Ken Griffey is the greatest baseball player I ever saw play. And for that reason, he is my favorite non Red Sox player of all time.
I already wrote how I believe Barry Bonds was the greatest offensive force I ever saw in my life. I stand by that.
But Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime was the greatest player I ever saw.
So naturally, the one chance I ever got to talk to him, I asked him the single stupidest question anyone has ever asked Ken Griffey Jr. Don’t bother challenging me. I get the blue ribbon.
The year was 1989. I was reading Baseball America for the first time in my life, trying to see if I could follow prospects. I read that the Mariners had used the number one pick a in 1987. I was living in Palo Alto and I saw he was doing well with the San Bernadino Spirit of the California League.
The Spirit were playing the San Jose Giants just about 30 minutes from our house. I convinced my dad to go to a SJ Giants game and see if Ken Griffey’s kid was any good.
He was as good as advertised. If my memory serves, and it sometimes comes up short, he hit a pair of triples and threw out a baserunner from centerfield who rounded second base too widely.
My dad and I had our eyes wide open during the game. He was only 18 years old but it was so clear that he was playing on a different level than any of his teammates.
A few of his teammates, like Dave Burba and Jeff Nelson, would make it to the majors. But most of them, including Cowboy Helton and E. B. Bryant never got the call.
After the game, I had my copy of Baseball America handy and wanted to catch up with Griffey. To understand what I mean by that, at San Jose Municipal Stadium, the players walked out of the same exit as the fans do.
So you got to see the crowd filing through a series of doors next to players in uniform. The visiting team would file onto a bus heading to the team hotel.
I saw Griffey, said hello and asked if he could sign my copy of Baseball America, which featured his picture.
I was 16 at the time. He was 18. It was hardly a little kid talking to Mean Joe Greene moment in that Coke commercial moment. But he seemed so much older than me.
As he was signing it, I asked him the stupidest question and I felt so stupid, I wanted to turn back time at that moment. It was my Jennifer Gray holding the watermelon moment.
“Are you Ken Griffey’s son?”
Think about that. Even if you knew NOTHING about Ken Griffey Jr. except his name, you should be able to deduct what his dad’s name is.
And I asked as if his paternal lineage was in question.
Now in my pitiful defense, I was trying to broach the topic about his dad, a player I saw play a bunch and admired. I couldn’t figure out how to broach that topic.
So I asked Ken Griffey Jr. if his father was Ken Griffey Sr.
It is nearly 30 years later and I remained mortified.
Now, here is how cool Ken Griffey Jr. is. He didn’t look at me and tell me to F— off. He said “You ever see clips of the 1975 World Series?”
I said “Yeah.”
“You can see me and my little brother in Reds jackets sitting in the dugout.”
He told me about seeing his dad win the 1976 World Series, made a comment about San Jose being cold. “I thought this was California” and I asked about the current Mariners team with Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis and he said some good things about them.
He smiled, nodded. I thanked him. Then I said “Good luck in Seattle. They need you.”
He smiled the biggest grin and said “I know” and got on the bus.
Ken Griffey Jr. turned my personal mortification into one of my all time coolest baseball memories.
I followed him that year as he made the jump from Single A San Bernadino to Double A Vermont. By Spring Training, 1989, he was expected to go to Triple A Tacoma. Instead he went right to the major leagues.
He doubled in his first at bat and I was thrilled. Griffey was MY guy. Instantly, I started following the Mariners almost as closely as I followed the Red Sox and the Giants in 1989. (Keep in mind the Giants won the pennant in 1989.)
That year, I got ballot after ballot for the All Star Game and wrote Griffey’s name on every one of them. I wanted to help get him into the Mid Season Classic.
He didn’t get in that year but after that, he didn’t need my help. He would be named to 13 All Star Teams, win 10 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Sluggers, an All Star Game MVP, the American League MVP and slid home in the single greatest moment in Seattle baseball history, ending the 1995 Division Series for the Mariners.
His 630 lifetime homers is made even more remarkable when you consider he was on the disabled list for a gigantic chunk of his final 10 years in the majors.
And I can not tell for sure if he took PEDs or not, but his health and productivity did not suddenly skyrocket in his 30’s nor did his body alter. And if people take PEDs to come back from injuries, if Griffey was taking them, he was taking lousy ones.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in a damn near unanimous vote. Even his injury plagued seasons in Cincinnati and his less than stellar cameo with the White Sox could slow down his Cooperstown run.
Griffey was fun. He looked like he was playing a game. He played along side his dad, as I wrote before, which honored both of their legacies. He had a flair for the dramatic and his prime was a sight to behold.
I never saw Mays, Aaron, Musial, Williams or Ruth. I saw Griffey and I don’t feel cheated.
I was a fan before it was cool, but not before HE was cool.
He gave a 16 year old Sully more respect than I earned by asking him the dumbest question anyone ever asked him.