We’re in Seattle, facing the Mariners, and it always takes me back to 1999, my second year in the bigs with the Twins when I finally got to play against a man I admired so much – the great Ken Griffey Jr.
My first at-bat that day at the old Kingdome, I struck out to end the inning. As I was running out on the field, he was running off. He kind of came toward me and said, “Hey, man, keep working hard and have fun with it. Enjoy the game.” That really stuck with me. He was giving me a message. I was impressed that he did that. It really meant a lot to me. And still does.
That’s what Ken Griffey Jr. brought to the game, that ability to have a good time while putting on a show with his incredible talent. He had his cap on backwards and was always laughing, enjoying himself. Kirby Puckett was like that, too, and that’s what I wanted to be like.
I took on that same kind of personality, showing my emotions and expressing how much I enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve carried it with me through my career. It’s a game we’re playing, and I think people want to see us enjoying ourselves. Ken Griffey Jr. showed how to do it. He was always a bright light out there.
I patterned my game and my personality after those two guys, Junior and Kirby. It was one of the smartest things I ever did.
Griffey always had the most beautiful swing in all of baseball. There was nothing like it. Everybody wanted to be Ken Griffey Jr. When I was in the Minor Leagues and struggling, I tried taking his swing over to the right side. It didn’t work quite as well, of course. But it was fun, trying to use that Griffey swing.
When you think about what he’s done – 625 home runs, the highlight plays with the glove, and think about all the time he’s missed with injuries – he’s one of the greats of all time.
I’ve tried to follow in the footsteps of Ken Griffey and Kirby Puckett in center field, and now maybe there are young guys watching me and wanting to play the way I do. If that’s the case, it’s an honor to carry on that tradition.
When I was a young guy, I used to watch everything Griffey did, especially in center field. He was The Man. We had video of him, and I studied how he’d take straight angles to the ball – A to B, not A to C. I wanted to do everything the way he did, because he was the master out there.
I never took a homer away from him – he usually gave you no chance with those monster drives he’d hit. He’d usually pull the ball, too. I did rob him of a few hits, doubles and triples. He’d just stand there and look at me. You know I loved that. The respect I have for that guy is huge.
Any time I had a chance, I asked him questions, just like I always did with Kirby. That’s how you learn. Ask questions. I always tell the younger players not to be shy, to ask me anything they want. That’s what I’m here for, to help out. In this game, you can never have enough information.
There are a lot of really talented young center fielders now, and it’s great to see. Adam Jones in Baltimore, he calls me every week. We talk about the game, life outside the game, anything he wants. He’s playing the game the way I did at 24, and when he’s 34, he’ll be playing like I am now.
Curtis Granderson in Detroit, we’ve gotten close. He’s my guy. Grady Sizemore is cool, and a great talent. Matt Kemp with the Dodgers, I love that guy. I like being like a big brother to all these guys.
It kind of runs from Griffey and Kirby through me and now through all these young guys coming up. We’re all connected in that way. It’s always been an honor to be on the same field with Ken Griffey Jr.
It might be winding down for him now, but you still see that smile, that love of being in the uniform and being on the field.
The man is a legend, and I’m definitely a better player and person for wanting to be like him.