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Griffey Not Unanimous Choice For Hall Of Fame? Don't Worry, Be Happy

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Michael E. Keating
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Ken Griffey Jr. celebrates his 500th home run, hit in St. Louis in 2004.

Wednesday, after Ken Griffey Jr. sat in his home outside Orlando, surrounded by family, TV cameras and some writers who had covered him over the years, took the call on his smart phone, the one telling him he had been elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

It is a call that baseball fans from Seattle to Cincinnati and everywhere in between had been anticipating ever since he made his major league debut at the age of 19, fresh out of Moeller High School.

We expected it because we saw him play – we saw that perfect, balanced swing that could send balls soaring out of the ball park; we saw that those legs churning in centerfield to rob countless hitters of home runs and extra base hits.

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Credit Michael E. Keating
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Ken Griffey Jr. (right) with his dad, Ken Griffey and brother Craig in the Reds dugout.

He was Junior. The Kid. The Natural.

The Kid who was the son of Ken Griffey, right fielder for the Big Red Machine, who grew up in the clubhouse in the 1970s surrounded by what many will say is the best team in the history of the game.

We have known since May 30, 2010, when he played his last game,  that this day would come. Cooperstown was simply waiting for the mandatory five years out of baseball before opening its doors to one of the most amazing, most talented and, sometimes, most enigmatic, players ever to step on to a baseball field.

Yet, on Wednesday night and on Thursday, the social media was on fire from coast to coast, with wailing and gnashing of teeth from baseball fans who could not understand how it could be possible that the vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America was not unanimous.

Griffey’s name was not included on three of the 440 ballots cast.

An outrage; an insult, they called it. Some even suggested that if the names of the three baseball writers ever become known, they should be permanently banned from ever voting for Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

To them, I can only say -- relax.

It’s OK. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter to Junior – and he made that abundantly clear Wednesday – then why should it matter to you?

The glass-half-empty crowd is simply wrong. The glass is far more than half full.

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Credit Michael E. Keating
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Ken Griffey Jr. loosening up.

The fact is this:

Ken Griffey Jr. was voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame with 99.31 percent of the vote.

That is the highest percentage in the history of the game.

Prior to Wednesday, the highest was Tom Seaver in 1992, who had 98.84 percent of the vote.

Babe Ruth, who went into the Hall in the inaugural class of 1936, had 95.13% of the vote.

Willie Mays. Hank Aaron. Honus Wagner. Ted Williams. Stan Musial. Roberto Clemente.

All of them entered the Hall of Fame with a lower percentage of the vote.

Under the rules, all you have to do is reach the 75 percent threshold to gain entry to Cooperstown.

Maybe the three who did not vote for Griffey will reveal themselves. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will explain the fact that they passed over the one sure-fire Hall of Famer on this year’s ballot. And maybe they won’t.

Maybe they figured that Griffey was going to get in anyway and decided to use one of their votes to help boost a marginal player they thought was deserving of election. Or maybe they simply didn’t believe anyone merited a unanimous vote.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter.

Should it matter to the hundreds of thousands of kids and adults in Seattle and Cincinnati who, for his 22 seasons in the big leagues and beyond, went to the ball park wearing jerseys with Griffey’s number on their backs – 24 in Seattle, 30 in Cincinnati to honor his dad and, later, number 3, to honor his three kids?

Here is what matters:

-         13 All Star game appearances, including 1992, where was named most valuable player;

-         630 home runs (210 of them with the Reds), the sixth-highest total in Major League Baseball history;

-         An American League Most Valuable Player away in 1997, when he put up some epic numbers - .304 batting average, 56 home runs, 147 RBI, 125 runs scored and 393 total bases;

-         A 22-year-career in which he had 2,781 hits;

-         10 Gold Glove awards for his defense and seven Silver Slugger awards for being the best hitter at his position.

-         And, after three injury-plagued seasons in Cincinnati, he was named the National League’s 2005 Comeback Player of the Year with the Reds.

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Credit Michael E. Keating
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Ken Griffey Jr., a Gold Glove center fielder.

The only thing he does not have is a World Series ring. That was not to be. The closest he came was in 1995, when his Mariners defeated the Yankees in the first year of the division series but lost to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.

In a statement released by the Reds Wednesday, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, who was Griffey’s teammate from 2000 to 2004, said Griffey “played the game the right way offensively; he impacted the game defensively.

“Junior had great range, tremendous athleticism and a canon of an arm,’’ Larkin said. “And he played with a smile on his face. It was an honor to play alongside the one of the greatest players in the history of the game.”

The Reds, too, had a statement from Hal McCoy, the Hall of Fame baseball writer.

“Due to injuries, we in Cincinnati did not get to see the real Junior, but we saw enough,’’ McCoy said. “We were privileged to see home runs number 400, 500, and 600 in a Reds uniform. More importantly to me, Junior was a good friend and a Hall of Fame person.”

Griffey, after more than a decade in Seattle, where he had become the dominant player in the game, became a Red on Jan. 10, 2000 in a trade for outfielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Bret Tomko, and minor leaguers Jake Meyer and Antonio Perez.

Cincinnati and all of “Reds Country” was beside itself with glee; the town could talk of nothing else. Junior was coming home where he belonged!

The late Carl Lindner was the team’s owner then; he flew Griffey into town on his private jet and personally drove him down to Riverfront Stadium for his first press conference as a Red.

The town was delirious. There was no trade, before or since, that caused so much joy in Reds Country.

His first year was very much what Reds fans had hope for – a season with 40 home runs and 118 RBI.

But, after 2000, the injuries began to set in.

The knee injuries. A hamstring injury where the muscle was torn completely off the bone and had to, in effect, be nailed back into place.

He was never quite the same Junior after that.

But, when he was healthy, he played hard and was productive. His 210 home runs as a Red rank him seventh on the club’s all-time list of home run hitters.

There were those among the Reds’ fan base who grumbled that he was a malingerer; that he didn’t want to play.

But the man was hurt much of the time, often seriously. What they did not see was the hard work of rehab he put himself through in private in order to return to form . Hard work, pride, determination – all traits his father taught him as he grew up in that Big Red Machine clubhouse many years ago.

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Credit Michael E. Keating
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Teammates greet Griffey after a home run.

By July of 2008, though, the Reds had decided to retool and go in a different direction; and that meant Griffey was traded on July 31 to the Chicago White Sox for reliever Nick Masset and infielder Danny Richar. The next month, the Reds’ big home run hitting left fielder, Adam Dunn, was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

We had nearly nine seasons of Ken Griffey Jr. here in Cincinnati, the city where he learned his craft.

While he wasn’t always at his best here, we were privileged to see him.

Yes, he will be wearing a Seattle cap on his plaque at Cooperstown. And, yes, there were three baseball writers who apparently didn’t think he was worthy of the Hall.

But it doesn’t matter, not one iota.

Ken Griffey Jr. is going where he was meant to be from day number one. Among the immortals of baseball.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.