Today is the anniversary of what just might be the greatest HR theft in history

August 9th, 2023

Countless kids growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s had a  poster on their bedroom wall.

Griffey was the face of baseball in that era, and his sweet swing, breathtaking defense in center field and unparalleled “cool” factor made him one of the most popular athletes in pro sports.

Jacob Gonzalez was one such youngster growing up in Arizona. But this kid’s poster of “the Kid” was unlike any other.

It features a photo progression of Griffey robbing a home run. The frames begin small and increase in size as Junior is shown sprinting toward the wall, timing his jump and making the leap, at the apex of which he makes an unbelievable catch. The frames then get smaller from there, concluding with his throw back to the infield.

The poster is personalized with a message from Griffey himself.

“To Jacob,” it reads. “Sorry. I robbed your dad. All my best. (You need to hit the ball just a little harder!!!)”

Jacob Gonzalez's personalized poster of Ken Griffey Jr. robbing a home run from his father, Luis, in 1998.Luis Gonzalez

Jacob’s dad is Luis Gonzalez, who rose to prominence with the D-backs in the late 1990s and is remembered most for his game-winning, broken-bat single in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But before all of that, he had a brief stint with the Tigers.

It was in Detroit during the summer of 1998 that “Gonzo” became the victim of one of the most iconic home run robberies in baseball history.

Of all the jaw-dropping grabs Griffey made to bring a baseball back from over the wall -- the Jesse Barfield robbery at Yankee Stadium in 1990, the ’99 “curtain call” theft of Juan Gonzalez’s drive in the final game at the Kingdome and so many others -- this one stands alone as his favorite.

“I’ll tell you why,” Griffey said as he pounded a baseball into his glove, all these years later still relishing the feeling of the ball hitting the sweet spot of the same Rawlings model he used during his playing days.

“I didn’t think I was gonna get it. That’s the only one in my career I didn’t think I had a chance to catch.”

Twenty-five years later, Griffey’s robbery of Gonzalez on that overcast Sunday afternoon in the Motor City remains a marvel, a play we would have forgiven even the king of home run-stealing catches for not making.

But he did. And with the help of the principal participants, as well as those who witnessed it up close, we look back on how this unforgettable moment materialized.

‘He knew exactly what he wanted to do’

With every pitch thrown in a game, baseball affords us the possibility of something utterly astonishing taking place. 

You don’t know when it’s coming, or how. You can only be on guard for when it does.

Such was the case for the 27,987 fans on hand for the Tigers-Mariners game at Tiger Stadium on Aug. 9, 1998. In the third inning, Gonzalez stepped to the plate facing Seattle starter Bill Swift with one out and a runner at first base.

On a 1-0 pitch, Gonzalez crushed a ball deep to right-center field. Off the bat, it looked destined to become a two-run homer.

“I honestly thought it was gonna go out easily,” Gonzalez said. “When I saw Griffey start to track it, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”

Junior had been shading Gonzalez to pull, positioned slightly to the left (from his perspective) of second base. When Gonzalez made contact, Griffey got a tremendous jump. Even though he didn’t think he’d be able to reel this one in, he went after it with everything he had anyway.

As the play began to unfold, Mariners second baseman Joey Cora quickly went from thinking Gonzalez’s shot was a no-doubter to realizing that Griffey was doing much more than just giving it a courtesy look.

As it did for Gonzalez, the mere act of Griffey earnestly chasing that fly ball introduced doubt in Cora’s mind as to whether it would land anywhere other than Junior’s glove.

“That’s a really long way out there to right-center in the old Tiger Stadium,” Cora said. “But, two things: First, Junior knew the stadium because he had played there before. Second, he would go out there during batting practice and study the lay of the land. 

“He knew exactly where he was and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.”

Jay Buhner was in right field. He, too, got the same feeling as he ran toward the play.

“At first, I definitely thought it was a home run,” Buhner said. “But then again, Junior makes everything look like a video game.”

‘He was running forever’

Something most people don’t know about Tiger Stadium is an intimate detail only the men who played games there would notice.

“They didn’t cut the grass a whole lot,” Buhner said. “It makes it even harder to cover ground in that super-thick grass. It was always harder to play outfield in that ballpark because of that.”

With Statcast still 17 years away, we have no record of exactly how far Griffey had to chase Gonzalez’s deep drive that day. But by deduction using the video of the play, we can certainly get a rough idea.

From the crack of the bat, it took Junior 4.8 seconds to reach the wall. It takes the average runner about 4.3 seconds to go from home plate to first base upon putting a ball in play -- a distance of 90 feet. 

Griffey obviously wasn’t running from home to first, so we can’t equate the two -- one problem is that there is a dirt path from home to first, and Griffey was slogging through Tiger Stadium’s tall outfield grass. But it’s reasonable to conclude he had to go somewhere between 85 and 100 feet.

An amazing facet of time is that, depending on your perspective, a specific length of time can be both a flash and an eternity.

In sports, 4.8 seconds is a long time.

“He was running forever covering that ground,” Buhner said.

