It's hard to fully relay how perfectly entwined Ken Griffey Jr. was with 1990s baseball. The Kid spent just over a year in the minors after being taken first overall in the 1987 MLB Draft, cut his teeth as the youngest player in the big leagues as a 19 year old rookie in 1989 while his dad was still in the league with the Cincinnati Reds, and as the calendar rolled over into the new decade, the writing was on the wall that he'd become one of the most dynamic two-way players the game of baseball had ever seen.
Sure, there were heavy expectations on his shoulders. He was as can't-miss of a prospect as there had been in the game, the son of a Big Red Machine legend and the clear-cut best prospect in baseball for most of his teenage years. But despite that burden, The Kid took the game by storm, and proceeded to be both an All Star and a Gold Glove Award winner in each and every year from 1990 through 1999. In that time, he racked up seven Silver Slugger awards, won the 1997 American League MVP Award, and hit a combined .302/.384/.581 with 382 homers, 1082 runs batted in, and an average of 141 games played per season. He twice led the AL in total bases, four times led it in dingers, and at least once along the way managed to lead in runs scored, intentional walks, slugging percentage, and runs batted in. He and his backwards hat held major endorsement deals from the likes of Nike and Pizza Hut, among others, and his smile fronted Sportscenter daily while taking home Home Run Derby crowns and All Star Game notoriety.
Round numbers often stick out like sore thumbs, and in hindsight it's difficult to ignore how his career arc so drastically changed as the 1990s closed and the 2000s dawned. Cincinnati baseball fans are certainly privy to this, and of all the gaudy numbers and awards listed in the previous paragraph, the one they'd find hardest to wrap their head around wouldn't be the homers or the record run of Gold Gloves; rather, it'd be that somehow Junior managed to play in 141 games a year for a decade.
Just over a month into 2000, the Reds struck a deal with the Seattle Mariners that sent Junior to Cincinnati in exchange for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Jake Meyer, and Antonio Perez, a trade that at the time seemed to be massively in the favor of the Reds.
Interestingly enough, it's through the lens of today's Reds that this deal becomes a bit more understandable, since there were a number of factors in play that handcuffed the Mariners in much the same way that the current Reds have been slogging through. Junior had wanted out of Seattle for some time at that point, his memories of their 1995 playoff run tucked behind back to back losing seasons and the 1998 deadline deal that shipped Mariners' ace Randy Johnson to the Houston Astros. He'd accrued 10/5 rights, and the 2000 season was the final year in which he was under contract, meaning Seattle had limited leverage to trade their star, and even if they found a match, Junior himself had the ability to put the kibosh on any deal he didn't like.
The Jim Bowden-led Reds eventually stepped up with the winning offer, and Junior agreed to both the trade and a new 9 year, $116.5 million contract as part of the storybook proceedings. It brought him home, it was written, back to where he'd grown up in the clubhouse with World Series winners like Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, and Tony Perez in the Big Red Machine's heyday. Back to where he'd starred at Moeller High School, where his exploits had made him the obvious first pick in the '87 draft. It put the finishing touches on a Reds renaissance too, it seemed, as the team added the best player of the 1990s to a roster that had won 98 games in 1999 and was poised to climb back into the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
And beyond just the Reds, it was the clinching move for a downtown Cincinnati renaissance, as adding the game's most marketable slugger was the perfect piece to dovetail with the August 2000 ground-breaking for the city's new $290 million baseball-specific stadium by the Ohio River. Junior, then just 30 years old, had been the youngest player ever to hit 350 home runs, and he was widely seen as the best threat to Hank Aaron's 755 career dinger mark to that point. With 398 homers to his credit already, the milestones were both inevitable and obvious, and the Reds had just made sure that he'd be hitting them on a winning team in a brand new park built for him in the city where he'd grown up.
Few human beings ever get the opportunity to impact history in so many far reaching ways. Even fewer get the chance to see that impact go as planned, or as desired. It's hard to imagine a script with the potential as the one Junior stepped into getting flipped as frustratingly as his did, and for anyone that grew up enjoying his successes in the 1990s, watching how precipitous his career tumbled was borderline painful.
It was borderline painful for Reds fans, though not nearly as painful as what Junior himself was forced to go through.
