The date is April 3rd, 1989, and the Mariners are playing the Oakland Athletics at The Coliseum. After a Harold Reynolds pop-out, a 19-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. steps into the batter’s box for his first major league plate appearance. All eyes were on Junior, as they had been for a while. Griffey was a highly touted prospect since high school, and after spending only a year in the minor leagues, he was ready. Griffey watches a Dave Stewart strike go by, his nerves probably through the roof, but he remained calm on the outside. The second pitch, which was the second Griffey had ever seen as a major league baseball player, was a low forkball to the outside. He took it deep into center field for a double.
Exactly one week later, Griffey hit his first home run. The rest is history.
When we think of Ken Griffey Jr. we think of the sweetest swing in MLB history, we think of home runs, sportsmanship, and just about everything that is good and right in baseball. For me, I remember being six years old, as a tee-baller, I had just gotten an Nintendo 64 along with Ken Griffey Jr’s Slugfest. That was the first time I had ever heard of him. I would play that game for hours, just sitting there, hitting bombs with Griffey. It was like using him was a cheat-code.
I always aspired to be, yet never was able to be a good baseball, basketball, or football player for that matter. That’s why I write about them. Griffey inspired a whole generation of kids to wear 24. He made wearing backwards hats the coolest. Most kids mimicked Junior’s batting stance in their mirror in hopes that one day, they’d be able to hit bombs like he did. In terms of impact, very few had a positive cultural impact that Griffey did. Commercials, video games, signature shoes with Nike, and the Swingman logo. Shortly put, Ken Griffey Jr. became a brand. People respected him for the way he played, and the fact that he was as a 13x All-Star and 10 straight Golden Glove award winner, didn’t hurt his cause either.
Everything comes at a price.
Things weren’t always great for Griffey. Being a 17-year-old baseball prodigy isn’t easy when greatness is expected, and sometimes teenagers just want to be teenagers. It led to arguments with his father, as he was quoted as saying
“It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there, I got depressed. I got angry. I didn’t want to live.”
In January of 1988, at just 17-years-old, Ken Griffey Jr. tried to kill himself by swallowing 277 aspirin. Sometimes, the people we never expect to have anything going wrong can be the people who are hurting inside the most. It’s hard being a teenager, but being on your own, playing minor league ball, dealing with the pressures of being great, being yelled at on the field, being yelled at home, and still being a teenager, Griffey just wanted it all to end. He even spoke about having the thought of killing himself more than once with his father’s gun. His girlfriend’s mother rushed him to the hospital after he ingested the aspirin, and the young Griffey ended up in intensive care. Even in the hospital, he was being yelled at by his father, until he ripped the IV out of his arm, and the yelling stopped. He’s stated that after the suicide attempt, his relationship with his father completely changed, and for the better.
The whole time I was growing up, I never knew about Griffey’s suicide attempt. I went through my elementary, and middle school years without knowing, until I got to high school and was reading up on him, and it put things into perspective for me. At the moment I first read it, I felt like I realized why I had been a fan all of these years. It stopped being solely about baseball and sportsmanship, and became about the fact that he had been feeling the same way millions of other teenagers do. People always raise celebrities to levels of immortality and refer to them as “heroes,” without actually having done anything deserving of being a hero, but he gave us a real moment, with real advice.
“Don’t ever try to commit suicide, I am living proof how stupid it is.”
Griffey Jr. is a hero to a generation of baseball fans, and sure, he was my favorite player growing up, but he became my hero the second I realized that I could relate. Sometimes when I’m going through a rough time, all I need is the feeling that there’s someone out there battling the same battles that I am.
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald hit the nail right on the head with this quote. Only can someone become a hero after facing a tragedy, and in Griffey’s case, he was able to emerge as a hero only after hitting his lowest. That really can be a testament to all of us.
Information courtesy of:
The Seattle Times