To add to the degree of difficulty, Griffey wasn’t going straight back to the wall. He had to run at an angle, all the while trying to gauge where the ball was going to end up as he alternated between tracking the ball’s flight and watching for the approaching fence.

It’s the rough calculus that every outfielder must undertake when he’s thinking about taking away a homer. It involves four elements: the speed at which the outfielder is traveling, the ever-shrinking distance to the wall, the speed of the baseball and its trajectory.

As Griffey’s perspective bobbed up and down with the force of each stride, he was doing this triangular calculation. But according to the greatest home run thief of them all, there’s something beyond the mathematical necessary to be successful at making such a daring play:

“No fear.”

The right type of fear

There was only one thing Ken Griffey Jr. ever feared while on a baseball field.

“I had a fear of not doing my job,” Griffey said. “It’s not so much about letting someone else down, but about letting myself down. I’m an outfielder. Everything hit to me is fair.”

All’s fair in love and dWAR.

Notice that Griffey’s was not a fear of failure. It was a fear of not doing his job, which to him entailed expending every ounce of energy he had to produce results for his team.

That fear, then, is what caused Griffey to never fear when it came to going after a ball that would test the limits of his elite defensive powers or sacrificing his body to make a play. This all-out, non-negotiable attitude toward a deep fly ball became a signature element of Junior’s defensive mystique. 

We saw it when he smashed into Fenway Park’s Green Monster to rob Wade Boggs of extra bases as a 19-year-old rookie in 1989.

We saw it again two years later at the Kingdome, when he made a sensational back-handed grab of a Ruben Sierra drive while crashing full-speed into the wall.

And we saw it in 1995, when Griffey made a very similar play to steal an extra-base hit from the Orioles’ Kevin Bass. That time, Junior broke his wrist.

“That wall ain’t moving,” he said. “So do you have the will to go run into a wall? Because that’s just the way it is.”

As Griffey sprinted after Gonzalez’s ball at Tiger Stadium, Cora and Buhner, the two Mariners closest to the play, felt their Junior robbery radar kick into gear.

It’s why they changed their outlook on the play as soon as they saw Griffey’s reaction. It’s why Gonzalez himself began to worry as he approached first base despite crushing the baseball to a place where no one but a fan had any business catching it.

“You know him,” Gonzalez said. “When he’s going full-speed after a ball, he’s got a pretty good chance at making that catch. I had seen him make a ton of great catches before, and I knew that the fact that it was an old ballpark and it’s not a well-padded wall he was getting ready to run into wouldn’t stop him.”

The writing was on the wall

We’ve all heard the term “quantum leap," usually in a figurative sense to denote the rapid advance of something to another level entirely. In the scientific context of quantum mechanics, a quantum leap is the sudden advancement of an electron or atom or molecule from one level of energy to another.

As he approached the fence, little did Griffey or anyone else know just how apt that terminology would become in a matter of seconds.

Most of Griffey’s logic-defying home run robberies involved him planting one foot into the wall and using that as leverage to propel him upward. It brought a certain flourish to those plays that only he could author, and left a mark on the wall from his spikes as if to say, “Junior was here.”

But the fence in right-center field at Tiger Stadium wasn’t suitable for that approach. It consisted of concrete covered with a thin layer of padding until about halfway up. From there up, it was a chain-linked fence.

So after running “forever,” as Buhner put it, Griffey began to brace himself for a leap straight up into the air, without the aid of planting his foot into the wall. He had to time the move just right, and he didn’t have much time to time it.

“And he times it perfectly,” Buhner said. “And the next thing you know, he’s literally about waist-high with the top of the fence. Getting that high and not using anything to get that high, it’s unbelievable.”

We knew Griffey was as athletic as baseball players come. But this -- much like his incredible burst of speed to score the most important run in Mariners history to win the 1995 AL Division Series against the Yankees -- was something we really hadn’t seen from him before.

Griffey had certainly demonstrated his leaping ability in the past. But compared to those instances, this was a quantum leap. Junior had accelerated from one level of energy to an entirely higher one.

“You watch that play again and you see he didn’t use the padding,” Buhner said. “That tells you he just had serious hops, man.”

On rare occasions, everything about a snapshot in time meshes just right. When Griffey left the earth beneath his feet to make one of the greatest catches in baseball history that day in Detroit, this moment became one of them.

It just so happens that the advertisement on the wall where Junior made the leap was for a company called “DTE Energy,” and every close-up photo that was captured of the play depicts Griffey leaping in front of the word “Energy,” as if fate had conspired to underscore the obvious.

‘What just happened?’

If it wasn’t difficult enough that Griffey had to sprint at an angle for some 85-100 feet in the thick Tiger Stadium outfield, then make a split-second decision on when to leap as he approached the wall, the old ballpark was constructed in such a way that the second deck in the outfield actually hung directly over the fence. 

It’s hard enough to rob a home run. But when you have to account for an overhang that juts out 10 feet closer to home plate than the fence itself as the ball is on its way down, it becomes nearly impossible to make a play like the one Griffey was trying to pull off.

