Whenever I think about the upcoming Hall of Fame ceremony on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., I get chills. The word "overwhelming" comes to mind, along with the words "unbelievable" and "surrealistic."
Now get this: I'm not the slugger with the pretty swing and the ridiculous collection of Gold Glove Awards who will spend Sunday afternoon at the Clark Sports Center waiting for his official induction into baseball immortality. Such an honor will belong to Ken Griffey Jr., otherwise known as Junior or The Kid, or as the most complete player of his generation.
Griffey will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, with coverage starting on MLB Network and MLB.com at 11 a.m. ET/8 PT. Ceremonies begin live at 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT.
:: Complete Hall of Fame coverage ::
I wrote the first story ever about Griffey. He was 8 years old.
I'm still shaking my head over everything, ranging from that moment I first saw this little guy with the big cap torturing his peers 38 years ago in Cincinnati's Knothole League, to the thought that he grew into a Major Leaguer who spent 22 seasons evolving into an icon -- not just for baseball, and not only for sports, but in society.
You can make the case that Griffey made it fashionable for young people to turn the bill of their cap from front to back. OK, some would say rappers, but since I'm writing about Griffey instead of Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith, I'm sticking with the person who the Mariners made the first overall pick of the 1987 Draft. Two years later, Griffey began his Major League career, and he often flipped his cap backwards with his famous smile whenever he wasn't doing the spectacular on the diamond.
Nobody ever climbed walls as a center fielder with more grace than Griffey, a master at the sprint, the jump and the catch. His 10 Gold Gloves tell only part of the story. Plus, despite his sleek frame of 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds that was built more for line drives than moon shots from home plate, he turned into one of the game's all-time greatest power hitters. Only five players have more home runs than his 630.
Griffey could run, too. Just ask the 1995 Yankees.
With the American League Division Series up for grabs at the Kingdome in Seattle, the Mariners' Edgar Martinez ripped a double down the left-field line, and Griffey kept going until he raced from first to home in the bottom of the 11th inning with a series-clinching slide.
So, the way I see it, that ALDS moment for the ages was just Griffey channeling his younger self. His Knothole League coach, Duke Hail, reminded me earlier this year during our first chat in nearly four decades about "all those times when the catcher would throw the ball back to the pitcher, and [Griffey] would just keep running around the bases."
I remember those Kenny sprints, all right, and then Hail added, "He wouldn't just steal a base. He'd head for second and keep going. He just knew that the fielder wasn't going to be able to get back to third base in time, and that he was going to beat him."
I also remember how Griffey rarely made an out during his Knothole days.
"I kept a record," Hail said, "and he came to the plate 29 times once and had 27 base hits. And another time, he was 24-for-29."
Griffey pitched, too. When he stood on the mound with his left arm that delivered blazing fastballs with accuracy, opposing players cried, and I'm talking about at the plate, in the on-deck circle and throughout the dugout.
I keep shaking my head over the memory of that and of telling my bosses at the Cincinnati Enquirer in July 1978 about how I wanted to write about this 8-year-old Knothole Leaguer terrorizing his peers. They said yes, and it didn't hurt that the kid's father was a star for the Big Red Machine, the powerhouse Reds team that dominated baseball during that decade. The Machine had Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, and it was managed by Sparky Anderson, who also is in Cooperstown. In addition, those Reds had perennial All-Stars such as Dave Concepcion, George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr.
I'm referring to Ken Jr.'s father, who played in three All-Star Games and earned the Most Valuable Player Award in one of them. He was a splendid hitter. In fact, he finished his 19-year career after the 1991 season with a .296 batting average. He was also a solid right fielder, and he combined his swift legs with those of Morgan at the top of the lineup to help the Machine become more than just a bunch of relentless sluggers. Courtesy of the older Griffey and Morgan, those Reds team still rank among baseball's top baserunning teams ever.
As good as Ken Sr. was back then, I couldn't imagine his 8-year-old son becoming greater. Not just greater than his father, but greater overall than just about everybody else who ever played the game not named Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle or Barry Bonds.
And I wrote the first story ever about Ken Jr.