A little over a week ago, Ken Griffey, Jr. made another mark in the history books. A mark he deserved just as much as Aaron, Ruth, and Mays. When my Yahoo! Sports page loaded and I saw the top story read, "Sweet 600", I was pleased to know, the man most call "Junior", had finally done it. Growing up as a baseball player and a fan, I admired Griffey. Every kid gave the Junior stance a try, expecting it to bring home run power. When I made the traveling baseball team in 4th grade #24 was off limits, because every player wanted it and fought over it. It was almost as if it was retired. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball for my generation.
Today, it's sad to see Junior out on the field. He still has some power, but for young fans, few realize the impact Griffey had on the game. His prime has faded, and injuries have kept him short of everything he dreamed to accomplish. The topic of home runs today is Alex Rodriguez. He is the fastest to 300, 350, & 400 home runs. But second to him is Griffey. He held all of the records Rodriguez has broken. He was the first on pace to break Aaron. In fact, he was set to shatter it. Forget 756, Griffey was on pace for potentially 800. What a record that would be. But unfortunately for Griffey, a fate of bad luck prevented that pace from staying on track. All the little road block injuries added up, until Griffey found himself finally at a Dead End. The record that was forever his to take, would not be.
What made Griffey so great was his unconventional play. The uppercut swing was his trademark. He was a natural. He didn't need any lessons on the proper swing. The uppercut was his own, and everyone else wished it was theirs. With one smooth swing of the bat Griffey could change a game. He was the most feared hitter in the American League for years.
Griffey, too, was the best center fielder in the game. He was a 10 time Gold Glove Award winner! Junior was never afraid to lay out for a ball. He did anything and everything he could to make a play. Unfortunately at times, this was his downfall. Griffey's first serious injury came making an unbelievable catch leaping into the wall. Even though he broke his wrist, he was still able to hold onto the ball. That sidelined Griffey for more than half of the 1995 season. Unfortunately for Ken, his first real serious injury wouldn't be his last. He played on Astroturf and gave up his body anytime he had a chance to make a play. Injuries were bound to come. Injuries he wouldn't be able to overcome as he aged.
As a Red, Junior has been plagued with injuries his whole tenure in Cincinnati. He has 202 career home runs as a Red in 9 seasons. On average, that's about 22 home runs per season. In his last 4 seasons as a Mariner, Griffey hit 209 home runs, averaging 52 a year in that stretch. The injuries have slowed him down tremendously.
Whenever my father and I talk about ARod's legitimate shot at passing Bonds, we always make sure to throw in an "if he stays healthy, he should do it" remark. We saw what happened to Ken, and know that health is the key factor in any career record.
Although the guy I always dreamed would break the record will never accomplish that feat, there is still much reason to look up to him. The biggest reason, in my opinion, is obvious. During all the talk in the last few years about steroid-use and cheating in baseball, Griffey's name has never been thrown out there once. Junior never looked like a power hitter, he was simply blessed with the perfect swing for power. And no one could ever deny that. I heard an ESPN report that Ken was always happy to give advice to his teammates and even opponents. He didn't care that he would be facing the same guys he was helping. He always wanted to share his knowledge of the game with everyone. He is a true role model for all athletes. Griffey has a love of the game. He was the kind of guy that just went out there and had some fun. Coaches always told me to just "have some fun" out there, but it was hard playing in a pressure-pact game. Junior never let the pressure or the game steer him away from his enjoyment of baseball. He always understood how the game was meant to be played.
So with all this to be said, it gives me great displeasure to see Ken closing out on a long career without a home run record or a World Series title. However, it was so great to see Junior enter the 600 club. I do not believe any other player deserves it more. Griffey, Jr. may be the best home run hitter to ever pick up a bat and play the game. Sure Rodriguez may break records, but the world will never know just how many ARod would have needed to hit in order to surpass a healthy Griffey. Griffey has missed over 600 games in his career due to injury. That's over 3 & 1/2 seasons of baseball. That doesn't even include the wear and tear his injuries have put on him in all the games he has played since.
As I write this post, I cannot help but think I should be writing about Juniors record 756th home run right now, not his 600th. Nontheless, #600 is quite an amazing feat. Especially after all Griffey has been through in his 20 year career. He is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer and will always be remembered as one of the game's greatest. But I will forever wonder if perhaps a healthy Junior would have walked away the greatest the game has ever seen. Regardless, he deserves all the respect he receives. His mark on baseball and the lives of many young fans and followers, including myself, will never be forgotten and always be appreciated.
Image taken from Yahoo! Sports