Major League Baseball had their 2016 Hall of Fame ceremony and I literally had a tear in my eye when I watched Ken Griffey Jr. take his place amongst the elite with of course, his cap on backwards. Unbeknownst to The Kid, I despised him. I mean he certainly could play the game as the 437/440 Hall of Fame votes he received attests too, but I could never cheer for him. You see my hatred of Griffey Jr. didn’t even start with him, it started over a decade earlier on a cold, snowy day in April 1977. The history of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays will always be entwined as they joined the MLB at the same time. I knew the Jays wouldn’t be a good team, so all I wanted was for them to just be better than the Mariners. That’s all I asked. It was therefore nothing that the Mariners did that I detested; it was just that they were the barometer that I judged the Jays by. Looking back now, you can say I am quite the happy camper as the Jays lead the Mariners 2-0 in World Series Championships.
But I didn’t know any of that back in 1989 when I heard about this 19 year-old wunderkid who started to play for the Mariners. He could hit for average, hit for power, steal you a base and cover all of centre field. To top it off, over and above his supreme talents was that infectious smile. He seemed like such a sweet kid just playing the game he loves without a care in the world. It made me sick… sick with envy. The Blue Jays did have the better team over the next few years, winning it all in 1992 and 1993 but I always had to keep my eye on him because he was just that good. How good? He was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove every single year that decade. He finished in the top 10 voting for Most Valuable Player 7 times and won it outright in 1997. He also won the Silver Slugger 7 times that decade as well. Statistically, he owned the 1990s.
‘The Natural’ also did something very few players ever have the opportunity of doing. He played a professional sport on the same team as his dad. Ken Griffey Sr. joined the Mariners in the middle of 1990 and played until he retired at the end of the 1991 season. Not only are they the sole father-son combination to hit back-to-back homeruns, as with everything that surrounded Griffey Jr., he made it look easy and had a smile while doing it. As much as I thought I hated him, I began to realize that he was becoming more and more one of my favourite baseball players of all time. I didn’t just respect what he did in a game, I grew to love how much fun he had doing it. I didn’t realize until much later, how close the world came to not knowing who Ken Griffey Jr. was.
In 1987, Junior was drafted first overall. Here was a can’t-miss prospect that had the size, the power, the skill and the pedigree. He had everything going for him and yet, he was depressed, lonely and angry. Some of the pressure, both on and off the field, was due to his relationship with his dad and on one night in January 1988 it was too much too handle. He swallowed 277 pills in a suicide attempt and fortunately someone was close by and got him to a hospital in time. For someone who had so much promise and everything to live for, it’s hard to imagine him feeling that low. As a quick and important sideline, depression is a sickness, not a weakness. So if you don’t know where to turn, reach out to #SickNotWeak and talk to someone. It can get better.
When I look back over his career now, that beautiful smile means so much more. It reminds me of someone who thought he had nothing to live for and turned it around to live every moment to the fullest. Ken Griffey Jr. had an incredible career with 630 HRs and 1836 RBIs which are HOF worthy. But when they talk about his story, when they talk about how deserving he is to be the first Seattle Mariner player to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, I’ll take a moment and tell my boys about his smile, and how he truly played the game. Congratulations Kid!
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