The Inimitable Superstardom of Ken Griffey, Jr.

Ken Griffey, Jr., always seemed like a Hall of Famer, and will be one soon. More impressive is how few Hall of Famers were ever as beloved and undeniably great as Junior.

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Nov 17 2015, 6:40pm

It's tough to buy the idea that once something has been done in baseball it can't be done again. The quality of play gets better as the talent pool increases, scouting and training methods improve, and human beings in general get bigger, stronger, and faster. If nobody dominates the game the way Babe Ruth or Sandy Koufax did, it's mostly because there are now dozens of guys who have Ruth's power or Koufax's fastball, and so none of them stand out quite so much.

The exception to this is Ken Griffey, Jr.

What made Griffey such an iconic figure during his prime wasn't just that he was good. Of course, he was good—he collected 2,781 hits, 630 of them home runs, and he was one of the best defensive outfielders of his day. Even after a decade-long, injury-ravaged hang-around phase, he retired with a 136 OPS+. He was the American League's MVP in 1997 and led the league in wins above replacement three times. If the current Hall of Fame electorate were not going through its vigilante justice phase—or if Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling weren't such grotesque human beings—Griffey would have had by far the best career on this Hall of Fame ballot. He would be that rare candidate—the Greg Maddux or Rickey Henderson or Tom Seaver—for whom there could be no credible argument that he is not a Hall of Famer.

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His on-field accomplishments, though remarkable, are not what make Griffey inimitable. He was baseball's last great mainstream superstar, a universally beloved figure the likes of which we won't see again, at least not for a long time. For all his superstar peers, there was just something different, and bigger, about Griffey.

The peak of Griffey's fame was so great, so uncomplicated, that it's hard to explain to those who don't remember or weren't around for it. In the mid-1990s, he was like Michael Jordan: tall, slim, graceful, and impossibly good-looking. In a game that's always been white and conservative, Griffey was black and outspoken, though his signature look—the backwards hat in batting practice—was the kind of low-stakes, PG-rated rebellion that excited kids without upsetting their parents all that much. He was notorious without being particularly controversial, which made him perfect fit with the era's brash but brand-aware optimism.

Young, but immortal. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

And what a brand he made. Griffey had four video games named after him, as well as his own candy bar. His jersey was on the back of every grade-school-aged boy in North America (except mine—telling your parents that Lenny Dykstra is your favorite player is one of those mistakes you have to live with for a while). Most important, he played the charismatic villain in the best baseball movie of all time: Little Big League.

If movies are an exaggerated version of reality, Little Big League shows how America viewed Griffey in 1994. Griffey appears on-screen for maybe five minutes, and he spends that time scuttling the season-long dream that young Billy Heywood and the Fightin' Busfields have been trying to achieve the whole movie. Griffey hits a mammoth home run, makes the season-ending catch, and mugs for the camera the whole way. Imagine an Ivan Drago that everyone liked, and that's what Griffey was in that movie. He was implacable and menacing, but also radiated a Clooney-esque charm.

Griffey's smile was as iconic as any part of his game. Looking back, he probably had such a great smile because he had a huge mouth, but at the time it just seemed like he had a greater capacity for joy than other people did. You wanted to beat Bonds, but you wanted to be Griffey. It looked like a blast.

The smile alone didn't make Griffey; the swing did. It's the prettiest swing I've ever seen, and many people older than me can say the same: starting and ending upright, but whipping the bat through the zone with tremendous grace and ferocity. Griffey's hips rotated in a flash, his arms whirling around like the leather straps on David's sling. He kept his head down and followed the ball until the moment he made contact, when he would allow the rotation of his body to bring it back up. Griffey always wound up staring off into right center, but it never seemed like he was looking for the ball; rather, he seemed to be gazing off into the future, like Balboa when he claimed the Pacific Ocean for Spain.

It's important to get some practice if you're going to be inducted into a Hall of Fame. Photo by Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

It's important that Griffey hit 630 home runs and won nine Gold Gloves, but he wouldn't have conquered the culture the way he did if that was the whole story. He had to be the most graceful star player of his generation, and the most charismatic, and somehow never come off as smarmy (like Derek Jeter) or contrived (like Alex Rodriguez) or overzealous (like Peyton Manning). Griffey did all this not only playing baseball—which is nowhere near as cool as football or basketball—but playing for a small-market team that never won anything and played most of its games after much of the country had gone to bed.

It's not easy to imagine any other player in baseball—maybe in any sport—putting these disparate elements together as deftly. The next Griffey will not only have to be an all-time great, he'll have to have that ineffable aesthetic quality to his game as well. He'll have to be ubiquitous without feeling overexposed, self-confident without being obnoxious, and charismatic without coming off as manipulative. He'll also have to at least seem like a good guy while doing all of this. We've come much closer to having a Next Bonds or a Next Maddux than we have a Next Griffey. Even among the young, exciting stars that dominate the game now, there might not be an heir.

Mike Trout is the best player in the game, a generational athlete who's always smiling and never in trouble, but he's also a thick-necked Piney without Griffey's seamless charisma. Bryce Harper is the closest comparison we have for Griffey as a player, but he was overexposed before he first put on a Major League uniform, and is somehow already on the wrong side of baseball's grump-driven culture wars. I can't think of a reason why Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa or Andrew McCutchen couldn't turn into a Griffey-like figure, or at least not yet. It's only a matter of time before one of them gets falsely branded as Not Clutch or says the wrong thing into a hot microphone. Or maybe it's just no longer possible, in such a fractured pop culture landscape, to be Ken Griffey, Jr.

It's possible that the real Next Griffey is another son of a pro athlete who plays for a cool West Coast team: Steph Curry. Curry is cool, charismatic, funny, and electrifying; he seems more or less like a good dude, on top of being one of the best players in the NBA and maybe the best jump-shooter ever. To put Curry forward as the successor to Griffey, rather than another basketball player, is to suggest that, in nearly a generation, only baseball has offered up a universally beloved crossover star of Griffey's magnitude. Which seems like a staggering notion, when you measure basketball's ability to mint and market stars and football's ubiquity against baseball's universally perceived eclipse. But maybe baseball has nothing to do with it.

It's hard enough to be famous and successful. Being famous, successful, and universally beloved, all at the same time—in sports or in any other element of the culture—is something more difficult than hitting 630 home runs. It takes an incredibly special athlete to achieve such heights. Sometimes it just looks like a miracle.