By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Updated: June 9, 2008
Ken Griffey Jr.of the Cincinnati Reds hits his 600th career home run against the Florida Marlins in the first inning at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida. Griffey became just the sixth player in Major League Baseball history to hit 600 career home runs on Monday with a two-run shot off Florida Marlins hurler Mark Hendrickson.
(AFP/Getty Images/Eliot J. Schechter)
We knew 20 years ago, when he was 19 and skinny, that an achievement of this magnitude was possible. The signs were everywhere. Ken Griffey Jr. was the son of a major leaguer, he was from Stan Musial's hometown, Donora, Pa., he says he never struck out in a high school game and he was the Seattle Mariners' No. 1 pick in the June 1987 draft.
Now he is 38 and thick, he wears Babe Ruth's No. 3, not Willie Mays' No. 24 as he did in those early seasons. He plays right field now, not center field. He doesn't scale fences like he used to and he doesn't smile as often as he used to. But nonetheless, in the first inning Monday night at Florida against Mark Hendrickson, he joined Ruth, Mays, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Sammy Sosa in the most exclusive and prestigious club in sports, the 600 Home Run Club.
"I was there in his prime," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who managed Griffey in Seattle. "He was special. And he was fun to watch."
It was clear right away that he was special. Only days after Griffey signed with the Mariners, he came to Seattle and took batting practice with the major league club before a game.
"I've seen it before when a No. 1 draft pick comes to the big club right after he's drafted, and the kid is nervous, he gets in the cage, pops up a bunch of balls, swings and misses at a couple because he's trying to hit it so high and so far because he doesn't feel like he belongs," said Scott Bradley, who is Princeton's baseball coach, and a former teammate of Griffey during 1989-92. "That wasn't the case with Junior. He got in the cage, and he was kind of carrying on a conversation with the media while he was hitting. The first 25 swings, he just hit line drives to left field. He didn't overswing one time. Then he hit balls up the middle. Then he took a break, came back loose, and started hitting balls into the seats. I looked at [veteran Mariners] Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis and said, 'It looks like he belongs.'"
After two seasons in the minor leagues, none above the Double-A level, another clear sign came.
"When he came to camp in 1989, he had no chance to make the team," Bradley said. "But he got a lot of at-bats early that spring because a lot of veterans don't like to play a lot early. After 20 games, he wasn't just the best player on our team, he was the best player in the league that spring. The Mariners basically said, 'We don't want this to happen, we don't want to rush him, we don't want him to make the team.' So they started running him out there against every elite pitcher, against all the nastiest left-handers they could find in hopes that he would stop hitting, and they could send him out. It never happened."
He made the club as a 19-year-old, the youngest player on an Opening Day roster that season. In his first at-bat at the Seattle Kingdome, he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw from the White Sox's Eric King. Griffey went on to hit 16 home runs that season -- in baseball history, only Tony Conigliaro and Mel Ott hit more homers as teenagers.
Griffey started the All-Star Game in his second season, then the third youngest player ever to do that. Almost as memorable in 1990 were the back-to-back home runs that he and his father hit against the Angels' Kirk McCaskill, a first in baseball history, and likely to also be the last. In 1993, Griffey hit a home run in eight consecutive games, tying the record held by Dale Long and Don Mattingly. During 1997-98, he joined Babe Ruth as then the only American League players (Alex Rodriguez has joined that club) to hit 50 home runs in back-to-back seasons. When he hit 50 for the first time, he joined Mays as then the only players ever to win a Gold Glove in a season in which they hit 50. In 1999, he became the first American League player since Harmon Killebrew to lead the league in home runs three seasons in a row.
"His swing," former Oriole Brady Anderson said, "is absolutely perfect."
Griffey had the amazing ability for a young hitter to see, react and hit the breaking ball if it stayed in the strike zone for too long. As he grew as a hitter by developing his opposite field power and still maintaining his pull power, the huge home run seasons came. He was then the youngest player to reach 300, 350, 400 and 450 home runs. He was named to the All-Century team when he was 29 and he was named the Player of the Decade for the 1990s. When he was 31, he was a legitimate threat to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs. The projections were for 800 home runs, nothing could stop him.
"The first time I saw him was in Arizona for spring training," Piniella said. "He would hit these towering fly balls that would carry and carry, and go out of the ballpark. I just figured it was the thin air in Arizona. Then he kept hitting those towering fly balls wherever we went, and I realized it wasn't the thin air, it was him. And it was so effortless."
When the Reds traded for Griffey before the 2000 season, bringing him home to Cincinnati in a trade that left Mariners fans wanting and angry, it seemed inevitable that Griffey would break Aaron's record as a member of the Reds. On the day of the trade, then Reds general manager Jim Bowden called Griffey "the Michael Jordan of baseball." That first season in Cincinnati, he hit 40 home runs and drove in 118 runs.
Cincinnati Reds' Ken Griffey Jr., smiles in the dugout before the start of a baseball game against the Florida Marlins Monday, June 9, 2008 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Then the story began to change. Four seasons in a row, Griffey suffered a major injury, limiting him to 111, 70, 53 and 83 games played, respectively. When he finally got to 500 home runs in 2004, everyone knew, that without the injuries, 500 might have been 600. The following three seasons, he missed another 105 games. We all realize that with better health, the 600 he just reached would have been 700.
But Griffey is far from done as a power hitter. There are still homers to hit, and milestones to reach. He could become the third player ever, joining Ty Cobb and Rusty Staub, to hit a home run as a teenager and as a 40-year-old. He could join Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson and Willie McCovey as the only players to hit home runs in four different decades and he could become the first player to hit 300 home runs for two different teams.
It is easy to look at 600 and wonder what might have been with improved health. But it is easier and more fun to remember Griffey at his best, a wondrous athlete who streaked through the outfield, climbed an outfield wall and made a catch that only Mays could make, then the next inning, hit a ball to places that very few players could reach. Six hundred home runs is a tremendous milestone, but Griffey at 100, 200, 300 and 400 was simply breathtaking.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.