Ken Griffey Jr. and the Making of a Superhero

junior

On November 15th, 2007, a man by the name of Barry Lamar Bonds was served an indictment by a federal grand jury. The indictment alleged counts of perjury and obstruction of justice against Bonds, who, four years earlier, had sworn under oath that he had never used illegal substances provided to him by a Bay Area pharmaceutical company called BALCO.

Had Bonds held any other occupation, the story may not have been nearly as widespread. Bonds, however, happened to be a Major League Baseball player. And at the time of the indictment, the 43-year-old outfielder was resoundingly considered one of the best players in the history of his sport. Bonds was alleged to be nothing short of a liar, and as a result, a criminal. He never played baseball again.

Eight weeks before Bonds found himself indicted, another baseball player, also an outfielder, was fielding his position when he collapsed to the turf.

At 37 years of age, the outfielder had once been considered Bonds’ equal. Their skill sets were similar, their statistics comparable, even their upbringings, as children of big leaguers, bore a striking resemblance. Only in recent years, as each entered the respective twilight of his career, had they forged divergent paths.

Bonds, improbably, had excelled to new heights in spite of his maturing years. The other, the one who lay in pain after collapsing, had struggled with injuries for the past few seasons. His senescence was not wholly unanticipated – naturally, we expect our bodies to deteriorate – but in contrast to Bonds, his seemingly ageless counterpart, the decline of one Ken Griffey Jr. was all but punctuated by the season-ending injury he now endured.

***

Once upon a time – on October 8th, 1995, to be exact – we had screamed our lungs out and leapt upon the metal bleachers of the charmingly unattractive Kingdome. We were kids then, and this is what kids did when it came time to celebrate.

The cause for celebration was a 25-year-old Griffey, who had just slid across home plate to defeat the New York Yankees in one of the most meaningful games in Seattle sports history. We didn’t know it then, but that run saved baseball in a town that would endure attempts to extricate all three major professional sports franchises from the city. Junior was a beloved figure by this point in his career; in that moment, however, he became a legend.

The moment was not without its proper buildup, of course. To begin, we have to go back to 1989, when we were first introduced to a young Ken Griffey Jr.

As adults, revisionist history might lead us to believe we were in awe of the man dubbed “The Kid” from the moment we first laid eyes on him, but that’s far from accurate. Back then, we were kids ourselves. And kids don’t revere much outside of perhaps their parents.

Instead, we simply enjoyed Junior. He was one of us. He was 19 when he exploded onto the national scene, less than two years removed from his high school graduation. Right away, two things became evident about the youngest player in baseball: he was extremely talented, and he was a whole lot of fun.

For those of us now in our late-twenties, thirties, and early-forties, the only version of Junior we knew then was one of unbridled joy. We loved him because we wanted to be like him. He treated baseball like the lighthearted game it was meant to be, rather than the results-oriented business it had become. In our fledgling innocence, we grew up seeing the sport through the eyes of someone like us – who smiled like us, who laughed like us, who turned his hat around like us, who had fun like us.

We were endeared to his infectious spirit, too young to feel any differently. Shielded from the stresses of the real world, we had yet to develop any of the cynicism that comes with adulthood. What we saw in front of us was one of the more palpable representations of happiness to which we could possibly be exposed. On TV, in advertisements, on posters, baseball cards, t-shirts, even in-person. When we caught glimpses of Ken Griffey Jr., we caught glimpses of youthful bliss. It was that elation that resonated with us.

We aged as he aged. The more grown-up Griffey became, the closer and closer we edged to an adulthood of our own.

Four years after our hero scored the decisive run against the hated New York Yankees, he played in his final game as a Seattle Mariner.

Griffey was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds before the 2000 season began. It was an undesirable, yet inevitable, outcome for the Seattle faithful. Griffey had wanted to leave, citing a yearning to be closer to his home in Florida. He had requested a trade. When the Mariners found an interested party and an agreeable return, they sent their franchise cornerstone on his way.

Those of us who looked up to Junior were nearing the end of our adolescence by now, skeptical enough to feel something beyond sadness over his exit.

We were upset and confused. This was a childhood friend we felt we knew. This was the man who, unwittingly, had shaped an entire generation of budding baseball fans. We played his video games, wore his sneakers, mimicked his batting stance. And he was leaving us. He was a grown-up doing grown-up things. It wasn’t just a lighthearted game anymore. It was a business. This was the business side of the sport rearing its ugly head.

