Produce great men, the rest follows

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

—Walt Whitman

1

When Ken Griffey Jr. batted second for the Seattle Mariners on April 3, 1989, in a game against the defending American League champion A’s at Oakland, he did something that nobody had ever done. Griffey became the first player in big-league history to be born after me.

Although this is of no consequence to the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants (n – 1, I’m guessing), the fact that said player has retired from the game is a bit sobering. When Griffey made his debut, I was a young man who felt proudly older by virtue of his arrival.

Now that he has left the game, I am… if not an old man, then a man who has come to redefine the concepts of young and old. Everything is relative to my experience of it. That hardly makes me unique; Whitman was right when he expressed similar sentiments, which doubtless were intended to apply not only to himself but to everyone else.

Philosophical meanderings aside, Griffey is a player no more, and that—to borrow from one of Whitman’s predecessors—diminishes me. Donne was speaking of physical death, but Griffey in a way symbolizes the passing of my youth. His life and mine are inextricably intertwined, and yet we are anonymous to each other… Well, that’s not quite right; I know of his accomplishments, although it is still accurate to say I do not know the man.

I am speaking gibberish, although I suspect that some of you understand my words. If not—if the first player in big-league history to be born after you is still playing—well, now you have something to look forward to, don’t you?

2

Griffey doubled in his first at-bat, off former Cy Young Award winner Dave Stewart. In case you were wondering, Griffey would hit 523 more in his career, with Scott Erickson and Roger Clemens both coughing up seven.

Everyone thinks about home runs. Griffey hit plenty of those, too, but someone must remember the doubles.

3

In 1988, while playing for the San Bernardino Spirit, Griffey hit .338 with 11 homers and 32 stolen bases in 58 games. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Baseball America named him its Single-A Player of the Year.

So. What were you doing when you were 18 years old?

4

I had an opportunity to see Griffey play that summer. San Bernardino lay 73 miles to the east of my mother’s house as the Google maps, but to answer my own question, I wasn’t doing much when I was 18 years old. Not driving an hour to watch a future Hall of Famer, anyway.

I would wait a decade to see Griffey in person.

5

In 1997, MLB instituted interleague play. This created wonderful rivalries. The Yankees and Mets have the Subway Series, so named because it appeals to people who ride the New York subways. The Dodgers and Angels have the Freeway Series, which appeals to people who ride the Los Angeles freeways.

The Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres were anointed “natural rivals” but no name was assigned because, frankly, nobody cared. I call it the Selig Series because, as far as I can tell, it appeals to Bud Selig alone.

Snark aside, Selig’s decision did bring the Mariners to San Diego once a year. With the Mariners came Griffey, then a brilliant player in his prime (he would hit 56 homers, win AL MVP, and cure the common cold that year) and my wife’s favorite. Due to circumstances I can not recall (another joy of aging), we were unable to attend the first Selig Series in ’97.

The next season, however, we made it to the June 24, 1998, contest. We sat in the second row of the field level, opposite the edge of the infield grass on the first-base side, at San Diego/Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium.

Beyond the fact that the view from those seats was spectacular, I don’t remember much from the game. Two things stick with me, though. The first is watching Randy Johnson wrap around from first to third on a Joey Cora single off Andy Ashby. It seemed like Johnson got there in about four strides.

(As a meaningless but amusing aside, Johnson was acquired by the Mariners in a trade for Mark Langston, who started and lost for Seattle in Griffey’s debut. When Griffey and the Mariners came to San Diego in ’98, Langston was nearing the end of his distinguished career, working out of the bullpen for the Padres. Everything is connected.)

The other thing that sticks with me is Griffey’s performance. In the ninth inning, he hit his 30th homer of the season, but that’s not what I remember. As I said, everyone thinks about home runs.

What I remember about Griffey’s night happened earlier, in his first trip to the plate. He drew a walk off Ashby, but that’s not important.

Earlier in the plate appearance, Griffey swung at and missed a pitch. The bat slipped from his hands and flew into the stands above the first-base dugout, a section or two over from us. He glanced in that direction and winced, as players will do when such things happen, then stepped back into the box to finish receiving his base on balls.

When Griffey got to first base, he looked in the stands. He found the person who had been struck by the errant bat and yelled out, “Are you OK?” I didn’t see the fan respond, but apparently Griffey did, as he waved and flashed that infectious smile (never mind how a smile infects; like the walk, it’s not important, and besides, he probably cured that infection, too).

6

I said earlier that I do not know the man. Maybe not, but I might have an idea.

