This week’s edition of MLB Encore Tuesdays (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) features the classic Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners, a chance to watch Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime and Don Mattingly’s final game in pinstripes.
To get you ready for it, I was going to do the definitive ranking of Griffey’s greatest moments, but I realized that trying to rank them is impossible. Has any player had so many iconic moments? Let’s revisit them all, in chronological order, then you can figure out which one is his greatest.
First major league homer — on his first pitch at home (April 10, 1989)
Follow Ken Griffey Jr.’s career as told by “the Kid” himself.
Why it’s his greatest moment: Biologists believe love is a biological construct, since all human cultures show the capacity for it. Some scientists also believe love at first sight is possible, as our brains release oxytocin and other hormones, creating a feeling of euphoria and excitement to form an instant bond. When Griffey stepped into the batter’s box at the Kingdome for the first time in his career, most of the 33,866 fans in attendance had never seen him play, at least in person.
We had read about his exploits in the minors and in spring training, and we watched him on television during the Mariners’ season-opening road trip. He had gone 2-for-19 in those five games, however, and had yet to hit a home run. In his first home game, the first pitch he saw from Chicago’s Eric King was a fastball. The 19-year-old kid swung and lined the ball over the wall in left field. Look at the smile as he heads to the dugout. For us Mariners fans, it was an instant hit of oxytocin.
The Jesse Barfield catch (April 26, 1990)
Ken Griffey Jr. made his mark in center field putting together an impressive reel of catches.
Why it’s his greatest moment: It’s not just how far Griffey runs. It’s not just the perfectly timed leap at the wall, tearing a hole in the padding in the process. It’s not just the way he holds up his glove in exultation or the joy in his face. It’s not just Barfield’s stunned reaction or the high-fives with teammates. It’s all of that. This play is the young Griffey with his future ahead of him, a speck in time made possible by precise circumstances. This play could only happen at the old Yankee Stadium, with the deepest left-center power alleys in the majors; it could only happen with two outs, allowing Griffey to run in and celebrate; it could only happen when you’re young and still surprised by your own abilities. You’re 20 years old forever. This play is everything.
Back-to-back with Dad (Sept. 14, 1990)
On September 14, 1990 Ken Griffey and his son Ken Griffey Jr. were teammates for less than a month when the pair smacked back-to-back home runs against the California Angels. The duo became the first father-son combo to hit homers in the same game.
Why it’s his greatest moment: Forget Griffey — this might be the ultimate moment of all baseball moments. After all, what says baseball — what says America? — like fathers and sons playing catch? The old stories about the father coming home from the mine, covered in coal dust, and teaching his son how to hit, or the farmer painting a strike zone on the side of the barn, or listening to the Dodgers on the radio while sitting on the front stoop of a Brooklyn apartment building. But a father and son playing together in the major leagues? That’s W.P. Kinsella stuff. This was no publicity stunt, either, as Griffey Sr. hit .300 that season. In the first inning off Kirk McCaskill, Senior hit one out and then Junior swung at a 3-0 pitch and followed with his own home run. We’ll never see it again.
The Spider-Man catch (May 25, 1991)
Why it’s his greatest moment: With all due respect to the Barfield catch, this one was even better, even more spectacular, with an even larger degree of difficulty. It’s the greatest catch I’ve ever seen in person, and nearly 30 years later, I still can remember sitting in the Kingdome upper deck down the first-base line, watching Griffey sprint after the ball, forgetting or ignoring that there was an outfield wall in his path.
As Hall of Fame announcer Dave Niehaus says on the call, “There’s no way a human being gets to the ball.” Griffey got to it.
Home Run Derby blast at Camden Yards (July 12, 1993)
Why it’s his greatest moment: Oriole Park at Camden Yards had opened in 1992 with the old B&O Warehouse standing beyond the right-field concourse, an inviting target for left-handed hitters. At 1,116 feet long, it was said to be the longest building on the East Coast. Team officials even installed shatter-resistant glass on the windows of the first four stories of the warehouse — just in case.
No player had reached the building, however, until Griffey launched his deep drive in the Home Run Derby. OK, it was the Home Run Derby and not an actual game, but it helped cement Griffey’s reputation as a budding slugger and national superstar — not just the toast of Seattle.
The Orioles commemorated the blast with a plaque on the warehouse wall (and something that makes the moment even more impressive: all these years later, nobody has reached the warehouse yet in a game).
Homering in eighth straight game (July 28, 1993)
Why it’s his greatest moment: This is perhaps the signature Ken Griffey Jr. home run. For starters, it’s the only significant record Griffey holds, as he tied Dale Long and Mattingly for the all-time record by homering in eight consecutive games.
It’s also a classic Griffey blast: a majestic fly ball into the upper deck at the Kingdome, floating through the air like it’s in slow motion, as if God wanted to give us all a few extra seconds to appreciate the moment. Just look at the way he whips the bat through the zone, with bat speed so lightning quick he pulls a high-and-outside fastball down the line. Baseball poetry.
