When you go around and ask every kid between the ages of 8-until whenever, they will always have a role model, a hero, or at least someone they have always credited as the one they looked up to or still look up to.
I was born in 1986, so this person has to be at least 40 and closer to 50 obviously. In 1992, it was the first ever time I can recall watching sports. It was baseball. I played in little-league, but that was only because every boy my age did.
That didn't automatically mean that I watched or even knew what Major League Baseball was.
I knew the Phillies, only through my dad, who was a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan and tried everyday to get me to sit down and watch a ballgame. I was six. One night watching television, SportsCenter was on and I just so happen to keep it on.
Normally I'd change the channel. A highlight came on featuring the Seattle Mariners. Now, here's my initial thought: Who in the heck are the Seattle Mariners, and where's Seattle?
That notwithstanding, I was watching the highlight and saw this guy absolutely smash a home run into the upper deck of the Kingdome. I was mesmerized by the height, and length of the blast.
I heard the announcer say the name: Ken Griffey, Jr. He was the star player of the Mariners, and one of the best ballplayers in all of baseball.
The most intriguing part of this whole thing, was 'the swing'. It was the most beautiful, picture-perfect, and effortless swing I can ever recall seeing. To this day, nobody can top the swing of Junior.
He is one of the most prolific home run hitters and defensive players in baseball history. His defense in center field (also my position) was simply spectacular, like a broadway extravaganza.
After I began watching more and more of Junior, I became a major baseball buff. I started asking my father to take me to see the Phillies at Veterans Stadium. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to see Griffey due to geographical difference and completely separate leagues, so why not go and root for the home team?
Baseball soon became my life source. It was all I talked about, no matter what the conversation was I included baseball, Griffey Jr.
I still didn't know too much about the guy. All I knew was that he was one of the best players in the game, he played center field, and he had the most gorgeous swing I and the world had ever seen.
His impressive range allowed frequent spectacular diving plays, and he often dazzled fans with over-the-shoulder basket catches and robbed opposing hitters of home runs by leaping up and pulling them back into the field of play.
I started realizing over the next couple years or so that he meant a lot to the game and to myself. I continued to play baseball everyday during PAL leagues and throughout the summer. I always wanted to be Junior. I had to bat, throw, run, and swing like him. To this day, I still wear every hat I have backwards because of Griffey.
I grew up in a small town so everyone knew who I idolized. It might have gotten annoying at some points because of the infatuation I had for the Mariners center fielder. He was the sole reason I got into baseball and how it took over my youth, and continued to today.
I found out later on how great he really was later, stats wise. I was 11 years old when 1997 came around. Here is what his resume was up to that point:
- 1997 American League MVP- .304-56hr-147RBI.
- 8x Gold Glove winner in CF (1990-1997)
- 8x AL All-Star in CF (1990-1997) '92 All-Star MVP
- 5x Silver Slugger Award Winner (1991, 1993, 1994, '96-97)
- Won three home run derbys.
It was amazing the stats this 'kid' put up. At that point baseball had never seen a guy that dominated the award sheet like him at such a young age. He did all that before the age of 28. He was named to the All-Century Team in 1999.
Junior was the youngest player to ever hit 150, 200, 250, 300 home runs. At many points during his career, Junior was the one guy who the media and fans could actually say would break Hank Aaron's home run record of 755 home runs. But, when leaving Seattle and arriving in Cincinnati, that hope for millions and dream of mine quickly got shot down.
Griffey spent nine seasons in Cincinnati, and most were injury riddled, and frustrating ones. Still, I never gave up on my favorite athlete. Every chance I had to watch him, I did and cheered. I attended every game that the Reds played in Philadelphia. Every game I went to I wore my Griffey jersey with a Phillies hat.
Although it might have been like cheating on someone, to me it was paying homage to one of the most important pieces of my childhood and life.
I reached out a few friends of mine who I grew up and played baseball with. I wanted their thoughts on Griffey and what he meant to not just me, but to them as well.
Kyle Barone (one of my best friends, long time Griffey fan): "I became a fan of Ken Griffey Jr in the early 90s. I want to say I first saw him through my love of collecting baseball cards. Living on the east coast we never got to see a lot of west coast teams so we had to learn about those players through baseball cards.
Once ESPN became more popular, we got to see the highlights of this kid in Seattle. I became even more of a fan when I got to see him daily on Sportscenter. What's not to love about the guy? He was the coolest player in the game. From the backwards hat, Nike cleats, and that iconic swing. Every boy around my age tried to mimic that swing. Whether it was t-ball, little league or wiffleball, you could see that swing on the field.
I have wore a baseball hat probably 90% of my days on this planet and it was, is and always will be backwards because of Griffey.
His on field play is another reason why I love him. Even though I sucked at baseball, I always enjoyed watching the game and he was the best player in it. He was a great on and off field role model who was never in the news in a negative way and always played the game as hard as he could.
Even though I was born and raised in New Jersey right outside of Philly, Ken Griffey Jr. is hands down not only my favorite baseball player, but my favorite athlete ever. He was my childhood hero and I will always look back on when I was a kid and how happy I got whenever I pulled a Griffey card out of a fresh pack or when I saw that sweet swing belt a baseball into the stands."
Jim Capparelli (Teammate, and friend of mine): "How can one describe baseball during the 1990's? Do you start with baseballs great hitting barrage, the exceptional pitching of the Atlanta Braves, or how about Cal Ripken's incredible consecutive game streak?
For millennials like myself growing up and learning the game during this period has helped develop fond memories of our childhood.
Who can forget the incredible run of the Philadelphia Phillies during the 1993 season or that defining roar of Yankee stadium during the late nineties surge that led to three World Series championships.
Although these are all important memories to all of us, none of this compares to the most beautiful left handed swing in major league baseball. I am of course talking about George Kenneth Griffey Jr.
"Junior" as many of my peers called him was instrumental in the growth of all of us as baseball players. I can remember being in little league and being frustrated I was unable to swing left-handed because I wanted to be like "Junior."
This is not uncommon for many children growing up during this time period. Griffey has always played the game the right way and he continues to do that even as he approaches the age of 40.
That beautiful swing, his incredible defense, and his ability to be such a great role-model to millions of children are the reasons I believe he is the most influential baseball player of the last 20 years."
I remember when Griffey had his set of video games that came out for Super Nintendo. I played for hours upon hours. In the game, when Junior batted, it looked as if his feet were together.
So what do I do?
The next Little League game I come up to bat and put my feet together. Why not? I watched Griffey do it in the game. Needless to say, it didn't work out to well with my performance nor my coaches.
My dad emphatically told me that Griffey doesn't do that, so I had to believe him. While my other coach, Mr. Graf, decided to pull me aside and scream at me. Nothing new, as he sounded like my mom on most days because of the hell I probably put him through.
"Your sitting up there, putting your feet together, waving your bat around like I don't know what, don't ever do it again, or you won't bat," Coach Graf said to me.
Needless to say, I never did it again. So what I did was find video of his real batting stance and brought it with me the next game. And, of course, I have never performed with a different batting stance.
Brian Biddle (close friend of mine): "I'm a big fan of Griffey but wouldn't be as big as of one today if I never would have met Chris. I used to like Junior but wasn't really a fan and when I started spending time with Chris and watching his games he was always talking about him. I started to become more and more of a fan.
I started paying attention to him more and really liked what he was all about and what he was doing for the game of baseball. Griffey always had a smile on his face and really enjoyed playing the game.
Although you don't see that smile as much as you used too, probably because he is getting older and the game is getting harder to play he still enjoys playing. It's impressive and it should demand respect more than most because players today are just playing the game to earn a paycheck.
Griffey also held his ground when it came to the media. He would always show up for the media and answer their questions if it was good or bad. Watching Griffey is like watching a work of art in motion, nobody in the history of the game has a sweeter swing then Ken Griffey Jr."
