Ken Griffey Jr. and the Synthesis of Baseball

Baseball is largely a game of precision, exactness, and most of all synthesis.  There are connections in the sport which I fail to recognize in other games, the association of anecdotes, of players past and present, of the game’s history.  The beauty of baseball is such that while at the ballpark watching one game, they can also be viewing many other games, with coinciding histories of the past reinventing itself within the present time.

Baseball has a unique and prolonging sense of timelessness.  It has lived through, among many other things, a string of racial segregation, a thrown World Series, two world wars, the greediness and ineptitude of the owners, commissioners, and players, the rising development of other sports, and most recently the constant barrage of the steroid age.  As George Vecsey wrote, “it endures.”

As the 2010 season approaches, I reflect on the past two decades of baseball in a retrospectively negative light.  A 1994 players strike cast a dark shadow over the game, and a plausible argument can be made that it led to the ultimate downfall of the Montreal Expos.  The strike resulted in a cancelled World Series (the first in 90 years) and a subsequent public repudiation of the game’s fan-base.

For many years, baseball had been shifting into a slugging era, defined by brute force and the rise of the home run’s popularity.  Pulling itself out of the effects of the strike, this new style of strength and “intensity” brought about a rise of public appeal to the game.  The catalyst of this trend was the 1998 season, often considered the greatest year in baseball history.

The sweet melody of the ’98 season must be sung once more:  Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in 1961 had been regarded as virtually unreachable for decades prior, but throughout the 1990s the development of the power generation put the mark as a possibility in the public eye.  The ill-fated season of ’94 was cut 50 games short, and Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants with 43 home runs was well on pace to challenge Maris’ record.  Three years later, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. would battle each other as they reached 58 and 56 home runs respectively.

The stage was set for the great home run race of ’98.  McGwire had improved from 39 home runs in ’95 to 52 a year later, and again to 58 the year after that.  Griffey Jr. hit 49 and 56 in ’96 and ’97 as well.  Suddenly, another player would enter the chase as well, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.  McGwire would open the ’98 season, his first with the Cardinals, with four straight games with a home run.  Despite tailing off slightly throughout August, he would finish the historic season with 70 homers, besting Sosa’s 66 and Junior’s meager 56.  In retrospect, Griffey Jr.’s involvement in the chase is largely forgotten, overshadowed by the Ruthian efforts of McGwire’s eventual record and Sosa’s unbelievable June, where he hit a record 20 home runs.

As it would turn out, Junior would play only one more year for the Mariners, who saw two Divisional championships in 1995 and ’97 during his tenure in Seattle.  He would, however, leave behind a definitive mark on the American League before moving to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000.  In the 1990s, Griffey spanked the A.L. to the tune of 10 consecutive All-Star game appearances and Gold Glove Awards, seven Silver Slugger awards between 1991 and 1999, and the illusive Most Valuable Player award in 1997.

Safeco Field in Seattle is a vast, yet quaint ballpark built to replace the Mariners’ former stadium, the Kingdom.  Its completion in 1999 featured much of what the date would suggest:  a connection to the 20th century while fulfilling the futuristic style of the modern baseball stadium.  Safeco Field features a brick façade, much the front of the timeless Ebbets Field of Brooklyn in generations past.  The field itself is natural grass, garnering the approval of both baseball purists like myself and the present fans.

However, not quite so anachronistically, there exists a retractable roof which acts as an umbrella for the entire stadium.  The refreshment selection is vast and beyond traditional selection, featuring an aptly named sushi dish called the “Ichiroll”, in homage to the team’s Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.  Safeco Field also contrasts the bandbox appearance of many traditional stadiums, identifying itself as a very pitchers-friendly ballpark.

Ken Griffey Jr. is but another prime example of the synthesis which exists within the game.  Junior was born in the small, smog-bound city of Donora, Pennsylvania in 1969, where he lived until he moved to Cincinnati at the age of six.  The sleepy town also happened to have produced another legend of baseball, Stanley Frank Musial nearly 50 years earlier.  Both grew up to be two of the greatest left-handed hitters of all time, encompassing the attributes of power and average throughout their careers.  They also had 262 stolen bases between them, invoking a definite mark of speed, as well.  Not yet convinced?  They shared the same birthday, November 21st.

