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The Incomparable Summertime Joy of Ken Griffey Jr.

‘The Kid’ embodied the very best of baseball, especially during the brief period he played side-by-side with his father — Ken Griffey Sr.

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

During his rookie season in 1989, Ken Griffey Jr. stepped up to the plate at the Kingdome in Seattle and, with his very first swing in a home game, unloaded a shot to left field. It was a home run that would launch his record-breaking baseball career — one that came to define baseball as a sport about the bond between fathers and sons and one that constantly reminded us of the absolute joy of the game. 

The very next year, Junior was joined on the Mariners by his father, Ken Griffey Sr., marking the first time a father and son had played on the same team at the same time. They would run onto the field together, one headed left, the other headed straight ahead to center field; on their backs they wore two different numbers, but the same name. 

Father and son

The playfulness of their relationship — which included spirited antics and occasional pranks — was a rare sight in professional sports. Griffey Sr. would later recall one particular night game against the Chicago White Sox. “When I first got in the outfield, I said, ‘I’m gonna cover three square feet and the rest is yours,’” Griffey Sr. said in an interview.

In the top of the ninth, the Mariners were down 5-4. Another future home run king, Sammy Sosa, was at the plate for the Sox. He took a chop at a pitch. The announcer called the action: “Sammy shoots a high fly out to left-center… and it’s Ken Griffey Jr. taking the play away from his father.”

“I started ducking because I didn’t know where the ball was — I thought I was going to get hit in the head,” Griffey Sr. recalled. “I didn’t think it was funny. So what I did was, I jogged off the field, got into the dugout and I said, ‘C’mere, you’re grounded. And I took the car keys from him.’”

Their best moment together, though, was during a September 1990 night game in Anaheim. As he batted, the announcer spoke about Griffey Sr.’s past accomplishments, fully unaware he was about to witness MLB history. “Ken’s had some success against the Angels when he was in the American League, prior to joining the Mariners—”

Griffey Sr. connected with a pitch served up right over the plate, smacking it deep to center. “Fly ball, sliced to fairly deep left-center field, Devon White back at the track, at the wall, makes the leap — and the old man has done it one more time. Fly away!”

Next, Junior stepped up to bat. “In such a short period of time, it seems like Senior and Junior have done so many things as a first for father-and-son, but they haven’t done a back-to-back home-run trot yet,” the announcer said, tempting fate.

The left-handed hitter with the sweet swing got underneath a 3-0 pitch and drove it to left-centerfield, just like his old man. “And father and son have hit back-to-back home runs! My oh my, put that in your baseball history books. The first time in history that a father-son combo have hit back-to-back home runs!” 

The Griffeys played 51 games together over the course of the 1990 and 1991 seasons, after which Griffey Sr. retired. Their special bond, however, was still felt on the field. Junior, for example, was the youngest player to hit 400 home runs, a mark he accomplished on his dad’s birthday. Then, he hit his 500th home run on Father’s Day. Both times, his dad was there.

Junior shined on the field without his father, too. He was unquestionably one of the best fielders and most powerful hitters of his generation — winning 10 Gold Gloves and hitting 630 home runs over the course of his 22-year career, the seventh most of all time. His most impressive year was arguably 1997, when, at age 27, he led the American League in homers (56) and RBIs (147), and hit .304 with 15 stolen bases. After the season, he would be honored with his one and only MVP award.

But for fans like me, he was just the coolest player in the game. His swing was the smoothest thing you’ve ever seen that wasn’t made out of silk, spring-loaded with speed and power. In fact, during the 1993 All-Star festivities, Junior competed in the home-run derby held at the new Camden Yards in Baltimore. The ballpark included an old warehouse in its design, which was located 465 feet from home plate. Junior, of course, hit it with one of his moon shots, a smile on his face the whole time.

When Junior was named to the baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, his name appeared on 99.3 percent of the ballots, an overwhelming majority that marked another record. During his induction speech, he reflected on the game, the fans, his coaches and fellow players and, through tears, on his father and all he owed to him. “To my dad, who taught me how to play this game, but more importantly he taught me how to be a man. How to work hard, how to look at yourself in the mirror each and every day and not to worry about what other people are doing,” he said. “I was born five months after his senior year. And he made a decision to play baseball to provide for his family. Because that’s what men do. And I love you for that.”

That bond — and the exuberance that trailed Junior wherever he went — was undeniable and plain for all to see, no matter their own exploits and greatness. “I was there that day,” fellow Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson once said in an interview, recalling the time father and son hit back-to-back home runs. “What I remember about the game is certainly the two home runs, but the fun that Ken Griffey Jr. was having, playing with his dad. Their joy, of just being with each other as dad and son was something that you’d never seen, and it was so special that you just had to appreciate it, you just had to enjoy it and recognize the specialness of it between two people.”