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Somehow, Ken Griffey Jr. is 50 years old. This can’t possibly be true because I watched his debut as a 19-year-old just a few years ago. That was in 1989, which was, at most, 12 years ago and definitely not 30 years ago. Maybe it’s just fake news. Or maybe we’re all just getting old.
But it’s also hard to believe that Griffey is halfway to 100 simply because he’s still such a big deal in baseball circles. His career as an athlete was one of the few that transcended sports and seeped into greater popular culture, and we still see the ripple effects. In some ways, he’s still the face of MLB, which, as I’ve written before, isn’t the best thing. But it also speaks to the presence he carries just by existing.
His generational talent aside, Griffey is not just another Hall of Famer whose picture fans might snap if they see him in public. His aura and his ever-present but matured swagger is still enough to draw a crowd when he shows up someplace. I saw this up close in July during All-Star festivities in Cleveland.
MORE: Tracking Griffey’s rise to fame in the pages of The Sporting News
I was standing near the visitors’ dugout at Progressive Field a few hours before the Futures Game, just taking everything in. There was nothing exciting happening, just media types, stadium workers and coaches milling around as the young Futures did warm-ups on the field. Then I turned to my left. There, just standing there and chatting, in a polo shirt and jeans, was Ken Griffey Jr. I did a mental double-take. Whoa. That’s Ken Griffey Jr.
He must have just arrived on the field because the only person who seemed to have noticed was Sean Casey, Griffey’s former teammate on the Reds and a coach for the American Futures, who was chatting him up in front of the dugout. But it didn’t take long for everyone else to notice. One by one, as people realized The Kid was standing right there, the crowd grew. Photographers snapped pictures. TV cameras rolled. More coaches and former players came up for handshakes and hugs. Everybody wanted a piece. And, as usual, Griffey greeted it all with that youthful smile.
(Jason Foster/SN) When Ken Griffey Jr. shows up, everyone wants to talk to him.
This isn’t to say a similar thing wouldn’t have happened with other Hall of Famers, but I’m fairly certain the buzz that surrounded Griffey is reserved for a select few, for those who seem to be more than just baseball players — think Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson. I don’t know for certain that I would’ve felt the need to take pictures and video that day had it been anyone else. But there was just something that clicked in my head that said, “Document this.” That’s just the special allure of Ken Griffey Jr.
My favorite part of the whole encounter was when Harold Reynolds, Griffey’s ex-teammate with the Mariners, walked up behind him and playfully smacked him on the arm a couple of times to get his attention. Griffey turned around, saw Reynolds and, as a good teammate does, roasted him.
“That’s the hardest thing you’ve hit in 30 years,” Griffey said with a smile.
Still playful, still The Kid.
(Jason Foster/SN) Ken Griffey Jr. is interviewed by a young MLB correspondent during All-Star festivities in Cleveland.
MORE: When The Kid and his dad made history with back-to-back homers
I never saw Griffey play in person and he was long retired by the time I got into sportswriting. As far as I know, that day in Cleveland is the only time I’ve been near him. I’ve seen other baseball legends in person through the years, and it’s always cool when it happens. But my brush with Griffey belongs in its own category. I, along with everyone else on the warning track dirt that day at Progressive Field, knew it was something special.
That, nearly a decade after he played his last game, is what Ken Griffey Jr. still means to baseball.