Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Kid's Memories of The Kid

It was inevitable.  Ken Griffey, Jr. has been miserable this season, and really hasn't been a significant player since 2000.  Still, it is a sad night.  It brings back a lot of memories.  Some great.  Some not-so-great.

From the time I was seven, I wanted to be a baseball player.  For many years, I was convinced that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, and I was always looking for someone who could challenge Mays' combination of speed and power.  When I was in middle school, I marveled at Eric Davis.  He hit 27 homers and stole 80 bases in 1986 in just 132 games.  For an encore, he hit 37 homers and stole 50 bases in 1987 - in only 129 games.  If not for a mid-season injury, Davis would have been the first 40-50 man before there were any 40-40 men.  Davis was my favorite player, but his body proved too fragile to live up to his enormous potential.  I'll always remember the home run in Game 1 of the 1990 World Series that, I'll always believe, sealed the deal on the Reds sweep of the A's that year, but by then it was apparent that Davis wasn't going to be the "next Willie Mays."

No, the next "next Willie Mays" was already making some noise at that point.  Young Ken Griffey, Jr. was injecting life into a moribund Seattle franchise, delighting everyone with his power and speed for one so young.  (At least it appeared that way to me as a kid.  He was never really a 30 steal threat.)  As Griffey aged, he became a feared slugger, on pace to break Hank Aaron's home run record.  And of course, like Mays, Griffey played awesome and exciting defense in center field.  Griffey wasn't just going to be the "next Willie Mays," he was going to be something that we'd never seen before.  In 1993, Griffey hit 45 home runs, and from then until 2000, he was arguably the most feared and most exciting player in the game.

I have many memories of Griffey.  As a kid, I would occasionally go to Baltimore to watch the Orioles play.  I remember the day that Griffey ended Brad Pennington's major league career.  I was there.  April 24, 1994.  It wasn't the end of Pennington's career, but it was the "end."  I just knew.   The Orioles led 6-3 going into the top of the eighth inning.  Jamie Moyer loaded the bases with no one out, ending his day.  Pennington, a young lefty with a blazing fastball, came on to pitch to Griffey. Pennington struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings in both 1993 and 1994 and at least I believed that he had the potential to be an excellent reliever.  Pennington's first pitch was a wild pitch that brought in a run.  With first base open, the O's decided to go at Griffey anyway.  On Pennington's next pitch Griffey turned on a hard fastball and crushed it over the right field seats and onto Eutaw St.  It was as far as I've ever seen a ball hit.  Pennington's day was done.  He was sent down the next day and would remain in the minors for the rest of the 1994 season.  I'll always remember that event when I think of Griffey.

Despite living near Baltimore, I grew up a Reds fan.  When the word came out that Ken Griffey, Jr. wanted to be traded from the Mariners, I was watching with bated breath.  Atlanta was regarded as the favorite to land Griffey, but I held out hope that Griffey's Cincinnati roots would sway the decision.  His dad played for the Big Red Machine, and Griffey went to Cincinnati's famed Moeller High School, where he became the number 1 pick in the 1987 draft.  I was elated when news of the Griffey trade went through.  No one knew what injuries would do to his body and his game.  Obviously, looking back, we know that giving up a package of players that included Mike Cameron and Brett Tomko was not a good deal.  From 2000 to 2008 - the years Griffey played for the Reds - Cameron alone earned 35.3 WAR compared to Griffey's 13.2, according to fangraphs.  At the time though, I saw Griffey manning center field for a then-relevant Cincinnati Reds team.  Sure the $116M (I think) contract was big, but it wasn't what Griffey was worth.  He was giving the Reds a hometown discount.  He was the best player in the game, and he wasn't going to be paid like it.  Of course, now we know that didn't matter.  Griffey was a bust in Cincinnati, and his time there was marked by losing baseball.  This year, the Reds are finally starting to turn it around, but the poor product they've placed on the field this past decade or so can unfortunately be traced back to Griffey's contract.

Despite all that, I loved Griffey.  I got one last hurrah from the man.  On April 20, 2008, I had my first opportunity to attend a baseball game in Cincinnati.  Jay Bruce hadn't been called up yet and Griffey was still the face of the franchise.  After the game got going, rain moved in and threatened the proceedings.  I was at the game with my wife and our two children, then ages 3 and 1, so the weather put a real damper on things.  We tried to ride the weather out, but kids couldn't handle it.  We resorted to watching a few innings from on TV inside one of the shops on the main concourse.  In the top of the tenth, Edwin Encarnacion made a huge error that should have got the Reds out of the inning.  Two Brewers would come around to score making the score 3-1 and appearing to seal the game.  We left.  We barely get out of the stadium when fireworks went off.  Encarnacion had atoned for his error by hitting a home run, his second of the game.  Still, the Reds were down 3-2.  Then, more fireworks!  Paul Bako went back-to-back, and the game was tied again.  At this point, we're frantically walking around the stadium trying to find a way to see the end of the game.  We stumble upon a stadium entrance where a young man was guarding the entrance to an elevator, watching the game on the TV mounted above.  We hung out with him to see how the ending would unfold.  After a couple of batters reached base, Ken Griffey, Jr. came to the plate with one out.  Griffey ripped a ball to right field to drive in Brandon Phillips and win the game for the Reds.  The fireworks went off again, and I got to enjoy the long ride back to Maryland knowing that my childhood hero had won the game.

Griffey has been one of the best players to ever play baseball, an easy first-ballot Hall of Fame choice.  Even though his wRC barely cracks the top 150 of all time, Griffey was an icon of the sport.  His stats were impressive, but the injuries and general ineffectiveness late in his career make it difficult to really appreciate Griffey's greatness from statistics alone.  For me, it is the memories of Griffey that will linger.  I'll be able to pull out my 1989 Upper Deck #1 and show it to my kids.  I can show them the baseball that Griffey signed - the only signed ball I own at this point.  I'll be able to tell them the story about how my favorite shirt at one time was a Ken Griffey, Jr. t-shirt made to look like a baseball card, and how devastated I was when I ripped it hopping over a fence to retrieve a baseball during a pick-up game.  Those memories will last a long time.  I can only hope my kids get the opportunity to share their stories of the "next Ken Griffey, Jr." with their kids one day.

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