Sunday, January 03, 2016

For Hall of Fame-bound Ken Griffey Jr., it all started with the swing
January 1, 2016

The Mariners’ Ken Griffey, Jr. watches a home run fly out of the park. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
The Mariners’ Ken Griffey, Jr. watches a home run fly out of the park. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Let’s start with the swing.

Ken Griffey Jr. would prove to be so much more complicated than that isolated aspect of his life, of course. But when you think back on the career that on Wednesday will propel him into the Hall of Fame, it was the swing, a flawless product of both heredity and hard work, that made all the rest possible.

Jim Lefebvre, Griffey’s first manager with the Mariners in 1989, called it a beautiful swing, and it was indeed an aesthetic marvel. Edgar Martinez once told me he has a continuous loop in his mind’s eye of Griffey pouncing on a pitch, an imaginary video that will never be erased.

Bobby Valentine described Griffey’s swing as “perfect” in an article from long ago. And he’s not backing off one inch now, five years removed from the last time Griffey wielded a bat in a game, which was two days before he drove off from Seattle, unannounced, and left the major leagues for good.

Remember, we said he was complicated. But his swing, emulated by a generation of wannabe ballplayers, wasn’t. That was the beauty of it; it’s simplicity, the bat (a black Louisville Slugger, 31 ounces, 34 inches) cocked at that familiar angle, hands high, face rapt in concentration yet oddly relaxed.

“I said it, and I still believe it,’’ Valentine says now. “If you need words to go with that, to back up perfection, well … ”

Well, then you’ve missed the point entirely. Let’s let Valentine — who figures he has watched Griffey’s swing in slow-motion hundreds of times and who has put it side by side with the great Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh to compare the fluidity of both — take it from there:

“When people talk about swings, and I’ve been talking about them for the better part of 50 years, the first thing you look for is balance throughout the swing. Probably the way you can recognize balance best is when someone is dancing — when you see rhythm.

“Griffey got into the box, and it almost looked like he was dancing. Even when he had that little hip movement, it looked like a little cha cha cha.

“Once you start your swing, people talk about transferring your weight. I always thought his transfer was impeccable, the way he was able to stride, and have a good stride, and yet stop his weight as he was going forward so he could transfer all that weight to his front foot, get off his back foot, and stay balanced as he translated all that energy to the bat.”

Yes, the swing was the foundation, but all of Griffey’s game seemed touched by a higher power. Before injuries ravaged him, before the fish-bowl life of a superstar tried to suffocate him, he was astonishing in every aspect of the game, including the spirit, passion and yes, joy, with which he played.

“It was like he was playing Wiffle ball in the yard every night,’’ former teammate Harold Reynolds said.

Rusty Kuntz, a 32-year-old Mariners coach in Griffey’s rookie year of 1989, called him the perfect player in a Seattle Times article. The kid — or The Kid, as he was called when he wasn’t being called The Natural — was just 19 then.

More than a quarter century later, Kuntz, like Valentine, is not backing down.

“I could have said that the first time I saw him play in a spring-training game,’’ Kuntz says now with a hearty laugh.

And then, Kuntz, too, was off on a dreamy dissertation of what the personification of baseball perfection — wrapped in a No. 24 jersey with a backward hat and an ever-present smile — looked and felt like.

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