Re-evaluating Ken Griffey, Jr.'s place in Reds history

He was better -- far better -- than you remember

Our old friend Ken Griffey Jr. was in the news lately. You may have seen that Junior purchased shares in the Seattle Mariners franchise and joined the Mariners Partnership Group. He’s a part-owner of the M’s!

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ken Griffey Jr. lately. Perhaps it’s because the 2021 Reds season ended with such a thud, and so I wasn’t ready for baseball to end quite so soon, but my mind keeps drifting back to some of the fun times in Cincinnati baseball history. I’m guessing you don’t remember the Junior Griffey era as a lot of fun. But that guy is a Cincinnati legend, and we should all remember him that way.

Who can forget that day in February of 2000 when Junior returned home? Perhaps the best player in baseball — or anyway, that’s how most people referred to him — wanted to play for the Reds.

Remember it? This was the MVP, Ken Griffey Jr. A ten-time All-Star. Ten Gold Gloves. The Kid! He was on The Simpsons! Even in retrospect, it’s hard to believe that he wanted to come here. At the time, it was next to unthinkable.

Here’s how my favorite baseball writer, Joe Posnanski, described young Junior:

Junior was such a joy to watch play baseball as young player. He had this youthful exuberance, he exuded joy (he wore his hat backward, which drove the get-off-my-lawn grumps insane but was for people of his generation just about the coolest look ever), and there was that singular grace he played with — the way he ran after fly balls, the way he moved on the bases, the way he would turn on even the best fastballs, all of it just seemed impossibly lovely. That’s the word that comes to mind. Lovely. They used to say that Fred Astaire just standing against a building looked like a dancer. Junior standing outside waiting for the team bus looked like a ballplayer.

That’s it. That’s the guy who was joining our Reds.

You know the rest of the story, or at least you think you know the story. But Junior’s time with the Reds, despite all the injuries and despite the fact that he was no longer The Kid, was pretty memorable.

In his first season with the Redlegs, Junior mostly looked like the same guy we saw in Seattle. He hit .271/.387/.556 with 40 homers and 118 RBI in 145 games. The Reds, coming off that magical 1999 season, won 85 games, and appeared to be on the precipice of big things.

Obviously, that never came to pass, but Junior continued to produce when he was on the field. In his first six seasons with the club, Griffey hit .276/.369/.539 with an OPS+ of 131. He averaged 38 home runs and 106 RBI per 162 games over those six years, through 2005. We’d love to have someone with those numbers on the current roster, right?

The problem, of course, is that Junior averaged just 98 games per season during that span. But I choose to remember just how awesome he was to watch when he was on the field, wearing that beautiful red and white (and — ugh — sometimes black).

Look at his entire 8+ year career with the Reds. He hit .270/.362/.514, an OPS+ of 122. Junior hit 210 home runs as a Red, good for ninth on the all-time franchise list. He represented Cincinnati in three All-Star games. He hit his 500th* and 600th career home runs. He was elected to the Reds Hall of Fame.

*Remember that 500th, which he hit on Father’s Day, with his dad in the stands? (You remember his dad, Ken Griffey? He was a pretty darn good Red in his own right.) Still brings chills — and I hate to say that the St. Louis crowd was actually classy on that day.

Ken Griffey Jr. was not the greatest Red of all time. He was one of the best players ever to play for this franchise, however.

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So whether some fans want to remember it or not, there were plenty of good times during Junior’s tenure in the Queen City. He could hit. He could play defense, at least in the beginning. And he was a prankster! Not all of these happened in Cincinnati, but the stories of Griffey’s dedication to the prank are legion. There is the time that he owed $1500 to Josh Fogg and paid the debt in pennies. Or when he answered a heckling fan in Los Angeles by tossing him an autographed jockstrap. Or when he lost a steak dinner bet to Lou Piniella, and paid it back like this:

The best one, of course, is when Adrian Beltre returned to the field after a horrific injury in which he suffered a torn right testicle. Junior arranged to have “The Nutcracker Suite” played when Beltre walked to the plate for his first at-bat.

When Junior’s tenure in Cincinnati finally drew to a close, it was bittersweet for me. That won’t surprise you if you’ve read anything I’ve written recently over the years. I get sentimental about these things, what can I tell you?

The day after he was traded, as I rounded up all the coverage of the trade for Redleg Nation, I had only this to say: “So long, Junior. We’re going to miss you.”

I still miss him, but I’m glad I got to see Junior play in a Cincinnati uniform. I’ll never forget that sweet swing, or that smile, even if we saw it less often as the years passed. I’ll never forget how excited I was to walk into the ballpark and see Junior play for the first time as a Red. These are the things that appeal to me as a baseball fan. As a Cincinnati Reds fan.

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In the years since Ken Griffey Jr. played for the Reds, I’ve become a big fan of Premier League football (soccer). My favorite team is Tottenham Hotspur, a club from north London whose star player is named Harry Kane. Kane grew up a Tottenham fan in north London, dreamed of playing for Spurs, and — until this summer — took obvious delight in being able to play for his “hometown” club.

These days, every time Kane scores a goal — which he does more often than almost anyone else in the Premier League — Tottenham fans begin singing their favorite chant: “Harry Kane, he’s one of our own.”

We don’t do the chanting thing in baseball, but: Ken Griffey Jr. is one of our own. He grew up here, was a high school star here, and at the height of his fame, he wanted nothing more than to play for the Cincinnati Reds. As far as I’m concerned, he is and always will be a Cincinnati kid, and I’ll remember him fondly.


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