Ken Griffey, Jr. is a Hall of Famer. He’s been an unquestioned, first-ballot Hall of Famer in spirit for a decade now. He fits every description of Hall of Famer, from the performance standards to the literal use of the word "fame." He saved baseball in the Pacific Northwest, and he almost certainly created millions of young fans in a sport that will always need them. He received 99.3 percent of the Hall of Fame vote. The other .7 percent of the voters are, at this very second, talking to someone who wants them to go away.
Griffey, Jr. was, at the end of his career, not a very productive baseball player. Of outfielders who collected more than 3,000 plate appearances after turning 30, he was probably less valuable than Ron Gant, Jim Eisenreich, Randy Winn, his dad, and Coco Crisp. You might think this is included as contrast, as a way to pump the brakes on that first paragraph. That’s not true. It’s included to highlight just how much transcendent baseball he packed into the first half of his career. The only way to reconcile the idea of "Hall of Famer" with "only intermittently valuable after turning 30" is to acknowledge that Griffey packed about two Hall of Fame careers into his first 13 seasons.
Everyone in a major league uniform is someone who clawed their way from underneath a pile of bodies, only to realize the only thing waiting for them was another pile of bodies to claw out of. This happens five or six times over several years, leaving only the special players at the top of the pile that’s on top of the piles. They’re the ones who were much better than their teammates in high school and college and Class-A and Triple-A. Calling them elite baseball players probably undersells it.
Now imagine a kid, the literal Kid, showing up a few months after algebra and being better at everything than just about every player alive. There’s no WAR for just how a player can capture the imagination, sonny, so pay attention. This is a 19-year-old gliding, smiling, swinging, being, and he’s doing it all better than millions of baseball fans have ever seen. Not everyone was at the Polo grounds in 1956. Not everyone got to see Mickey Mantle before life intervened. They had Ken Griffey, Jr., though, and they knew exactly what that meant.
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Ken Griffey is the reason there’s a Safeco Field, the reason there’s baseball in Seattle at all. That’s not something I can prove, but after talking to a dozen Mariners fans, more than two-thirds of them claimed it as an irrefutable fact.
It’s hard to disagree. Here are the first 12 seasons of the Mariners:
1977 - .395 winning percentage, 1.3 million attendance (15th out of 26 MLB teams)
1978 - .350 winning percentage, 877,000 attendance (23rd)
1979 - .414 winning percentage, 844,000 attendance (24th)
1980 - .364 winning percentage, 836,000 attendance (25th)
1981 - .404 winning percentage, 636,000 attendance (24th)
1982 - .469 winning percentage, 1.1 million attendance (23rd)
1983 - .370 winning percentage, 813,000 attendance (25th)
1984 - .457 winning percentage, 870,000 attendance (24th)
1985 - .457 winning percentage, 1.1 million attendance (22nd)
1986 - .414 winning percentage, 1 million attendance (25th)
1987 - .481 winning percentage, 1.1 million attendance (25th)
1988 - .422 winning percentage, 1 million attendance (25th)
There was never a honeymoon period. The team was dreadful, and the Kingdome wasn’t much of a place to watch a bad team, considering it was built by Boeing to house experimental aircraft the size of a small town. I can’t find proof on the internet, but you can see how it’s probably true. The Mariners never finished dead last in attendance, but they were second to last in five of their first 12 seasons. In their very best season, they finished in fourth place with a 78-84 record. They had already lost one baseball team, and they probably weren’t too scared to lose another.
The team sold after the 1988 season to a rich dude from Indianapolis.
Ken Griffey, Jr. showed up the following season.
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I presented a hypothetical situation to a dozen Mariners fans. They could keep Griffey, keep the memories of him in his prime, remember what it was like to have a player that special. Or they could trade it all in for a 2001 Mariners championship. Instead of 116 wins turning into a postseason cautionary tale, the only American League franchise never to win a pennant would win the whole thing. All the Griffey memories would be replaced with ticker-tape parades, with Edgar Martinez and John Halama waving to the excited throngs.
