EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey. Watch Sunday's induction ceremony at 1:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network or www.baseballhall.org.
With 437 of 440 votes, Griffey goes to Cooperstown with the highest vote percentage ever, 99.3 percent. His numbers — 630 home runs, 1,836 RBI, 13 All-Star teams, 10 Gold Gloves — made his election inevitable.
But in Cincinnati — Griffey’s hometown and where he played for nine years — folks will always wonder: What if?
What if Griffey hadn’t been so cursed by injuries? What if he hadn’t missed so much time? What if he put up numbers for five or six years in Cincinnati like he did in his time in Seattle?
In my opinion, we’d be talking about the greatest player of all time instead of just one of them. We’ll punch up some numbers to make that point later. First, let’s talk about what Griffey was.
“I don’t like to start with saying this guy’s this or that guy’s this,” Pete Rose said, “but he’s one of the top 10 players of all time, statistics-wise, ability-wise. He was a great defensive player, a great offensive player. He’d have been a great player in the middle of the lineup for the Big Red Machine. I just wish he played in a bigger market. He came out OK. A player like that really ought to play in a big market where everyone can see them.”
Lou Piniella was witness to Griffey’s greatness on a daily basis as the Mariners’ manager from 1993 to 2000.
“When I had him in Seattle, he was the best player in baseball,” Piniella said. “There was nothing Junior couldn’t do on the field. Not only that, but he had a love for the game and a respect for the game.
“My gosh, when you saw him play center field, I used to say he was one of God’s angels. He could go from left-center to right-center. He had a good throwing arm. He hit for power. He hit for average. He drove in runs. He stole bases.
“Cooperstown was waiting for him.”
Griffey came to Cincinnati in 2000 via a trade that he facilitated. He signed the richest contract in baseball history upon his arrival — $116.5 million over nine years. It was at a discount (Seattle had offered an eight-year, $138 million extension) with much of the money deferred. The Reds made the deal only after Griffey agreed to that.
It was a huge story at the time. Politicians, public officials and business leaders all stood behind Griffey and Carl Lindner Jr., then the Reds’ majority owner, at the news conference. Then-general manger Jim Bowden famously declared, “Baseball was back in Cincinnati.”
We know now how it turned out.
The Reds were coming off a 96-67 season when Griffey arrived. The thought around town (and in the Reds front office, for that matter) was that the Reds would upgrade their pitching, too, after adding Griffey. The club didn’t.
Griffey’s first year in Cincinnati was his best as a Red and the only year the team finished above .500 in his time here. He struggled early with the pressure of coming home to play but ended up hitting .271 with 40 home runs and 118 RBI in 140 games.
Griffey had played 161 and 160, so missing even 22 games was considered an aberration.
The worst was to come. The games Griffey missed late in the year were because of a left hamstring problem. That turned out to be a bad omen.
From 2001 to 2004, Griffey missed more games than he played. He played 111 games in 2001, 70 in 2002, 53 in 2003 and 83 in 2004. His legs, beaten up by all those years playing on artificial turf in Seattle, began to give out on him.
Brian Goldberg, Griffey’s agent, recalls being in Seattle to shoot a Pepsi commercial in 1994. They were on the field at the Kingdome.
“It was like cement with a carpet on it,” Goldberg said. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was. They shared the field with the Seahawks, and the Seahawks had a different surface. I said to Junior: ‘What do they roll out for the game? What do you play on?’ He said, ‘No, no, Brian, this is it.’ It was 10 times worse than anything at Riverfront Stadium.”
The injuries started with a torn left hamstring in spring training of 2001. He tore the patellar tendon in his right knee a week into the 2002 season. Ten days after returning from that, he tore his right hamstring. He dislocated his right shoulder a week into the 2003 season. Two months after returning from the injury, he tore a tendon in his right ankle, ending his season. In 2004, it was his right hamstring.
So, again: What if?
In those four years, Griffey hit 63 home runs and drove in 174 runs. If he had put up just his 2000 numbers — not the monster numbers he put up in Seattle — he would have had 160 home runs and 472 RBI in that span.
Add those numbers to Griffey’s actual numbers (630 home runs, 1,836 RBI), and you get 727 home runs and 2,124 RBI.
That would put Griffey third on both MLB’s all-time home-run list (ahead of Babe Ruth) instead of sixth, and third on the RBI list (behind Hank Aaron and Ruth), instead of 15th.
Given his defensive skills, those numbers vault him into the Greatest of All Time conversation.
I covered Griffey on a daily basis in those years. He rarely let the injuries get him down — or at least he rarely showed it publicly. The one time I remember him being near tears was in Anaheim in 2002 when he went out with a hamstring injury after just coming back from the knee injury. That’s the only time I heard him ask: Why does this keep happening to me?
(By the way, I never subscribed to the theory that Griffey could have played through some of these injuries. He played through pain all the time. After hamstring surgery in ’04, he played all season with basically an open wound on the back of his leg to let in drain).
Had Griffey stayed healthier, it’s likely the Reds would have been better in his tenure here, too.
“The one thing is just not being able to win a championship,” he said. “I think everybody dreams about winning it. It just wasn't meant to be.”
Playing in your hometown, especially when you come in with the expectations that Griffey did, can be difficult. While fans and old baseball writers wonder “what if?” Griffey has never questioned his decision.
“He never has,” Goldberg said. “He had the best intentions. Family-wise, coming home, taking less money. He had the best of intentions. It’s a shame it didn’t work out with the injuries.”
Griffey isn’t a guy to dwell on the past.
“I wouldn't change anything I've done,” he said upon his 2014 election to Reds Hall of Fame. “I got a chance to wear the uniform that my dad wore, and I think that's the most important thing.”