Home run in ‘Little Big League’ (June 29, 1994)
Why it’s his greatest moment: Was it an Academy Award-caliber performance? Perhaps not. But we do get the glare, the bat flip, the wink and the smile. Griffey would later get picked off first base on an illegal pickoff play — you can’t fake a throw to first base! — although he would redeem himself with a game-winning home run robbery.
The point here: It was Griffey featured in the film, not Barry Bonds or Frank Thomas or anybody else. Griffey was the player of the ’90s, the last baseball player who was a true pop culture icon.
First career walk-off home run (Aug. 24, 1995)
Why it’s his greatest moment: To appreciate the importance of this home run, you have to remember the state of baseball in Seattle in 1995. The Mariners had never been in the playoffs and the club was trying to get a new ballpark built. Without a new stadium, there was a good chance the team would eventually move. On Aug. 24, the Mariners were 11½ games behind the Angels in the AL West but just four games out of the wild card.
The club hoped a playoff berth would build momentum toward getting a new stadium. Time for Griffey to play hero. He had broken his left wrist making a spectacular leaping catch in late May and had just returned to the lineup on Aug. 15. This walk-off against John Wetteland completed a rally from a 7-4 deficit and jump-started an amazing run to the playoffs as the Mariners would chase down the Angels, winning the division in a tiebreaker game. It all began with Griffey’s home run. Without it? Who knows if that momentum would have ever shifted in the pennant race. Without that homer, maybe the Mariners wouldn’t even exist.
Home run in Game 5 of 1995 ALDS (Oct. 8, 1995)
Why it’s his greatest moment: The walk-off play was fantastic, but it can’t compare to a clutch home run in the playoffs, so this one, this blast off David Cone in Game 5 of the division series, has to rate as the most important of Griffey’s career. It was his first playoff series — and what a series he had.
He homered twice in Game 1 and again in Game 2, but the Mariners lost both games to the New York Yankees. He homered again in Game 4, helping the Mariners stay alive.
It came down to Game 5. Cone and the Yankees led 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth when Griffey homered to make it 4-3 and give the Mariners a little life. They would tie it later in the inning, and then in the 11th inning …
Racing home on Edgar Martinez’s double (Oct. 8, 1995)
On October 8, 1995, Edgar Martinez laced one to left field, which scores Ken Griffey Jr. from first base to lift the Mariners past the Yankees in the ALDS.
Why it’s his greatest moment: Just look at Griffey run, turning the corner at third base like a freight train rushing down the side of Snoqualmie Pass. Nobody was going to stop him. It really is beautiful, the grace and power of those long strides, Griffey moving faster than he ever had in his life. It’s the epochal moment in Mariners history — Seattle rallying to beat the Yankees and moving on to the ALCS — and ends with Griffey peeking out from under a pile of delirious teammates, a smile as big as the Cascades. The Mariners would get a new park.
Robs Don Mattingly with an amazing catch (mid-1990s)
Why it’s his greatest moment: How popular was Griffey in the 1990s? Put it this way: When Mike Trout got a custom line of shoes from Nike in 2014, he was the first baseball player rewarded with one by the company since Junior. Oh, and it was a hell of a play (and throw).
A great start to his greatest season (April 1, 1997)
Why it’s his greatest moment: Griffey always had a flair for the moment, and Opening Day is always extra special. In 11 Opening Days with the Mariners, Griffey homered in six games — including these two off Cone in 1997, a rapid start to his unanimous MVP season. Griffey led the American League in home runs (56), RBIs (147), runs (125), slugging percentage (.646) and total bases (393) while winning his eighth of 10 Gold Gloves.
Three home runs — including one mammoth blast (April 25, 1997)
Why it’s his greatest moment: Griffey had two three-homer games in his career, including this game against the Blue Jays that featured two home runs off Roger Clemens when Clemens was at the height of his powers. The first one, hit over the Hard Rock Café at the Skydome, had to be one of the longest of Junior’s career. Oh, Griffey hit .311/.392/.589 against Clemens in 102 career plate appearances. Look at the swing. Have you ever seen anything so perfect?
The last home run at the Kingdome (June 27, 1999)
Why it’s his greatest moment: The Kingdome was, admittedly, not a pretty place to watch baseball. It was gray and covered and there was that time the roof tiles fell and nearly killed Cal Ripken Jr. But it was our stadium. Before Griffey arrived, it was also mostly empty, the home teams as dreary as the concrete. Griffey gave it life. So when the Mariners played their final game there, it was fitting that Griffey would hit the final home run — of course he would hit the last one. There were cheers and more than a few tears.
The Mariners moved into Safeco Field, and while Griffey played just half a season there (before returning later in his career), it’s not an exaggeration to call it the “Stadium That Griffey Built.”
600th career home run (June 9, 2008)
Why it’s his greatest moment: This was the exclamation point on Griffey’s legacy, the final proof that he was one of the best ever.
We know his years in Cincinnati were disappointing, full of injuries and losing seasons, and it still feels weird watching highlights of him in a Reds uniform (especially with “3” on his back instead of “24”), but he became just the sixth player to hit 600 home runs. Three more have done it since, but it remains an elite company of sluggers. He finished with 630 home runs. Consider yourself lucky if you saw some of them.