It's amazing to me when I look up Griffey on the internet the impact he had on popular culture. He made video games, he appeared on TV shows, smiled all the time, and wore his cap backwards when all said it was disrespectful to the game. He was a trailblazer for professional sports and he was always humble about it. He just wanted to play 100% every night, play the game he loved, and simply be the best on earth at it.
Junior was a rock star in baseball before during a time that the game needed one. The 1994 strike was detrimental to the league, it lost a lot of fans. Junior was the kind of player that baseball could market around because of his fun-loving persona, and the fact that he could flat-out play the game better than anyone around him for over a decade.
Many say if it weren't for Junior baseball in Seattle wouldn't be a thing in 2019, much less back in 1995-96. T-Mobile Park, formerly Safeco Field, is widely considered the 'House that Griffey built.'
I'd say that's an impact.
Griffey stayed clean during an age of baseball that was and still is under a dark cloud of cheating. He aged naturally, like an honorable hall-of-fame player should.
I'm a fan. I'll never have an allegiance with another athlete for the rest of my life as much as I've been with number 24. Because in today's sports, nobody can relate to the common man or kid anymore, nobody. Junior did, because he is 'The Kid."
I will end this special article with the greatest quote or piece that I've ever had sent to me. One of my best friends for well over two decades who shares the same emotion about Griffey, sent this to me:
Bill Finn (longtime childhood friend): Chris,
First let me take a moment to thank you in advance for asking me to take part in giving my opinion of Griffey as well as how Griffey sparked your overall interest and love for the game. To begin flat out Griffey will go down as one of the Greatest ( if not the greatest ) baseball players of all time. Between Gold Glove play in center field and without a doubt the smoothest, purest, greatest swing to ever hit a baseball, Griffey re-found the game we all love. Whether he was climbing the wall and taken back a home run or he was shaking the barrel of his bat just intimidating pitchers Griffey was always and will always be a thrill to watch! Throughout the entire decade of the 90's Griffey without a doubt was Mr. Baseball from his actions on the field and off!
Now on to a more important topic and approach toward Griffey, probably the most evident of all his accomplishments, his ability to influence youngsters, who everywhere were inspired by his swing and his overall ability to play. Which takes us to one person in particular my long time friend Chris D. (Aka K-Mart) it started approximately 20 years ago when me and some other buddies stumbled upon a field hidden behind a church. This is where I met Chris for the first time and it was his overall love for baseball regardless of the situation he was in that led us to become such great friends.
I was 13 or so and a huge Griffey fan, Chris was maybe 9 and he always wanted to play baseball every time we showed up at this field this may have been partly due to the fact it was right behind his house. Regardless we were older and had more experience he would not give up he was a natural lefty both batting and throwing and would always play center just referencing Griffey, he could not mock his skills at this point but if I had to guess he matched the amount of heart put in. Every conversation would reference Griffey and how he was a lefty and he played center. It was never a lack of effort for Chris as he just loved the game and loved acting out Griffey's approach to the game. He mocked the bat wiggle and he did pretty well with the fielding if there was one slower developing point it was the arm (hence where K-mart came from) but even so he always played on even with our criticism.
Off the field we became even better friends both us were crazy about collecting cards, and not that I need to say but baseball was above all else and Griffey was our main Player! So for the last 15 to 20 years I can honestly say I have never seen someone take so much from one player from the game, on and off the field. Sportsmanship, heart, and the overall passion for the game was something very few could take from the game but with Griffey and Chris's unspoken connection with him Chris found a way to incorporate every good habit done by his (and my own) all-time favorite player Ken Griffey Jr.
It has been worth more than words can describe for Chris, myself and all else to have had the amazing opportunity to actually watch such a great player progress all the way through baseballs natural progression from rookie to great one, and now to the end! His overall example set and influence to others will go on forever regardless of when this icon decides to shut it down.