Game Time: Ken Griffey, Jr.: Baseball's Tracy McGrady?
|Not as good as Tom Gordon. Who?|
I'm not here to argue against Junior's case for the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you recall, I'm the guy who said you could easily make a case for Junior making the Hall of Fame if he decided to retire at age 30 instead of rubbing the Brady Bunch tiki statue all over his body and agreeing to be traded to the Cincinnati Reds. And besides, life is too short to be making silly arguments for the sake of silly arguments (although Jay Marriotti is walking, talking evidence that such douchebaggery does result in web hits on your articles).
What I do know is that, as career arcs of the Power Hitters of the Late 90's go, Griffey's might be the most (choose an adjective) impressive/misunderstood/tragic/sobering. In fact, compartmentalizing as such might be the best way to analyze a career that had such clear delineation between meteoric rise and injury-plagued fall.
If you go pull up Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career statistics on baseball-reference.com, the first eleven seasons are a parade of gigantic power numbers, All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves, and four-digit OPS's (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, for non-sabermatricians), with a fair share of bold type (meaning he led the league in a given category) sprinkled in.
After finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting at age 19 (hard to believe now that Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon are the two players who finished ahead of him), Junior's next ten seasons in Seattle all included appearances in the All-Star Game and Gold Gloves. He finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting for the American League seven times, the top 5 five times, and won the award in 1997.
From 1993 through 2000, Griffey averaged 44 home runs per season, and that includes a 1995 season that was shortened to 72 games because of an injury he sustained making a spectacular catch in centerfield. He was the youngest player ever to reach the 300-, 350-, 400-, and 450-home run milestones and appeared to be a virtual lock to surpass Hank Aaron one day as the all-time home run leader. (Ironically, it would become Barry Bonds -- "The Rock" to Griffey's "Stone Cold Steve Austin" as the top two guys in the game in the late `90's -- who would eventually break the record amidst more than his fair share of allegations of PED usage; such allegations Junior managed to remain on the right side of throughout his career.)
Above all else, Griffey made baseball in Seattle "cool." To understand just how terrible the Mariners were from the time of their inception in 1977 until Griffey's arrival in 1989, you probably had to be there. To call the Mariners from 1977 through 1988 the "L.A. Clippers of professional baseball" would almost be a slap in the face to the Clippers. In their first twelve years in existence, the Mariners' high-water marks were fourth place finishes in 1982 and 1987 (in a seven-team AL West); other than that, they finished 6th or 7th in their division in nine of their first twelve seasons, with the high win total coming from the 78-84 juggernaut in 1987 (Ken Phelps, represent yo!)
If Junior hadn't come along in 1989, who knows where the Mariners would be right now or if they would even exist. If Yankee Stadium was the "House That Ruth Built" then for sure Safeco Field is the "House That Junior Built." He put up numbers, but he was also a quasi-pop-culture icon in Seattle and around baseball with the million-dollar smile and the casual "backward hat in batting practice" that became the go-to move for a generation of teenagers and one more thing to bitch about for old school seamheads.
Indeed, Ken Griffey in Seattle, Part One, was something to behold. For a fan base that would consider "winning more than they lose" as progress for their hometown nine, Griffey and the `90's M's delivered that. However, I think sometimes the perception of the 1990's Mariners (a perception in which Junior sliding into home plate in the 1995 ALDS was the cherry on top) is that they delivered more than that...
If the perception that Griffey completely overhauled the image and profile of baseball in Seattle is grounded in both truth and myth, then the truth is in the marketing -- the jerseys, the gear, the new ball park, and the occasional playoff appearance. The myth is based in data, statistics, team-based measurables.
I'm not here to say that Griffey didn't transform the Mariners from perennial losers into something respectable, however, the facts are as follows:
-- In Griffey's eleven seasons in his first Seattle stint, the Mariners made the post-season exactly twice, winning one playoff series (the aforementioned 1995 ALDS). To put that in perspective, during Griffey's time in Seattle from 1989-1999, the Mariners made the playoffs the same number of times as the Baltimore Orioles and one fewer time than the Texas Rangers.
-- From 1989-1999, the Mariners never won more than 90 games in a season; their best record during that timeframe was 90-72 in 1997, and even in the strike-shortened 1995 season when they won their only playoff series, they finished 79-66, an 88-win pace if you extrapolate it out over 162 games.
-- The Mariners actually finished below .500 in six of Griffey's eleven seasons there during the early part of his career. So for a majority of the time, the M's were still a losing team with Griffey, and even when they won they never won big.
-- Perhaps the most eye-opening portion of the Mariners' history page is the four seasons after Griffey was traded to Cincinnati -- from 2000-2003 the Mariners won 91, 116, 93, and 93 games, all higher win totals than any single season of the Griffey Era.
Baseball is a team sport, so I don't raise these stats as a direct damnation of Griffey's legacy, however, the perception that baseball in Seattle went from sad sack to "beast mode" while Griffey was there is wholly inaccurate.