During his nine season tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, Junior still hit 210 home runs with a respectable .270 batting average.  He was clearly not the same hitter that America had loved throughout the 90s, however.  Plagued by health, he suffered season-ending injuries in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005.  His slugging percentage in ’02 was his worst in seven years.  Junior’s ubiquitous presence over the game appeared to diminish with each passing year.  Between the ’02 and ’04 season, he missed 260 of 486 games due to his sustained injuries.

In 2005, however, Griffey’s health resurged, bringing him back to what many fans believed was his original form.  With a season batting average over .300, his first since 1997, he hit 35 home runs in 128 games (his most since 2000).  He received the honor of the Comeback Player of the Year, and despite ending the season in September due to a strained tendon in his left foot, he appeared to be enduring the wrath of injuries and was returning to form.  In 2006, he batted a mere .252, the worst of his career up to that point.

It is difficult for fans to watch the progression of their heroes over the course of several decades.  Griffey was the second youngest player in the American League in his rookie 1989 season, but throughout his time in Cincinnati, he grew older, slower, his bat speed not quite as sharp in previous seasons.  Junior’s digression is reminiscent of players such as Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Ty Cobb, whose growing age was reflected in their playing styles with flashes of the past darting out from their bodies.  Griffey still could hit home runs, 27 in his 2006 season, but his quick-paced style and agility was replaced by aging competence and fragility.  His career average of 11 stolen bases per year could have been much higher, if it were not for but three between the years of 2002 and 2006.  It is a harsh, depressing, but inevitable lesson for the spectator.

If we allow, however, for even average years for Griffey to make up for the lost time due to injuries and other obstacles, perhaps a greater picture of Junior’s career can be ascertained.  In 1994, Griffey had 40 home runs in just 111 games before the players-strike cut the season early.  Most of his 1995 season was missed after breaking a wrist crashing into a wall.  Between the years of 2001 and 2004, he missed two full seasons worth of games due to reoccurring injuries.  Excluding many other seasons where did not play in upwards of thirty or forty games for similar reasons, we are left with three full seasons of games, much of which it can be argued was before the major deterioration of his skill (which many fans contend was caused by the injuries).

After the 2009 season, Junior had a total of 630 home runs.  He averaged in his career 39 home runs per season, despite over half of his years hitting under 30.  Thus, by giving three full seasons of statistics, his career home run total comes staggeringly close to matching or superseding Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds.  With a career average of well over 100 runs batted in per season, three seasons of RBIs would put his already impressive 1829 total to over 2100, putting him in at least the top three career totals in baseball history.  Griffey’s career statistics are already phenomenal, but without injuries and skill digression, fans are left to wonder: what if?

For years, Junior expressed his desire to finish his career back in Seattle.  After spending the latter portion of the 2008 season with the Chicago White Sox, hitting a meager three home runs and only 18 throughout the entire season, his wish would be granted.  Upon accepting a contract offer in February the following year, Griffey would play what many believed would be his final season in Seattle for 2009.  His debut for the Mariners that April was more than fitting:  he went one for two with a home run, his 400th as a Seattle Mariner.  Griffey was back, regardless of his current state.  Griffey was back.

I watched on that October as my Texas Rangers played their final series of the season in Seattle.  After flirting with the divisional league throughout the year, they’d been removed from playoff contention for a few weeks by then, and I took in what little Rangers baseball I could absorb before the perpetual end of the season.  The Mariners were 83-76, securing an improbable winning season just one year after finishing a dismal 61-101 the season prior.  Also locked out of the pennant race, it was a series of sleepy divisional games between two teams who, while finishing out their season, found themselves optimistic from their successful year and longed for the following one.

