Ken Griffey Jr. was a movement. He didn’t change baseball, but “The Kid” made it cool. He didn’t invent the swing, he just gave it impossible grace. Baseball has never been easy. Junior only made it look that way.
With his backwards hat and a smile tailor made for the spotlight, Griffey was an instant icon when he made his pro debut at 19. In his first ever at bat in Oakland, he smoked a line-drive double. In his home debut a week later, Griffey outdid himself by hitting a home run in his first at bat. In two swings, he done changed the game.
King of the moment. King of the Kingdome. King of Swing.
As a teenage phenom who hung around ballparks with his big-league father, Ken Griffey Sr., Junior had a spotlight on him since his days at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati. Before Kobe and LeBron, there was “The Kid” himself, the No. 1 overall who was the number one overall, as in first, predicting the wave of phenoms and showing how to get it done. He adrenalized America’s pastime while throwing down a beat.
How to quantify such a run? A legacy that transcended sports? A decade of gold gloves. Thirteen All Star appearances, three home run crowns and 630 home runs over the course of a career. King of thump. King of kings. Even Michael Jordan sought Ken Griffey Jr. out for an autograph during an All-Star weekend. Game recognizes game. Rappers like Jay-Z and Macklemore sang about him, while other pro athletes stood in awe. Ballparks came to life when Junior came to the plate. History was in the air.
“I used to make my sons watch batting practice with me, always reminding them this was the Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays of their generation,” Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden, once said. “I told them they’d never see another swing as special as his.”
It was a swing of equal grace and ferocity.
King of Baseball, and the King of Clean. Junior did it his way, and his way was natural. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t cause problems. What he did was become a legendary role model for youth and leave a lasting image for which to strive.
The backwards cap, the million-dollar smile, the symphonic swing — Ken Griffey Jr. was the picture of impossibly cool.