Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #320, Ken Griffey (Article 63)
by Paul Semendinger
(Continuing a series…)
Ken Griffey was a Yankee for five seasons. That’s probably longer than most people remember.
Like many players who were Yankees in the 1980s, Griffey was just past his prime, but he put up some pretty good numbers in pinstripes, even if they were short of the better stats he accumulated earlier in his career for the Cincinnati Reds.
Ken Griffey’s best batting average over a full season came in 1976 when he batted .336 for the Big Red Machine. Conversely, the best he ever hit as a Yankee was .306 (still not too shabby) in 1983.
As a Cincinnati Red, Ken Griffey batted .307 over the first nine seasons of his career. His next stop was with the Yankees where he batted .285 from 1982 to 1986.
Ken Griffey came up with the Reds in 1973 and was basically a regular by 1975. He was one of the lesser stars on a team dominated by some of the biggest names in the sport at the time: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, and so many others.
In his Cincinnati tenure, Ken Griffey was a National League All-Star three times. Twice he received MVP votes.
He was a star, just not one of the biggest stars on those great teams.
Speaking of great teams… windows of opportunity for greatness open and close quickly. When the Reds were great, they were GREAT, but those big years left as quickly as they came:
1970 – World Series (lost to Baltimore)
1972 – World Series (lost to Oakland)
1973 – NL West Champs (Lost to the NY Mets in NLCS)
1975 – WON WORLD SERIES (over the Red Sox)
1976 – WON WORLD SERIES (over the Yankees)
After the 1976 World Series, the one where the Reds swept the Yankees, it seemed that that Big Red Machine might never lose again. The Reds were THE team. Their greatness was unquestioned. They had the best team, the greatest players – and they won and won and won.
And then, as fast as that, it was (basically) all over.
The Reds did reach the NLCS in 1979, but they were swept by the Pirates who went on to win the World Series.
In 1981, the Reds actually won more games than any other team, but because of the strike and the split season, they failed to reach the playoffs because they did not finish in first place in either half of the season.
Fate can be pretty tough sometimes.
The bigger picture here, which is one I come back to often, is that when a window closes, sometimes it closes forever. Quickly and forever.
There wasn’t a baseball expert (or fan) in 1976, especially after they dominated the Yankees in the World Series that would have thought that the Reds’ dynasty had just ended.
Windows close quickly. This is why, when a team is close, especially when that team is the Yankees with (very) deep pockets, they have to go for it, all in, every time. Once that window closes, it often remains closed for long periods. Very long periods.
Since 1976, the Cincinnati Reds have reached the World Series exactly once, when they won it all in 1990. That’s it. And 1990 itself was 31 years ago.
Sometimes windows slam shut.
No one, exactly zero people, would have imagined any of this in 1976 as the Reds were celebrating their dominance.
Let’s look at this another way, because it isn’t all about winning World Series:
The 1970 N.L. MVP was Johnny Bench
The 1972 N.L. MVP was Johnny Bench
The 1973 N.L. MVP was Pete Rose
The 1975 N.L. MVP was Joe Morgan
The 1976 N.L. MVP was Joe Morgan
The 1977 N.L. MVP was George Foster
All of those players were, of course, on the Reds.
It looked like it would go on forever.
A Reds player didn’t win an MVP Award after 1977 until 1995 when Barry Larkin won the award. In the years since, only Joey Votto (2010) has won the award as a Cincinnati player.
In that 1976 World Series, Ken Griffey struggled. He had just one hit in 17 at bats. That hit came in the eighth inning of Game 3 when he singled off Grant Jackson.
I would imagine that Griffey thought he’d get another chance to play in the fall classic.
That chance never came again.
Before becoming a Yankee, Ken Griffey had played a grand total of zero innings at first base. His entire career had been spent as an outfielder.
In 1983, the Yankees decided to try him as a first baseman. He played in 101 games at first that year.
That same year, the Yankees had a young player named Don Mattingly who played a whole bunch of games in the outfield.
That made no sense. I remember thinking that very same thing at the time – “The Yankees have this kid who seems so great, and he’s a first baseman…what’s Griffey doing there?”
In 1984, Griffey played all of 27 games at first. Mattingly took his spot and didn’t give it up.
In 1985, Griffey played first just once.
He would never play first base again for the Yankees.
During the 1986 season Ken Griffey (and Andre Robertson) were traded to the Atlanta Braves for Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella.
Griffey eventually returned to the Reds, but was released in late August 1990 and didn’t get a chance to relive the glory days as Cincinnati went on to win the World Series.
Instead, Ken Griffey had different, and probably better glory days, he went to Seattle to play for the Mariners with his son, Ken Griffey, Jr.
On September 14, 1990, Ken and Ken, Jr. hit back-to-back home runs for what has to be the greatest thrill for any dad who ever played baseball.
(Ethan – we might still get our chance to do this with the Yankees. I have not given up the dream.)