A Dad Casts a Vote for Junior…The Red
Ken Griffey, Jr., became a Hall of Famer today. Because baseball writers are pompous jackwagons, he didn’t become the first unanimous player ever elected to the Hall.
In his prime, Griffey was one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen. He was actually the “five-tool” player that former Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden (aka “he who shall not be named,” aaka “Mr. Leather Pants”) eventually tried to convince Reds fans that players like Adam Dunn Willy Mo Pena were.
A Cincinnati native and the son of a Reds legend, Griffey was exciting, charismatic, a perennial All-Star…and a Seattle Mariner.
Then, somehow it happened. Mr. Leather Pants traded two guys we Reds fans didn’t care about (Jake Meyer and Antonio Perez), center fielder of the present and future Mike Cameron and a pitcher we all called Brett Bombko to Seattle for our native son. Junior, like his father before him was a Red. He was going to break Babe Ruth’s home run record in the Reds’ new stadium. He was going to patrol center field for years to come. And the Reds – coming off a 1999 that saw them in a one-game Wild Card playoff with the Mets – were going to be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future.
Instead, the Reds struggled in 2000, finishing 10 games out – although Junior’s numbers weren’t awful. In 2001 the injuries began. And they never seemed to stop. Instead of producing highlights and leading the Reds to glory, Griffey spent most of his time in Cincinnati on the bench collecting fan vitriol. He became “the reason” the Reds weren’t competing for titles. I’ve seen at least one person use his time in Cincinnati as a reason why he shouldn’t have been on every Hall of Fame ballot.
Oddly, it’s Junior’s time in Cincinnati that I will remember him most fondly for.
I had grown up on the Big Red Machine Reds teams of the ‘70s. I could recite their everyday lineup at 3-years-old. Until I turned 11 or so I had wanted to be Johnny Bench when I grew up. I had a Bench T-shirt jersey. Reds baseball dominated my every thought all summer. It was the thing I loved most in the world.
In 2000, my older son turned 3-years-old, and Griffey eventually became his Johnny Bench. I’m not exactly certain what sent him down that path, but I’m sure he was nudged. Whatever started it, Griffey became his obsession. He had a Junior jersey T-shirt we would occasionally have to peel off of him to wash. He would wake up every morning and ask me what Junior had done the night before. We’d go over the numbers, and when we picked him up from day care his teachers would tell us about how our son had regaled them with tales of Junior’s triumphs or struggles.
The Reds became our first shared love. Like baseball has for decades, and as I’d guess Bench and the Big Red Machine did for me and my dad, Junior in a Reds uniform connected generations. Junior’s injuries were heartbreaking for me beyond being a fan. Not only did they rob baseball fans of years of one of the game’s brightest stars and Reds fans of dreamed of titles, but they took away mine and my son’s morning ritual.
My son and I still love the Reds. We’ve cheered and mumbled about teams since then. We texted each other lyrics from Reds Hooded Sweatshirt after wins in 2012. But no player ever captured his imagination the way Junior did. He inspired in my son a love of the sport that kept him playing for as long as he possibly could.
There’s no doubt that on the field the Junior era in Cincinnati failed to live up to our lofty hopes. When the trade was announced, I planned to celebrate records and playoff runs for years to come. None of those things materialized. But that trade did give me more than I ever imagined it could, something I never thought of when it happened and something I wouldn’t trade for any number of playoff games. And if that was all there was, Junior would have gotten my Hall of Fame vote.