I’ve interviewed my share of professional baseball players over the last 15 years (most of them Memphis Redbirds). The most consistent answer I’ve heard to any regular question has been the favorite player of these men growing up: Ken Griffey Jr. Infielders, outfielders, pitchers, it doesn’t matter. Almost invariably, they made their own way on baseball diamonds with Junior — or the Kid, as he was affectionately known — as their model.
And journalists loved Griffey just as much. Last week, Junior was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of the total vote — 99.3 percent — in the history of the institution. (Tom Seaver had held the record for 23 years.) Three voters were apparently napping in the press box as Griffey hit 630 home runs and won 10 Gold Gloves over a 22-year career, primarily with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds. Griffey, sadly, is just the fourth first-ballot Hall of Famer never to have played in a World Series game. (The others: Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, and Frank Thomas.) Which only proves how cruel baseball can be, for no player — including Banks — combined supreme talent with a child-like love for playing the game like Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey is just the second man younger than me to enter the Hall of Fame (after 2015 inductee Pedro Martinez). As an 18-year-old outfielder in 1988, Griffey played 17 games with the Double-A Vermont Mariners, who played their home games at Centennial Field in Burlington. The previous year, I played my last high school game — a Vermont state championship — in the same stadium, the same outfield. So I can claim one (and precisely one) baseball memory in common with Junior Griffey, the planet’s greatest player of my generation.
Here’s where Griffey’s story gets bittersweet, and reflects the generational pull of our national pastime. The Kid is a middle-aged man. His Hall of Fame induction will serve as that mile-marker baseball fans use for players of “yesteryear,” the greats who had their day and have stepped aside for a current crop of sluggers, speed-demons, and flame-throwers. For me personally, his induction is a reminder of one boy’s dream not quite realized. (I’ll give up on being a big-league player the day I draw my last breath. I have my glove at the ready; just need a phone call.) And a reminder that no matter how skilled we might be on a baseball diamond, no matter how much we love our time on the base paths or in the outfield, there comes a time for plaques, speeches, and gentle applause. Can the Kid actually have gray hair? Impossible.
The annual Cardinals Caravan rolls into Memphis this Friday (doors open at AutoZone Park at 5:30). Among the headliners appearing will be a current St. Louis Cardinal All-Star (Michael Wacha) and one who appears to have an All-Star Game or two in his future (Stephen Piscotty). Also appearing will be a pair of former Cardinals — a different generation — who are best remembered in these parts for their exploits with the Memphis Redbirds. Stubby Clapp (now 42) will be here, and I’m guessing for the right price he just might try a backflip. Bo Hart (now 39 and living in Memphis) will also be here, the man who succeeded Clapp at second base for the Redbirds in 2003. Upon being promoted by the Cardinals that summer, Hart picked up 18 hits in his first 35 at-bats, a debut unmatched by any other player in major-league history (including Junior Griffey). Hart played a total of 88 games in the big leagues, but he lived the dream, particularly for two weeks.
In my personal Field of Dreams, Ken Griffey Jr. would be in the lineup. So would Stubby Clapp and Bo Hart. I’d be the guy merely asking one of them to play catch a few minutes. Baseball is indeed timeless. There will be new heroes to compare with those your parents cheered, just as your folks compared their heroes with those of your grandparents. But relish the moments provided by those of your own generation, particularly a Hall of Fame induction. Baseball may be timeless, but alas, we are not.