Remembering a Yankee killer
With Ken Griffey Jr. having announced his retirement, Alex Rodriguez is now the active home-run leader in the major leagues. A-Rod pushed his total to 591 Thursday in the Yankees’ 6-3 victory over the Orioles. The next stop on the all-time list for Rodriguez is Sammy Sosa, very catchable in sixth place at 609. A-Rod would need to have a monster few months to catch fifth-place Junior at 630, but it remains possible. He has hit at least 47 home runs in a season five times, although not since his 54-homer year of 2007 when he won his third American League Most Valuable Player Award.
Probably most surprising about Griffey’s career is that he was an MVP only once, albeit unanimously, in 1997 when his former teammate, Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, was the runner-up. Junior somehow got lost playing in Seattle and amid a crowd of contemporaries who used performance-enhancing drugs, as A-Rod himself admitted. The Sosa home-run race with Mark McGwire in 1998 and the growing dominance of Barry Bonds dropped Junior into the background after the turn of the century.
Yet Junior remained the most exciting player to watch since Willie Mays. Yankees fans will never forget , but would like to, his dash around the bases at the Kingdome on Edgar Martinez’s double that produced a walk-off Mariners victory over the Yankees in Game 5 of the first AL Division Series. I can still see third base coach Sam Perlozzo furiously waving Junior home, and his legs churning toward the plate concluding with a picture-perfect slide.
That was a time when I looked forward to Yankees-Mariners games like no other just for the pure pleasure of watching Junior Griffey patrol center field and take target practice at the right field seats. His fence-climbing catch of a Jesse Barfield drive remains one of the best catches I’ve ever seen at Yankee Stadium. His father, Ken Griffey Sr., made one of the greats, too, in left field that is also high on my list.
In retrospect, Griffey’s decision to go home to Cincinnati 10 years ago was a career mistake. He and pitcher Randy Johnson and manager Lou Piniella were the axis that saved major-league ball in Seattle. All eventually left, but none was missed more than Junior. Going to the Reds was a family decision for Griffey. Among his reasons was a desire to play for a team that had its spring training camp in Florida, which the Reds did at that time.
I thought at the time that if Junior had to leave Seattle the best landing place for him would have been Atlanta. The Braves were a winning organization with a terrific general manager-manager combo in John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, plus the best pitching staff in the game and a spring training facility near Disney World in the backyard of Junior’s adopted residence of Orlando, Fla. Think of how many more World Series the Bravos might have won with Griffey. It might have been a different story for the Yankees in 1996 and ’99.
It’s too bad Junior had a dim view of the Yankees because he was made for the Stadium. He was reprimanded by manager Billy Martin as a youngster when his father played for the Yankees and never forgot it. It was a grudge Griffey should have dropped years ago. He paid them back over the years, batting .311 with 36 home runs and 102 RBI in 501 career at-bats against the Yankees.
The Braves couldn’t come up with a package for Griffey, so off to Cincinnati he went. I can remember when people thought he had an off year in 2000 when he hit .271 with 40 homers and 118 RBI. He never achieved those power numbers again. He had only one other comparable season with the Reds, in 2005 (.301, 35 homers, 92 RBI) as his career took no longer the path of Willie Mays but rather that of Mickey Mantle as injuries piled up higher than his statistics.
News of his retirement became obscured by the story out of Detroit about Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game foiled by umpire Jim Joyce’s erroneous call. That can happen to the best of them. In a Yankees game 32 years ago Thursday, Lou Gehrig hit four home runs and Tony Lazzeri hit for the cycle. Topping the sports page, though, was John McGraw’s announcement that he was retiring after 30 years’ managing the New York Giants.
Griffey’s leaving the game deserved the same attention. He passed the home-run baton to a former teammate who last year finally achieved what always eluded Griffey, a World Series championship. A-Rod remembered Junior fondly.
“I came in at 17, right out of high school, and I got to see our Michael Jordan, our Tiger Woods, the best of the best,” Rodriguez said.
If you don’t believe that, get out tapes of that 1995 ALDS, the one in which Griffey punished the Yankees with a .391 average, five home runs, seven RBI and that mad dash home in the clincher. You will not see his like again.