Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame Career
As of July 24, 2016, there will only be 312 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. To put that number into perspective, since 1871 there have been 18,477 men to put on a Major League Baseball uniform. Of those 18,477 men, only 1.6% have earned immortalization via a plaque in Cooperstown, NY. Of that 1.6%, one man stands higher than the rest.
With 99.3% of the BBWAA vote (437/440), the highest vote percentage of all-time, George Kenneth Griffey Jr., known by many simply as “Junior”, was officially recognized as the greatest player who ever put on a Major League Baseball uniform.
Chosen as the first overall pick in the 1987 Amateur Draft by the Seattle Mariners, Junior made his MLB debut on April 3, 1989. Facing Oakland A’s staff ace Dave Stewart, Junior doubled in his first major league plate appearance. With that first appearance, and the 11,303 that followed, Junior not only lived up to the lofty expectations that preceded him into the league, he surpassed them.
Kingdome to Cooperstown
Junior became the face of the Mariners, and all of Major League Baseball, during his first eleven seasons. Those years brought him ten consecutive Gold Glove awards in centerfield (1990-1999), ten consecutive All-Star Game appearances (1990-1999), and seven Silver Slugger awards (1991, ’93, ’94, ’96, ’97-’99). He also led the American League in home runs four times, including three consecutive seasons (1994, 1997-1999).
In six of his eleven seasons in Seattle, he had 40+ home runs (’93, ’94, ’96, ’97, ‘8, ’99). But the piece de resistance was his 1997 season, arguably one of the greatest seasons ever by an individual player. Griffey’s take home at the end was his one and only MVP award. He batted .304 and slugged .646, hit a career-high fifty-six home runs (he tied that amount the following season), and set another career-high with 147 RBI, all while leading his team to a division title.
Much to the chagrin of an entire city, February of 2000 saw his departure from Seattle. Wanting to be closer to his family, in particularly his children, Junior was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He spent nine seasons with the Reds, but was never able to bring the same magic he once had in Seattle. He touched forty home runs in just one season with the Reds (2000), and the decline of his offense was seen as being directly related to his inability to stay healthy.
In a time when baseball saw players who never seemed to age or injure due to the increased usage of PEDs, Junior was seen as “The Natural”, as he was sometimes called. Not once was he tied to any sort of PED use. Despite the back end of his career being plagued with injury, Junior was elected to three more All-Star games (’00, ’04, ’07), and won NL Comeback Player of the Year for the 2005 season.
After nine seasons, Junior left Cincinnati for one season with the Chicago White Sox, where he only played in forty-one games. The White Sox declined his option in 2008, and for the first time in his career, Junior was a free agent. On February 18, 2009, it was announced that the prodigal son would be returning to Seattle. Junior finished out his career in the city where it all started. On May 20, 2010, in his final plate appearance, facing Toronto Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg, Junior hit a walk-off single to help the Mariners win one last time.
In a career that spanned twenty-two seasons, Junior emerged as one of MLB’s most exciting players, as well as one of the game’s most prolific hitters. He finished his career with 630 home runs (6th all-time) and 1,836 RBI (15th all-time). In retirement, Junior was inducted into both the Mariners and the Reds Hall of Fame. While still playing in 1999, he was voted by the fans as one of nine outfielders on the MLB All-Century Team.
The Mariners, in conjunction with his Baseball Hall of Fame induction, will retire his #24 on August 6, 2016. Junior transcended the game; he got people excited about baseball again. His million-dollar swing, and his million-dollar smile, helped bring baseball back from the dead after the 1994 strike. He kept an entire generation of fans enthralled. It’s only fitting that the game give everything it can back to a player who gave everything he had to the game. First-ballot entry into the Hall is a good place to start.