The overhang cast a literal shadow over the warning track during certain times of the day. Many an outfielder had tracked a deep fly ball at Tiger Stadium thinking he had a chance to make a play on it, only to see it hit the second deck or land in it for a home run.

In the face of all the obstacles, Griffey caught the baseball. Given how far his arm extended over the wall when the ball hit the sweet spot of his glove, Gonzalez’s shot would have been a homer by what appears to be a good three to four feet.

The reaction of those who witnessed the astounding play in real time was a unique combination of being stunned and simultaneously unsurprised. If that sounds like a paradox, it’s because it is.

But the difference between a paradox and a contradiction is that a paradox just seems impossible, whereas a contradiction actually is.

Take Buhner’s reaction as Griffey came back to earth and fired a throw back to the infield, where the runner who had been on first base, Brian Hunter, was scampering back.

“I was trying to give him a high-five with my glove and forgot the thing was still in play,” Buhner said. “I had to duck out of the way when he made the throw. But I mean, not to play it off like it’s not a big deal, but it doesn’t surprise you. He just did that sort of thing so often, it was crazy.

“He made it all look so easy that maybe sometimes we didn’t take into account how special it was.”

Cora, from his vantage point, felt the same way. Griffey had spoiled us all, and the strange phenomenon of being stunned and not surprised at the same time was Cora’s experience as well.

“At first, I was just like, ‘What just happened?’” he said. “But playing with Junior, the expectation was that he was going to make those kinds of catches. He got us used to that.”

The greatest home run robbery of all time?

It’s a subjective question: What is the greatest home run robbery of all time?

Depending on your persuasion, there’s a myriad of possible “right” answers -- Gary Matthews Jr. in Texas, Endy Chavez in the 2006 NL Championship Series, Masafumi Yamamori in NPB, and many others could top the list.

But given the degree of difficulty and all the obstacles involved with Griffey’s catch in Detroit, could it be the finest homer-stealing play ever?

“Being an outfielder myself and knowing the dimensions of the ballpark, the ground he had to cover, the overhang and all the different things -- and how high he got -- that thing was phenomenal,” Buhner said.

“When you really stop and look at it with all the elements involved, that’s when you get a true perspective of how spectacular and special that catch was.”

Another subjective question is: What was Griffey’s greatest robbery?

When you ask him to think back on the many tremendous plays he made, he’ll bring up a few that he’s particularly fond of. There was the famous Barfield robbery in 1990 at Yankee Stadium, after which he had a smile from ear to ear in joyous jubilation. That was his first in the Majors.

There’s also a homer Griffey took away at Dodger Stadium in 2001, when he was with the Reds.

“I got Shawn Green in L.A.,” he said. “As I’m running after it, I look at [left fielder] Dmitri Young and I say, ‘I got it.’ And then I go over the wall and grab it, and he looks at me like, ‘Whoa.’”

Griffey was so skilled in the art of home run robbery that he could even call it before it happened, mid-play. But out of his highlight reel filled with them, he says his best was Detroit. 

If the Tiger Stadium catch was Junior’s greatest theft of a homer, it’s hard not to think it could be the greatest of all time.

The thrill of the theft

Immediately after Griffey made what he considers his greatest home run-stealing play, he reacted as if it was just another putout. He simply walked back to his standard position in the outfield while holding up two fingers to signify that there were now two outs in the third inning.

But don’t let that fool you. Those are the moments he relished the most during his career.

“In my opinion -- and this is a high standard -- he was a better outfielder than he was a hitter,” Cora said. “He was an amazing hitter, an awesome hitter, no doubt. But he was unreal in the outfield.

“And I think if you ask him one day, ‘What would you love to do more, hit homers or rob homers?’ I would venture to guess he’d say robbing homers. He loved robbing people. He lived for that.”

When it comes to denying a home run, Griffey is no different than so many of us in one respect: “the Kid” dreamt about it when he was a kid.

“As a kid, I’d rob homers in my bedroom,” he said. “I’d run and jump up and land on my bed, boom.”

So it was for young Jacob Gonzalez, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a third baseman in the Pirates' Minor League system. We can only imagine how many times he imitated Griffey’s robbery of his dad in Detroit as memorialized on his wall.

As for Luis Gonzalez, while he wasn't happy when it actually happened, he’s come to appreciate the greatness of what transpired 25 years ago.

“At the time, it was crushing,” he said. “But now, years later, it’s not so bad to have been robbed by a Hall of Famer like Ken Griffey Jr.”

Griffey’s theft of Gonzalez’s would-be homer in Detroit gave the spectators in attendance an unexpected thrill. They gave Junior a standing ovation, compelled to show their appreciation for an opponent of their beloved Tigers who had just made a play the likes of which they might never again see in person.

It was -- and still is -- a thrill to watch. But only one person will ever have the memory of what it felt like to actually do it. He also just happens to be the best to ever do it.

“It’s still the same thing, the same feeling, as when I would pretend to do it as a kid,” Griffey said. “It’s the dream of robbing somebody of a home run.”