The Rangers took the first game, but fueled by Junior’s last home run of the season in the middle game, the Mariners tied the series.  It was his 630th of his career, currently 5th on the all-time list.  On October 4th, I watched as 32,360 others came to Safeco Field to see the Mariners’ last game of the season.  What they were really there to see was what was predicted as Griffey’s last career game.  His retirement had been doubted, then presumed, and questioned throughout the entirety of the 2009 season, and with the Mariners’ success came a more hopeful wish for the continued longevity of his career.

Junior represented the aged competency and adequacy, surrounded by players nearly half his age, representing the hopefulness of youth.  He looked upon them with experience, with wisdom and stories, reflecting on his career while the rest had theirs entirely ahead of them.  The synthesis of baseball, whether it a grandfather and grandchild in the stands admiring their interlocking generations or an aging ballplayer staring down a youthful pitcher, is one of the true constants of the game.

In the second inning, Griffey faced Scott Feldman of the Rangers, and was promptly struck out looking.  Once again leading off, he lined out to the pitcher in his next at bat in the fourth.  A rally was brewing throughout the bottom of the fifth, and following three straight hits and a three-run inning, Junior lined out to center field.  He was 0 for three.

The crowd grew impatient, and yet, they realized the reality of the situation.   Griffey was batting only .213 over 117 games, easily his worst of his career.  A hit, much less a home run, could not be conjured up in thin air.  It takes an incredible amount of skill to connect the bat to the ball in such a way to produce a base hit, and after failing three consecutive times to begin the game, I and 32,360 others knew the odds were against him.  In “Casey at the Bat”, the hope “sprung eternal deep in the human breast” of the Mudville fans, who hoped that the mighty Casey would merely get a chance to hit.  Griffey had already had several chances, but had not yet appeased us.  Unlike those in Earnest Thayer’s epic tale of the Mudville Nine, where a “straggling few got up to go in deep despair,” we waited, hopeful, wishful, praying for the rightful end (if it were to be the end).

The Mariners were ahead 4-1 until the Rangers scored two in the seventh to make it a one run game.  Spectators were not so much anxious of the score, but if the following inning would feature the long awaited Griffey at-bat.  He was to bat sixth in the bottom half of the inning, but despite a lead-off single by Josh Wilson, pitching replacement Darren O’Day shut the rest of the Mariners down in order.

The top half of the next inning, although only three Rangers came to bat, seemed to drag on.  We were almost becoming disinterested in the game, awaiting the eventual fourth and what looked to be Ken Griffey Jr.’s final at bat.  Jose Lopez led off the bottom half of the eighth, and with that the Rangers changed pitchers once again, bringing in southpaw C.J. Wilson.  He would take on Junior, the formidable left-handed batter for 21 seasons, who many older spectators believed portrayed elements of Stanley Frank Musial from generations past.

On the first pitch of the at-bat, Griffey uncoiled his body, turning his wrists and swung, the same swing fans and teammates had relied on, his opponents winced at, and his pitchers loathed.  His bat connected to the ball as sweet as it ever had, and the ball sailed into centerfield.  Base hit.

The Mariners swiftly brought in youngster Michael Saunders to pinch run for the legend who trotted off the field as satisfied as perhaps he’d ever felt as a ballplayer.  Junior waved to the crowd, who responded with their adoration and deep respect for the slugger they’d known since his first game in early 1989.

Ken Griffey Jr., with one base hit, seemed to bridge the gap between the transitioning age of baseball.  He resembles the very stadium he played in, the connections of the old and the new, the past and the future, all while playing and living in the present.  Synthesis is magical thing.  The future of baseball, trying its best to cast an evil eye on the depths of the steroid era, looks to players like Griffey to help move this transition, to show us what we were, what we are, and we what we can still be.  He is timeless, as many of the classic players before him are.

When John Updike wrote about Ted Williams’ last home run on his final at-bat of his career, he concluded that Williams had faced the little death that athletes faced, and had quit.  Griffey, however, has discussed coming back to the Mariners for the 2010 season.  We will watch and cheer him again, hoping and wishing for however long the Kid continues playing.  He and other players throughout the generations have lived on in our hearts, and represent what is amazing about the game of baseball, its timelessness, its consistency, its constant mark on our lives.  It will live on.  Baseball endures.


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