People were a little surprised when Ken Griffey Jr. received the highest percentage of votes of any player ever elected to the Hall of Fame. The more I think about, however, it's not so surprising: While nobody argues that Griffey is the greatest player of all time, he had so many iconic moments and was so popular in the 1990s that it makes sense. He was a true pop culture icon in that decade, maybe the last baseball player who appeared regularly in national commercial spots, a feat even more amazing when you consider he never played in a World Series. For people of a certain age -- or those, like myself, who were Seattle Mariners fans -- Griffey defined baseball in the 1990s. Fans liked him. Kids loved him. He ran for president. He was on "The Simpsons." He appeared on "Harry and the Hendersons." No wonder he got more votes than Babe Ruth or Willie Mays.
1. The Mad Dash.
In Seattle, it's known as The Double, as Edgar Martinez drilled the series-winning two-bagger down the left-field line to stun the New York Yankees in extra innings of Game 5 to cap the most exciting Division Series ever played. How did Griffey score from first on the play? On a double to left field with no outs? It remains the greatest moment in Mariners history, and the photo of him peeking out from under his teammates with a smile as wide as Puget Sound is not just an iconic Seattle sports photo, it's an iconic sports photo period, capturing the pure joy of winning, of celebration. When you think of Griffey, you may think of that sweet swing or the great catches, but any longtime Mariners fan first thinks of that dogpile at home plate.
It's important to remember the context of those 1995 Mariners, the miracle Mariners who rallied from 12.5 games behind in late August to tie the Angels and win the tiebreaking game to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Baseball in Seattle looked dead. A vote in early September for a new ballpark had failed. Rumors about the team moving -- most likely to Tampa -- had hung over the organization and fan base for years. Heck, they had just two winning seasons before 1995. Then came the heroic run to win the division. Then came the win over the Yankees -- Griffey hit five home runs in the series, including one off David Cone in the eighth inning of Game 5 that cut a 4-2 deficit to 4-3. After the playoff run, the state legislature managed to push through funding for the new park. Griffey had helped save baseball in Seattle.
2. Back-to-back with dad.
In 1990, Griffey was in his second season with the Mariners when the club signed his 40-year-old dad in August. Maybe it was a publicity stunt, but Senior could still play (he would hit .377 in 21 games with the Mariners that year and .282 in 30 games in 1991). On September 14, Senior was batting second and homered in the first inning off Kirk McCaskill of the Angels. Junior was up next and had the green light on a 3-0 pitch. He did this.
3. The 1997 MVP season.
Griffey ranked second among AL position players in WAR in 1991, via Baseball-Reference.com. He ranked first in 1993. He ranked second in the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he was on pace to hit 58 home runs and perhaps challenge Roger Maris' single-season record. He had broken his wrist in 1995, so he missed a chunk of time, although his return to the lineup helped spark that run to the playoffs. He ranked first in WAR in 1996. Even though he was acknowledged, along with Barry Bonds, as the best player in the game, he hadn't come close to winning an MVP Award; he'd finished second in 1994, but well behind Frank Thomas, who collected 24 of 28 first-place votes, and finished fourth in 1996.
Then came 1997. Griffey hit 56 home runs, drove in 147, scored 125 runs and slugged .646. He led the American League in all those categories, along with total bases. He won a Gold Glove. The Mariners won the AL West. He was the unanimous MVP winner. He would play just two more seasons for the Mariners.
4. The run, the leap, the catch, the ball, the smile.
Early in the 1990 season, Griffey robbed Jesse Barfield of a home run at Yankee Stadium, but it was his post-catch reaction that made the play so memorable. Maybe he would later lose that youthful enthusiasm, but it's a moment now etched in history, Kid Griffey acting like he had made the greatest catch of all time, a future yet to unfold.
5. Home runs in eight consecutive games.
Griffey's streak in 1993 tied the record shared by Dale Long and Don Mattingly. The eighth one was a huge blast into the upper deck at the Kingdome. Look at the pitch: Up and away. When Griffey was locked in on a pitch, he was so quick and powerful through the zone, he could pull a pitch up and away way out to right field. So beautiful.
6. Milk chocolate goodness.
Actually, I don't remember if the Ken Griffey Jr. candy bar was any good. Does is matter? Michael Jordan may have had his own cologne, but did he have a candy bar?
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) July 22, 2016
7. Griffey versus Bonds.
My friend KJ got a little upset the other day when I didn't include Griffey in my list of the top 10 players of all time. Griffey's 1990 to 1999 peak -- before his trade to the Reds -- was certainly outstanding and worthy of a top-10 list that included just peak value. Those 10 seasons, he hit .302 and averaged 38 home runs and 109 RBIs, and that's with one strike-shortened season and the injury-marred 1995 season when he played just 72 games. He won a Gold Glove all 10 seasons. Twice he hit 56 home runs, with other seasons of 49, 48, 45 and 40. His total WAR for the decade: 67.3.
Now, Barry Bonds. In the same decade, he also hit .302 ... and averaged 36 home and 108 RBIs and won eight Gold Gloves, albeit as a left fielder instead of center fielder. He had three seasons of 40-plus home runs. He edged Griffey in MVP Awards, three to one. He also had a sizable advantage in WAR, with a decade total of 79.9. Why the difference? Bonds had two edges over Griffey: He had a .434 OBP in the decade compared to Griffey's .384; he stole 343 bases to Griffey's 151. The walks are the big thing here. Bonds produced similar numbers, but got on base more and thus used up fewer outs, which created surplus value compared to Griffey.
Of course, I didn't include popularity in my criteria, and that's where Griffey trumps Bonds a gazillion to zero. And after 1999? We all know what happened after that. We also know who is getting inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend.
8. The other great catch.
I'm glad MLB has video of this one, because I was there and still can't believe Griffey made the catch. It's similar to the one in 1995, when he crashed into the wall and broke his wrist, but I think this one was better.
9. The trade to the Cincinnati Reds.
Let's just pretend this never happened.
10. 630 home runs.
Yes, there were two halves to Junior's career. Through age 29, he hit 398 home runs. After turning 30, he would hit just 232, as he battled injuries and didn't keep himself in the best of shape. He lost range in center field, although the Reds kept playing him there. Remember the stint with the Chicago White Sox? Me neither. Still, 630 home runs is 630 home runs. He ranks sixth all time and two of those ahead of him -- Bonds and Alex Rodriguez -- are tainted by PEDs. I just can't believe that it's been 27 years since I rushed home from college to see this teenager play center field for the Mariners. Where did the time go?