Griffey, (George) Ken(neth), Jr.

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GRIFFEY, (George) Ken(neth), Jr.

(b. 21 November 1969 in Donora, Pennsylvania), baseball player considered one of the most productive hitters and gifted outfielders of his generation.

Griffey was born to play baseball. George Kenneth Griffey, Sr., his father, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds the year Griffey, Jr., was born. In 1973 Griffey, Sr., was called up by the major league club and the family moved to Cincinnati, where Griffey was raised. The elder Griffey enjoyed a nineteen-year career playing for the Reds, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Seattle Mariners. He was a crucial part of the Cincinnati "Big Red Machine" that won consecutive World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. Griffey, Jr., grew up in that clubhouse, soaking in the atmosphere of professional baseball and success.

Griffey attended Moeller High School in Cincinnati, the same school that produced the baseball players Barry Larkin and Buddy Bell. A standout athlete in several sports, Griffey was especially successful playing baseball, setting a school mark (later broken) of eleven home runs in a season. In 1987 the Seattle Mariners made the seventeen-year-old Griffey the first player selected in the amateur draft and signed him for a $160,000 bonus. He got off to a fast start, hitting .313 with fourteen homers and forty runs batted in (RBI) during his first year in the minors. It was a tough year, however. In 1992 Griffey revealed to a newspaper reporter that after his first season in Seattle he swallowed more than 270 aspirin in a failed suicide attempt and wound up in intensive care.

Griffey's time in the minors was limited. He started the 1988 season with the Class A San Bernardino, California, team and was promoted to Class AA in Vermont in August. Determined to make the major league roster, Griffey had a phenomenal spring in 1989, hitting .359 while collecting twenty-one RBI. He effectively forced the Mariners to make him a part of the club, and at age nineteen he became the youngest player in the majors that year. When Griffey, Sr., signed a one-year deal with the Mariners, the Griffeys became the first father-son duo to play in the major leagues in the same season. By July 1989 Griffey, Jr., was hitting about .300. He was a front-runner as the Rookie of the Year until he broke his hand. He returned in August but wound up hitting only .181 over the remainder of the year. His season average was .264.

Griffey improved with time. In 1990 he batted .300 with twenty-two home runs and was selected to the American League All-Star team. Matching the accomplishment of his father, in 1992 he was named the All-Star game Most Valuable Player (MVP), hitting three for four with a home run. In 1994 Griffey challenged Roger Maris's record of sixty-one home runs by hitting twenty-two by the end of May. The chase was interrupted in August, when the major league players went on strike and did not return. By the time the season ended he was on a pace to hit fifty-eight home runs.

Griffey became known for his fluid and graceful defense as well as for his hitting; he won ten consecutive gold gloves between 1990 and 1999. At times, however, his aggressive defensive play had a cost. In 1995 he slammed into a wall and fractured his wrist in fifteen places. The injury required surgery, a metal plate, and screws to stabilize the wrist. After Griffey returned to playing that year, Seattle gathered steam in August and charged from behind to overtake the California Angels from thirteen games back, finishing the year tied for the division title. Seattle won a single-game playoff (9–1) to advance to the divisional championship series. In the 1995 playoffs against the New York Yankees, Griffey tied Reggie Jackson's record of five home runs and six RBI in five playoff games. He also scored the run that sent Seattle to its first-ever American League Championship series, against the Cleveland Indians, who won the series in six games.

Before the 1996 season Griffey was briefly the highest-paid player in baseball, signing a four-year deal worth $34 million. His fan appeal was unmistakable, as that season the twenty-six year old was the top vote-getter in the All-Star balloting and was a serious contender for MVP honors, along with his twenty-one-year-old rookie teammate Alex Rodriguez. Griffey came in fourth in the balloting.

In 1997 Griffey was healthy the entire season and tried again to break Maris's record. By 4 July he had thirty home runs and seemed within striking distance of the record. A slight hamstring injury and a death in the family slowed his pace, but Griffey still hit .304 with fifty-six home runs, his best season since joining the majors. He was the unanimous choice as the American League MVP, the thirteenth player in history to receive all first-place votes, and was voted as the Player of the Year by his fellow major leaguers.

In 1998, while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pursued Maris's record and eventually surpassed it, Griffey had another magnificent season, hitting fifty-six home runs for the second consecutive year with 146 RBI. He was elected to his ninth consecutive All-Star game and again received the most votes of any player.

After the 1999 season Griffey decided he wanted out of Seattle. After playing there for eleven seasons, he turned down the team's offer of a $135 million contract and demanded a trade. He cited a variety of reasons for his decision, including a desire to be closer to his home and family in Orlando, Florida. A number of teams at first appeared in the running for Griffey's services, but eventually the Mariners struck a deal with the Cincinnati Reds, with Bret Tomko, Mike Cameron, and others going to Seattle in return for Griffey.

Griffey signed a nine-year, $112.5 million deal with Cincinnati. At the time, the contract was the richest ever in the history of baseball, although Griffey's annual salary was the sport's seventh highest. Fifty-seven percent of the contract was spread out over sixteen years of deferred payments. The Reds, who had won ninety-six games in 1999 but lost a one-game playoff to the New York Mets, appeared poised to make the push to the World Series. The Reds general manager Jim Bowden was acutely aware of the need to have a genuine superstar on the Reds roster as the team prepared to move into a new stadium in the 2003 season.

Griffey's results with the Reds were disappointing as the team entered the new century. He struggled immediately upon entering the Cincinnati lineup, hitting about .200 in the first two months of the season. Back and hamstring problems kept him out of the daily lineup for extended stretches. Nevertheless, he remained one of the marquee players of his era, with his magnetic personality charming fans and corporate sponsors alike. He was named to the All-Century team in 1999, a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, along with the likes of Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, and Ted Williams.

Griffey's autobiography, edited by Mark Vancil, is Junior: Griffey on Griffey (1997). "Ken Griffey, Jr.," in Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 12 (1996), provides an in-depth profile of his career achievements. See also an interview, Michael Kinsley, "The Griffey Dilemma," and Thomas Stinson, "Tale of Two Griffeys," in Sporting News (20 Dec. 1999 and 12 Mar. 2001). Walter Leavy, "Is Ken Griffey … Baseball's Best Ever?" is in Ebony (May 1998). Gary Smith, "Home Run Fever," is a cover story in Sports Illustrated (3 Aug. 1998), and Bill Madden, "That Kid Could Break My Record," is a cover story in Sport (June 1998).

Philip Napoli

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Griffey, (George) Ken(neth), Jr.

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