If you're a 90s kid, you remember Ken Griffey Jr.'s greatest moment like it was yesterday. High-pressure situation, everything on the line. Loudmouth in the peanut gallery heckling him. Everything rests on one throw from his powerful left arm. Junior eyes his target, winds up ... and gets interrupted by an adoring fan.
Granted, the fan initially mistakes Griffey for a quarterback, and quickly loses interest when she learns he's married. Still, if you can temporarily impress 90s megacrush Hilary Banks, you're doing something right.
As Griffey gets set to get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend, it's that pop culture transcendence that stands out to me almost as much as his on-field dominance. For a generation of kids, "The Kid" was one of the coolest athletes we ever saw.
The on-field bona fides are copious and impressive, of course. By advanced numbers, Griffey is either the fifth- or sixth-best center fielder of all time, depending on where you have him ranked relative to Joe DiMaggio. In 22 major league seasons, Junior made 13 All-Star Games, won 10 Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. He won one MVP award and finished in the top 10 for MVP balloting seven times. If you like bubble gum card stats, Griffey ranks sixth all-time in home runs (630), 13th in total bases (5,271), and 15th in RBI (1,836).
Of course, lots of players (even some contemporaries) put up comparably big numbers over the course of baseball history, without displaying anything close to Griffey's unparalleled flair. Even in today's game, you have a superstar like Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the world for nearly five years running ... and not someone you'd see as an off-field star, unless you're really into sweet onion chicken teriyaki sandwiches.
Griffey, on the other hand, was everywhere. Every kid wanted a pair of teal, Griffey-brand Nike sneakers. The "Griffey in '96" ad campaign was one of the most successful blitzes ever for a celebrity athlete endorser. Griffey baseball cards became holy grails for both kids and a growing army of rabid, adult collectors.
In 1994, Nintendo released "Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball." Since the game didn't have a Major League Baseball Players Association license, Nintendo was forced to use fictitious player names instead of the real MLB stars of the time ... that is, except for Griffey, whose face adorned the box, and whose collector's card came inside each box. The game drew mixed reviews and even criticism from multiple video-game publications. Yet the game was a smash hit anyway, selling 1.2 million units. That was the power of The Kid.
My favorite Griffey crossover moment came in the most underrated baseball movie of all time, "Little Big League". Marketed as a kids' movie starring a 12-year-old boy who gets thrust into owning and managing a major league baseball team, "Little Big League" is actually a really good movie for all ages. The movie teaches us lessons in analytics (don't bunt), humility (don't let success go to your head, even when Shelly Hogeboom develops a crush on you), and preposterous musical montages (Jonathan Silverman's Bowers character has more batted-ball luck in this movie than any pitcher ever has).
Best of all, the movie has an unlikely villain -- Griffey. In the film, the protagonist Minnesota Twins storm back at the end of the regular season to catch Griffey's Seattle Mariners for a wild-card spot, setting up a one-game playoff. Junior proves to be a one-man wrecking crew, hitting a titanic, upper-deck home run, then later making a spectacular, game-saving catch. We want to hate the guy, until he flashes a huge grin and a wink as he rounds the bases.
Back on the field, the stories go on and on. There's the tale of how 17-year-old Junior got a giant shipment full of bats and gloves from his three-time MLB All-Star dad, and elected to share all the swag with his teammates instead of keeping it for himself. How on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues, 19-year-old Griffey clubbed it 375 feet for a double.
Of all the iconic plays in Griffey's career, though, the biggest might have been one he pulled off with his glove. In a May 1991 game against the Rangers at the old Kingdome, Texas' Ruben Sierra crushed a drive toward the wall in right-center. The ball flew off the ball as a scorching line drive, giving Griffey very little time to give chase. With no time to size up the play and the wall in front of him, he instead reached out while in full stride, leapt, caught the ball, and crashed into the fence, all in one blur of a motion. It's been a quarter-century since that play happened, and it's tough to name any more unbelievable defensive play since.
So when Junior steps to the podium on Sunday for his induction, take the time to listen to his old stories about playing with Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner, about one of the greatest 10-year runs we've ever seen, even the laments about the injuries that prevented him from even greater heights. Just make sure to have a second-, and maybe even a third-screen experience going at the same time. You could live another 100 years and never see another ballplayer quite as cool as he was.