7

According to Baseball America’s 1989 Almanac, Griffey “provided the Spirit franchise with national publicity before his midseason promotion to Double-A.” The Scouting Report: 1990 called Griffey a “future superstar,” noting that:

Griffey’s rookie season was all anyone could have expected. He wasn’t overawed by being in the major leagues and showed more than enough to indicate a very big future… He can do it all on the field and has the charisma a great player needs. The Mariners have put together what some call the most potentially dangerous outfield of the ’90s, both offensively and defensively. Ken Griffey, Jr. is its nucleus.

(The other outfielders, if you’re interested, were Greg Briley and Jay Buhner. One of them, Buhner, enjoyed a fine career of his own. He also played in the first minor-league game I ever attended, Opening Day 1987 between Buhner’s Columbus Clippers and the Maine Guides at Old Orchard Beach. Everything is connected.)

8

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Griffey No. 7 all time among center fielders. James offers little in the way of commentary.

I have old issues of Baseball America lying around in the garage, but I’m not sure how far back they go and I don’t feel like kicking up a bunch of dust just now… I did find a copy of Bill Mazeroski’s Baseball ’92 on one of my bookshelves:

His only enemy is impatience, which shows when he falls behind a lefthander and chases breaking balls in the dirt. As he goes on, Junior could evolve into a 30-homer man.

Griffey’s career totals to that point were .299/.367/.479 (134 OPS+). His high in home runs was 22, so 30 a year was hardly a given. That said, he had more homers in his career by age 21 than did Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, among many others.

Everyone thinks about home runs. Who am I to fight the tide?

Griffey was selected with the first pick overall in the 1987 draft. He didn’t quite outhomer the rest of the first round, but he came close. The other 31 guys beat him, 732-630. He did outhomer the next three players from that round with the highest totals, 630-594:
{exp:list_maker}Griffey, 630
Craig Biggio, 291
Travis Fryman, 223
Delino DeShields, 80 {/exp:list_maker}9

Many people will remember Griffey for many reasons. I could assault you with a barrage of numbers and facts that describe his achievements, but again, these are easy to find. It doesn’t take much effort to realize that Griffey was a great player, one of the best of my or any generation.

But none of that matters to me. Because now, all I can think of when I think of Griffey is him asking, “Are you OK?” I’d love to tell him yes, yes I am, so I can see him wave and smile one more time.

If he’s not sure where to look for me, he can try my garage. Seems I’ve got a stack full of newspapers in there that need reading. Or, as Whitman would say:

Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Or, as he would also say:

I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game.

Everything is connected.

References & Resources
“Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman
Baseball America’s 1989 Almanac, Allan Simpson, ed.
The Scouting Report: 1990, STATS, Inc./John Dewan, ed.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
Bill Mazeroski’s Baseball ’92
Baseball-Reference

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Comments

  1. Luis said...

    I remember when George Brett retired in much the same way. Brett was the first great player who came up when I was of the same age as he. He is a tad older than I, but the feeling was the same. Well written. Tempus fugit.

  2. kevin said...

    I’m the same age as Shea Stadium, so when I went to the decrepit ballpark in August 2008 for a last visit, I got a creepy sense of my mortality.

    Your comments are worthy of Josh Wilker (“Cardboard Gods”)—and I mean that as high praise.

  3. Northern Rebel said...

    Don’t feel bad, geoff.

    I now have the dubious distinction of having a communist “President” of the United States, that is younger than I am.

    At least it could have been one that actually loves America.

    At least Junior loved baseball.

  4. Dave Studeman said...

    Wonderful column, Geoff. Thank you.  Reminds me of when Dennis Eckersley—the last major leaguer to be older than me—retired.  It was a shock to the system.

  5. Bobby Mueller said...

    I remember at the end of Griffey’s rookie year when I looked at the Mariners’ statistics and saw this:

    Griffey—506 PA, 61 R, 16 HR, 61 RBI, .264/.329/.420

    Greg Briley—444 PA, 52 R, 13 HR, 52 RBI, .266/.336/.442

    In my naivete I wondered what the big deal with Griffey was.  Briley was just as good, maybe even better.

    Of course, Griffey was 19 and would go on to much bigger and better things.  Briley was 24 and this was his peak.

  6. John M Barten said...

    I have a similar age-related relationship with Kevin Garnett, who is four months younger than me. It was a shock to the system when he ended up in the NBA.

  7. Geoff Young said...

    Thanks, all, for the kind words. They are much appreciated.

    @Luis: Brett was always a favorite of mine. I was just starting to follow baseball the year he chased .400.

    @Kevin: Any comparison to Josh Wilker is fine by me. Glad you enjoyed.

    @Studes: I’m down to six guys. I’ve become a big fan of Jamie Moyer and Tim Wakefield.

    @Bobby: Rest assured, you were not alone in liking Briley too much. Oh, the names of players I’ve thought would be great… hmmm, that sounds like a future article.

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