succeeded Griffey as Seattle's centerfielder, said "He was pretty much the standard for all of our generation" ("The Natural"). In 1999, when Major League Baseball's All-Century team was announced, Griffey was the only active player to make the 30-man roster.
Leaving the M's -- Twice
Beloved in Seattle, Griffey nonetheless requested a trade to Cincinnati, the hometown of his youth. He played for the Reds from 2000 to 2008, but injuries limited his success. He spent part of the 2008 season with the Chicago White Sox, and then rejoined the M's in 2009, 20 years after his spectacular debut. Unable to replicate his glory days in Seattle, he was relegated to being a designated hitter, then a rarely used pinch-hitter, before he abruptly quit the team in the 2010 season, ending his career at age 40.
Despite that messy ending, there was never any doubt about Griffey's stature with the franchise or its fan base. In June 2007, when he played in Seattle for the first time as a member of an opposing team, he received several long standing ovations. In April 2009, when he played his first home game after rejoining the Mariners, a crowd of nearly 46,000 rocked the stadium when he was introduced. Pitcher Carlos Silva (b. 1979) recalled the scene: "When they called 'Ken Griffey Jr.!,' I was still on the mound (warming up in the bullpen), but I stopped to watch. It was amazing. I never saw anything like that, that crowd, that intensity" ("The Best of ...").
In October 2009, after what was expected to be his final game in Seattle, fans gave Griffey standing ovations each time he came to the plate and another after his final at-bat. After the game, teammates carried him on their shoulders around the field while the crowd continued to applaud him.
Saving Baseball in Seattle
That his final season was disappointing and aborted was soon forgotten. What was remembered were the brilliance of his first 10 years and the excitement and joy he brought to a franchise that had known little of either and never before fielded a superstar. The 1995 playoff victories came at a time when the team's future in Seattle was uncertain and created the political will to help fund a new stadium to replace the Kingdome. When the resulting Safeco Field opened in July 1999, it was unofficially called The House That Griffey Built.
Formal recognition for Griffey's achievements came on August 10, 2013, when he was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame while a capacity crowd roared its approval. When Griffey was voted into the Baseball Hall, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln (b. 1940) credited him and his teammates with "solidifying Major League baseball in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest" ("Hall of Fame Vote"), and a flag bearing his No. 24 flew from atop the Space Needle.
His enshrinement was scheduled for July 24, 2016 at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to be followed by an August 5-7 celebration at Safeco Field where his number would be retired -- another Mariners first.