As the last vestiges of our unencumbered infancy started to slip away, so, too, did an athlete we adored.

***

On the evening of September 19th, 2007, the night Griffey fell wounded to the turf, we were more than seven years removed from his Seattle departure.

We weren’t kids anymore, and neither was he. Junior was 37, and the years in Cincinnati had proven bittersweet. As always, there were flashes of brilliance. But there were also more injuries, curbing the surplus of talent that otherwise would have been on display.

We had changed, Junior had changed, and so had the game of baseball.

The offensive explosion that coincided with Griffey’s maturation in the 1990s had come under scrutiny a decade later. Investigations would find that many of the game’s best and brightest players were linked to performance-enhancing drugs. The game had been played by men, yes, but fueling the towering home runs and hundred-mile-an-hour heaters were illegal substances that had cost these men their good names.

It goes without saying that no one wants to have the wool pulled over their eyes. But suddenly it became very clear that Americans had been swindled by their national pastime. A collective level of innocence was lost as trust shattered. Fans had been deceived. We were angry. Angry with the players who had lied to us, angry with the governors of the sport who had allowed the dishonesty to run amok. All we wanted was some truth.

The truth we sought was found under the lights of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, lying upon the outfield lawn, wearing a jersey with GRIFFEY on the back. The version of the man donning that uniform, in his weakened state, was exactly what we were looking for.

He had once been seen as a superhero, that man, but a slow decline had revealed him to be as human as those who watched him exhibit his craft.

By contrast, the man’s cohorts had done everything in their power to rise to a standard that he had once set. His coworkers – like the aforementioned Bonds, for one – who had relied upon performance enhancers to reach their apexes, were trying to be superheroes. They were in search of a certain perfection that could not naturally be attained.

The difference between the wannabes and the man we looked upon is that he had never attempted to be anything he was not. Junior had climbed to prodigious heights organically, effortlessly. And just as he had risen to a superhuman stratosphere years earlier, he now plummeted back to earth, as mortal as the rest of us. The armor may have been cracked. The man was far from broken.

***

He wasn’t perfect.

Not by any means.

He fell apart, as we all do. In doing so, he conveyed a unique honesty. The type of honesty many in his profession were not willing to exude.

Instead, they focused on stat lines like those he had put up, searched for paydays similar to those he had earned, strived for the adoration that he had received. Griffey remained honest in spite of his peers, never so much as being whispered in connection with steroids, highlighting that fact as his ability waned with wear.

For the American public, immersed in an era of outright deception, any shred of authenticity was a breath of fresh air.

For fans of baseball, Griffey was a figurehead whose accomplishments rose above those of others in his field.

And for fans of Griffey, himself, The Kid became an honest man who we grew to revere after all.

We fell in love with Junior when we were too young to truly understand why. Only with the passage of time were we able to untangle the relationship with someone we had only sort of gotten to know. Because when you’re a kid, how well do you know your favorite athletes, really? How well do you know your role models, your idols?

As adults, we figured it out. We began to know the person – not just the ballplayer – Griffey had become. And when the successes of the ballplayer were paired with the credibility of the man, we found we only appreciated him more.

***

You know by now how this tale concludes.

Griffey returned to Seattle in 2009, putting a near-storybook ending on a miraculous career. He retired as a Mariner, albeit without a World Series title to his credit, riding off into the sunset (literally) when the game stopped being fun for him. It wasn’t the ideal way for a player of his stature to go out. Which is probably why it made the most sense to Junior.

Last Wednesday, Griffey was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame with 99.3-percent of the vote, the highest mark in history. That 437 of a total 440 electors had selected Griffey’s name on their ballots only better served to underscore what the center fielder had meant to so many people who watched him play.

Ken Griffey Jr., in a time of rampant uncertainty, was as genuine as they come. While so many of his peers had sacrificed their reputations and their dignity in search of something more, Junior never faltered. He was the real deal, the greatest player of his era and an icon to an entire generation of spectators.

His meteoric rise brought him to our attention. His prolonged success made him great. But it was his flaws, his imperfections, his sheer humanity, that made him a superhero.

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