If baseball ordered drafts by record, like they do now, instead of alternating leagues and first-overall picks every year for no good reason, Griffey would have played center for the Pirates, with Barry Bonds in left. Allow that to happen, and the 2001 Mariners win the World Series.
Hardly anyone took that trade.
Nathan Bishop from Lookout Landing:
Before the Seahawks won a Super Bowl, I would have said yes. But, while I cherish the memory of the Seattle's only major championship in my lifetime, nothing compares to your first childhood hero. Give me Griffey.
Meg Rowley of Baseball Prospectus:
It's hard to imagine there being baseball in Seattle without Griffey. Not winning baseball -- men playing the game of *baseball baseball.* And him being this irrepressible fount of cool is hard to let go of. I think a Mariners team can win someday. Those memories are out there for us. Replacing the guy who made me love baseball? That's a rough trade.
Patrick Dubuque of Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Hardball Times:
Championships are bullshit. They’re the clumsy teenage sex of sports, a 15-minute-break whippet in the back room of a dead-end coffee shop job. They’re Six Flags, parking lot and all. Give me the iconic swing, so pure I don’t think about what happened to the ball. Give me the everyday. Griffey didn’t need championships to be Griffey. Why would I?
Jose Rivera of Lookout Landing:
I would not trade our Griffey memories because — other than their "Refuse to Lose" playoff run in 1995 — it's all we have, honestly. Also, if you take away our Jr. memories, I don't think the city of Seattle has a baseball team by the time 2001 comes around. (The ol' butterfly effect coming into play here.) The end.
Christopher Crawford from Baseball Prospectus:
I wouldn't trade the memories of Griffey for a championship in 2001 or any other year. The thing is, there is no 2001 Mariners without Griffey. They're the Tampa Bay Mariners, or the San Jose Mariners. Not only was Griffey one of the most enjoyable to watch players in Seattle sports history, he played at a time that was critical to keeping the franchise afloat. 2001 was great, Griffey was greater.
Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs is an oblivious man-child who missed out on the greatest Griffey memories, so he was the only ghoul who contemplated the swap. But he also noted that he wouldn’t trade Felix Hernandez, his personal Griffey, for a single championship memory, saying ...
I don't think winning the World Series is the point.
That’s kind of the thesis of the article. For years and years, decade after decade, I was convinced that championships most certainly were the point. Flags fly forever. My mom watched Willie McCovey growing up, and I watched Will Clark and Barry Bonds, but where was the closure? Would there ever be a way to ignore the gaping void?
Ken Griffey, Jr. was his own dynasty. He was the greatest gift ever given to a franchise that’s been much richer than you think. He built baseball in a city, and he kept it there. Watching him pull apart space and time to do what he did on a baseball field was a ticker-tape parade almost every day.
You’ll hear this kind of talk with how the Angels are "wasting" Mike Trout. They’re not wasting him. He’s right there. Go watch him. It’s amazing. The same applies to Griffey as much as it’s applied to any player in modern baseball history.
An aside: One of my favorite things about Griffey is that when he left, he was basically Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, except instead of sitting on him, the Mariners got to watch Mike Cameron in his prime, too.
There are baseball players with more career home runs. There are players who racked up more WAR. There are players who contributed to championships, some of them over and over again. There are players who remained great for 20 years instead of just a dozen, and there are players who stayed healthy and productive throughout their 30s. But if you focus on any of that, you’re missing the point. People are going to treat Griffey like he’s on the inner circle of the Hall of Fame’s inner circle, and it might not make sense to some statistically minded folks.
It’s where he belongs, though. Griffey was one of the most amazing players of my lifetime, and that’s looking from the outside in. If you were actually there, though, watching it as it happened, invested in what he was doing for the Seattle Mariners and baseball in general, you might want to rename it the Ken Griffey Presents Ken Griffey’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, Featuring Ken Griffey (and Special Guest Stars).
I cannot argue with that logic. Neither should you.