Tuesday, June 30, 2009
In 1989, a fledgling baseball card company card named Upper Deck issued its first set. In an unorthodox move for the time, the prestigious #1 card in the set was reserved for a 19 year old kid who had played all of 17 games above A ball. That card, shown above, would become an iconic baseball card at a time when the market was flooded with a multitude of brands and series. That company would become the premier card company amongst collectors, driving several competitors out of business. And that kid would become the iconic and premier baseball player of his generation.
Ken Griffey Jr. made his Major League debut on April 3, 1989. The Seattle Mariners were beginning their thirteenth season of Big League ball. The franchise had never won more the 78 games in a season, those coming in 1987, the same year they chose Junior Griffey with the first overall pick of the Amateur Draft. It would take the M's three years with Griffey to top that mark, but Griffey's arrival in 1989 was the first step to changing the organization's culture of losing.
Griffey's had his share of signature moments against the Yankees through the years. In his first series against the Yankees, Griffey went 3 for 11, hitting the fifth and sixth home runs of his young career. A week later, in his first trip to Yankee Stadium, Griffey went 5 for 12, blasting two home runs in the second game, the first multi-HR game of his career.
The next year, Griffey made what still may be his signature defensive highlight in a career that's been filled with them. Jesse Barfield blasted one deep to Death Valley, ticketed for the Yankee bullpen. Griffey sprinted towards the fence, leapt, and reached over the wall, hauling it in to end the inning before he sprinted in holding the ball aloft like a trophy. Video here.
Griffey beat on the Yankees throughout the first six years of his career, but in 1995 he took it to new levels. After breaking his wrist making yet another spectacular catch in late May, Griffey returned in mid-August. He hit just .265 in his first nine games back. When the Yankees came to town on August 24th, the M's were a game under .500, in third place in the AL West, and 11.5 games behind the Angels.
In the series opener, the Yanks were up 7-6 heading into the bottom of the ninth. The M's had tied the score with two outs, when Griffey came to the plate. He yanked the first pitch he saw from John Wetteland over the rightfield fence to give the Mariners the win. From that game on, they went 24-11, forcing a one game playoff against the Angels for the division. Seattle took it, setting up an ALDS match up with the Yankees. Griffey had only begun to inflict his damage upon them.
In Games 1 and 2, Griffey went 5 for 11. Hit 2 homers in Game 1, and added a third in Game 2, a go ahead shot in the 12th inning that would later be negated by a Ruben Sierra double and eventually a Jim Leyritz game winning homer. Griffey's exploits were somewhat negated by the two Yankee victories, but he wasn't done yet and neither were the M's.
As the Series moved to Seattle, Griffey stayed hot. After an ohfer in Game 3, he went 2 for 4 in Game 4, blasting his fourth HR of the Series. In the deciding fifth game he'd rip the Yankees' heart out. He went 2 for 5, with his fifth and final HR. His HR came in the eighth and pulled the Mariners within a run, They would tie it later in the inning. In the eleventh, Joey Cora led off with a single. Griffey singled him to third, leaving runners on the corners with no one out. Edgar Martinez then unleashed a double to left, Griffey sliding across the plate ahead of the throw and ending the Series. For the Series, Griffey hit .391/.444/1.093. He was a one man wrecking crew.
That series probably saved baseball in Seattle and pushed the vote to construct Safeco Field over the top. Shortly after Safeco opened in 1999, Griffey engineered his way out of the Great Northwest. I never particularly cared for Griffey. Much of it likely had to do with how badly he beat on the Yankees through my youth. Some of it has to do with how he pushed his way out of Seattle. Some of it has to do with how I thought he was a punk when he was younger, then a surly prick as he got older, capped by his dismissive, uninterested interview after winning the 1999 Home Run Derby.
But now, as Griffey is on what is both his welcome back and (likely) farewell tour of the American League, I can't help but feel bad for him. Griffey is amongst the greatest two or three ballplayers I've seen. While the events of the past few years have left no one above suspicion of PED usage, Griffey has to be as close as one can be to being above suspicion. As he tore apart the Yankees in that 1995 ALDS, it was very easy to imagine him rewriting the record books. Instead, inferior ballplayers and inferior human beings have attained the accolades for which Griffey once seemed destined. After leaving Seattle Griffey made into 140 games just three times in nine seasons, and three times failed to reach ninety games. Still, he reached the 600 HR milestone last season and is an assured first ballot Hall of Famer. Enjoy his visit to the Bronx this week; it'll likely be his last.