There was no way to know that the 145 games he'd play in his first season in Cincinnati would be the single most he'd play in any season in a Reds uniform, or that the 85 games the team won that year would be the most they'd win while he roamed the Cincinnati dugout. It was impossible to fathom his hamstring ripping off his thigh bone, his calf acting up incessantly, or that he'd make it through the 2002, 2003, and 2004 seasons never once playing in more than 83 games. Gone was the Gold Glove streak, and in its place was a CF that formerly covered ground like a gazelle now limited in range and seemingly worried about what injury would beset him next every time a line drive was hit his direction. When he played, he'd still homer, but the pace that had his eyes on Aaron's career home run mark was no longer there, the luster of that shiny accomplishment as much a twinkle in one's eye as the Reds actually winning any games under Bowden's leadership.
For eight years, a stumbling front office tied itself to an aging, injury-riddled superstar, and what was supposed to be a decade-long parade for baseball in Cincinnati became a lesson in how things can go south in a hurry. Those expectations he'd conquered in Seattle were far in the rear-view mirror, and the ones on his shoulders in Cincinnati had become overbearing.
Ken Griffey Jr. is going to be elected into the baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday afternoon, and he may well do so with a greater percentage of votes than any other player in the history of the Hall. His 630 career dingers rank behind only Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays among current Hall members, and his 2781 hits, 1836 runs driven in, and 83.6 bWAR paired with his lengthy list of awards have his status as one of the game's all time greats written in stone.
For Seattle Mariners fans, it's a triumph, and a worthy one for a franchise that's seen its fair share of disappointment over the years. For folks like me who came of age in the 1990s, it's a celebration of a scandal-free player getting his well-deserved due, a middle-finger of sorts to the disaster that has become the BBWAA's handling of steroid era players on the Hall's ballots.
For many Cincinnati Reds fans, though, it's something entirely different. It's like catching a glance at that scar on your knee, the one from the ACL tear that knocked you out of the state finals some two decades ago, or that picture of your high school girlfriend you can't throw away even though she dumped you on prom night. There's such an air of what-could-have-been around Junior's time in Cincinnati that, for many, has become easier to forget than to try to remember with any bit of fondness, and that's both understandable and unfortunate.
What's startling, though, is looking back at Junior's time with the Reds without the lens of expectations, without the contract details, the glitz around it, or the premise that his 1990s self was ever going to be sustainable. Do that, and you see he hit 210 home runs while with the Reds, more than Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, or Barry Larkin. His .514 slugging percentage ties him for the fourth best ever with the club, linked with Big Red Machine stalwart and 1978 MVP George Foster and ahead of famed muscle-bound basher Ted Kluszewski's .510 career mark with the team.
Take a gander at this imperfect, brief comparison the Reds careers of oft-maligned Junior and my favorite Cincinnati Reds player I've ever watched in person:
|Ken Griffey Jr.||945||.270||.362||.514||210||602|
That's my favorite-ever Red, at his absolute best, smack dab next to the one seen as maybe the most disappointing to wear the uniform in recent memory.
Different eras? Undoubtedly. The entire story between those two? Hardly, but keep in mind the entirety of those career Reds numbers for Griffey came after he'd turned 30 years old, while all but 129 of the games played by Davis came when he was aged 22 through 29. Then ask your mind how you remember both of their tenures in Cincinnati, and see if there's a significant gap in sentiment. There's probably a bigger one than there should be, all told.
When you set up a stage with so many big, bright spotlights, whoever takes the mic will have every last flaw on display. But the only way a person earns the right to have that many lights and that many eyes pointed their way is to accomplish feats both grand and rare. Ken Griffey Jr. earned the right to have a gigantic contract and to have his pick of where he got to play. He earned the chance few, if any of us will ever have, which is to ride home as the perceived savior, champion to be of whatever obstacle stands in his way.
It didn't go as planned, and that was unfortunate. Until the Reds find a way back to the winner's circle, it will still be heavily thought of us one of the more difficult times in team history, his 2008 trade to the Chicago White Sox a mere footnote in the century and a half of baseball in Cincinnati. Only part of that was Junior's fault, though, and he's always caught more of the flack for that than he should have. And, all told, his tenure with the Reds inordinately drags down his overall career more than it should to many, and that's a damn shame. Today's announcement that he's a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer should be step one in righting that portion of his legacy, and I couldn't be happier that day is finally here.