The Kid provides The Show: Griffey Jr. wows in San Diego
Mention the name Ken Griffey Jr. to Padres pitcher Carlos Villanueva and a smile races across his face.
Griffey? The Kid? The backwards hat? The looping, elegant, game-changing swing? The smooth operator who defined “five-tool player” for a generation more completely than anyone since Willie Mays?
The MVP of the 1992 All-Star Game at Jack Murphy Stadium, the last time the mid-summer carnival rolled into San Diego? The singular ballpark force elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame this year on a record 99.3 percent of the ballots?
That Ken Griffey Jr.? Yeah, Villanueva knows a little about the guy.
“Ken Griffey Jr. … let me tell you this: He was my favorite player growing up,” said Villanueva, an 11-year, big-league veteran who also played for Milwaukee, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis. “I played all his video games — obsessed with his video games. My first year of rookie ball, I played in Ken Griffey Jr. cleats.”
Villanueva simply was building up a healthy head of worshipping steam.
“And are you ready for the kicker?” he said. “My first big-league hit I gave up was Ken Griffey Jr., in Cincinnati in 2006.”
To Villanueva, no script could offer a better player to dent his professional career first and forever.
Villanueva walked to the mound in the eighth inning at the Great American Ball Park in front of a sparse collection of 16,528 witnesses. There stood Griffey, digging in during the last of his 13 All-Star seasons, cool and effortless and dangerous.
Junior doubled and homered earlier in the game. Griffey slapped a single, but Villanueva side-stepped trouble — thrilled a decade later at the players’ quick, initial crossroads.
“It was 3-2 (count), he hit it away, a groundball to short,” Villanueva recalled. “Nobody was there. We had the shift on. But I struck out the next guy and got out of the inning.
“It was an incredible feeling. The fact that I debuted and got to face him. It all comes back to, ‘Man, I grew up idolizing him.’ ”
There was plenty to fuel a kid’s boy-crush. The 630 home runs, sixth all-time. The 1,836 RBIs, 15th all-time. The 1997 American League MVP. Ten consecutive Gold Glove awards in center field. The record (along with Don Mattingly and 1950s-era Pirates player Dale Long) for consecutive games with a home run, at 8.
Griffey’s 22 seasons represented art wrapped in a uniform, with unforgettable brush and bat strokes stretching from Seattle to Cincinnati and back.
Max Scherzer, a 2013 Cy Young winner now pitching for the Washington Nationals, argued Griffey’s mark on the game was penned in permanent ink.
“The sweetest left-handed swing — ever — in the history of the game,” Scherzer said. “He changed the game in some ways. He just showed what an unbelievable athlete can do with baseball skills. A lot of times you see guys who can hit the ball, but might not be the best athlete.
“Not only was he a great athlete, he had unbelievable eye-hand coordination and a great feel for the game. Watching Ken Griffey Jr., man, that’s some of the best stuff you’ve ever seen.”
Asked to compare elements of Griffey’s game to players today — Does anyone have a dab of the swing or a dash of the athleticism? — Scherzer pondered.
“The one who most reminds me of that is (Mike) Trout with the all-around game — speed, average, hit for power, steal bases, just impacting the game in every single facet, defensively as well,” he said. “Those are players, when the ballgame is on, you tune in to watch.”
When the All-Star Game invaded San Diego in ’92, for just the second time ever and first since 1978, the American League roster bulged with so many stars that the 22-year-old Griffey hit No. 7. One rising “Jr.” was sandwiched between a pair of veteran “Jr.’s” — ironman Cal Ripken and Sandy Alomar.
A day earlier, Griffey amped the drama as he chased current Padres bench coach Mark McGwire in the Home Run Derby. He finished second (7) to McGwire’s winning total of 12.
The next night, the American League hammered away at N.L. starter Tom Glavine. Griffey laced a single to center as part of a seven-hit, four-run first inning.
The Junior Show was just beginning.
In the third, Griffey cracked another hit off another future Hall of Famer — a solo home run against Greg Maddux of the Cubs. In his third All-Star appearance, Griffey finished 3-for-3 (a triple shy of the cycle), drove in two runs and scored two more.
“Players like that don’t come around very often,” said Edgar Martinez, hitting coach for Seattle and a former Griffey teammate who also played in the 1992 game. “For all the years that I played, I didn’t see anybody who could match him on the field — offensively, defensively, on the bases.”
Griffey needed just nine pitches to be named the game’s MVP in the 13-6 runaway that tied the mark for most winning runs in All-Star history.
A.L. manager Tom Kelly of the Twins, interviewed after the game, predicted the lofty heights to which Junior would rise: “He doesn’t have a ceiling as far as I can see.”
Griffey chose a more modest description of his electric San Diego night.
“I just got lucky,” he said.
That remarkable chapter reminded the bulk of the country who rarely saw Mariners games on TV that the skill displayed for a few hours in the southwest-most corner of the U.S. — not a random alignment of stars — provided an early taste of a career unlike nearly all others.
“Junior obviously had all the tools and skills to play the game. The ability is one part,” Martinez said. “The other part is always being very confident in his ability. This game is a lot about confidence. You can have skills, but not be confident. Junior had that combination. That made him special.”
When Junior’s hall call arrived earlier this year, he topped the old standard of 98.84 percent by Tom Seaver … in 1992, the same year a blossoming player wowed fans in southern California.
There’s always a pinch of politics in Hall of Fame voting, but the fact that Griffey outpaced the entirety of the game’s all-time greats — including giants Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner — sealed his legacy.
For Villanueva, that was ensured long, long before.
“He had showmanship. You didn’t see much flavor in the game up to that point,” he said. “To my generation especially, it resonated. You wanted to go play and be like him — it’s like the Michael Jordan effect in basketball.”
Rare air, indeed.
On Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller