Prospect Retrospective: Ken Griffey, Jr.
There are players, and great players, and players who make you go "wow." Ken Griffey, Jr., was one of the latter, a gifted athlete with outstanding physical tools who quickly turned those tools into baseball skills, becoming one of the greatest players of his generation. Younger fans may only be conscious of the aging Griffey, but those of us who remember the entire arc of his career see him as one of the all-time greats.
Yet none of it might have happened: aspirin and despair almost snuffed Griffey's life out before it began.
Griffey grew up around the game: his father Ken Griffey was a solid major league outfielder and a key cog in Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the 1970s. As good as Senior was (.296/.359/.431, 118 OPS+ in 2097 games, 32.3 WAR), it became apparent that his son was better.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Junior stood out as an excellent high school athlete who could have gone on to play college football had he not committed to the diamond, where his speed, power, arm strength, and overall defensive ability made him a premium prospect. The tools were first-class, but he had a good feel for the game as well, and was recognized as the best high school player available in the 1987 draft.
The budget-conscious Seattle Mariners had the first-overall pick. The team was for sale and there was some concern that owner George Argyros might mandate the selection of a college player. Fortunately, the baseball men in the front office (GM Dick Balderson and scouting director Roger Jongewaard) prevailed: Griffey was selected, then signed quickly for $160,000.
Griffey was sent to Bellingham in the Northwest League. Still just 17 years old, he dominated the circuit by hitting .313/.445/.604 with 14 homers, 13 steals, 44 walks, and 42 strikeouts in 228 plate appearances. He finished second in the league in OPS; keep in mind that he was playing against older competition, much of it with college experience.
The scouting reports were glowing and the numbers were excellent. He was a clear Grade A prospect. It seemed likely that he wouldn't need more than a year in the minor leagues. Griffey was about as can't-miss as you can get.
Then he tried to kill himself.
For all the success on the field, Griffey's personal life was in turmoil. He was depressed and lonely. He felt baseball pressure on and off the field, and was angry over issues with his father.
"It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there," Griffey recalled. "I got depressed. I got angry. I didn't want to live."
In January, 1988, it came to a head. He thought about shooting himself, but instead swallowed an entire bottle of aspirin, 277 tablets in all.
That much aspirin will kill you, painfully, if medical attention isn't received quickly enough.
Fortunately for Griffey, his girlfriend's mother got him to the hospital in time, where doctors pumped his stomach and put him in intensive care. He recovered and got himself back together mentally quickly enough to open '88 in the California League on schedule.
He blew through High-A competition, hitting .338/.431/.575 with 11 homers, 32 steals, 34 walks, and 39 strikeouts in 256 plate appearances over 58 games. Promoted to Double-A Vermont, he was limited to just 17 games by a back injury, but he had few problems in those 17 games, hitting .279/.353/.492. He was clearly a Grade A prospect.
Griffey seized the Mariners center field job in 1989 at age 19, hitting .264/.329/.420 with 16 homers and 16 steals with 44 walks and 83 strikeouts over 506 plate appearances. Aside from a one-game rehab assignment in 1995, Griffey never returned to the minor leagues.
He just got better from there, pushing his batting average over .300 in 1990 (with 22 homers). His home run power grew steadily. His power, on-base ability, and defense ran up the WAR values quickly: 5.0 in '90, 6.9 in '91, 5.5 in '92, 8.7 in '93.
From 1990 through 1999, Griffey hit .302/.384/.581 with 382 homers and a 152 OPS+, leading the American League in home runs four times. He won 10 Gold Gloves in 10 years.
You know the story from here. Traded to Cincinnati for 2000, he struggled through a long series of health problems, playing just 70 games in '02, 53 in '03, and 83 in '04. He was still a dangerous power hitter, but the difference between the amazing Griffey of '94 and the aging Griffey of '04 was obvious to all. According to WAR anyway, he was little more than a replacement level player the last few years of his career.
Griffey finally retired after one final curtain call with the Mariners in '09 and '10 (.208/.310/.369 in 562 plate appearances, though he did knock 19 homers and draw 72 walks).
He finished with a career line of .284/.370/.538, OPS+ 136, with a 78.5 WAR.
Griffey's Sim Score comps: Frank Robinson, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Reggie Jackson, Mel Ott, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Chipper Jones. Robinson, Jackson, and Ott are Hall of Famers and Chipper will be, but PEDs taint Griffey's other contemporaries.
WAR shows his case better than Sim Scores. Among center fielders, Griffey's 78.5 WAR rank sixth all-time, between Joe DiMaggio (83.0) and Al Simmons (69.9). Among career outfielders of all stripes, he ranks 18th in the neighborhood of DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente (80.8), Fred Clarke (75.1), and Paul Waner (74.5).
Yet none of it might have happened at all if the 17-year-old Griffey had chosen a different suicide method, or if medical attention hadn't been received quickly enough.
"Talk to people. Go another way. Don't kill yourself. It ain't worth it and I'm a great example. No matter how bad it seems at the time, work your way through it. Who knows how your life is going to turn out?"