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.
I’ll be heading off to St. Louis for my third All-Star Game, and it’s something that means a lot to me. I’m so happy for the guys who are going for the first time, guys like Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson, Andrew Bailey, Tim Wakefield. I know what that feeling is like. I really hope Chone Figgins wins the Final Vote on MLB.com and makes it, too, because he is deserving.
Chone is a guy who just loves the game of baseball, everything about it. Everybody knows Ozzie Smith was one of his favorite players, and Chone would love to go out on that field in St. Louis and do a back flip like Ozzie. I think the fans would go crazy watching that. This guy can do those back flips — I’ve seen him.
Maybe that will help him get the votes he needs to get on the team. I definitely want to see him there on the American League team, with Brian Fuentes and myself, because he’s having a great year.
He has become a Gold Glove third baseman, and he’s the guy who makes our team go. The last month and a half, he’s been carrying us — getting on base, scoring runs, making plays in the field. He could play anywhere on the field if they need him to. I’ve never seen anybody more versatile than Chone, or anybody who loves the game more and works at it any harder.
If he does win the vote, I hope his first All-Star Game is as memorable as mine. That would be pretty hard to match, I have to admit.
I was voted into the starting lineup in 2002 when I was with the Twins. The game was in Milwaukee, and when I went out to take the field, I was a little nervous, feeling the butterflies. Your first All-Star Game, that’s a thrill. You’re just trying to stay calm, stay in the moment.
As luck would have it, Barry Bonds gets up and hits a shot to center. I’m thinking it’s gone. But then as I’m going back, I’m thinking maybe I’ve got a shot at it. I saw the ball dying and jumped up with everything I had — and caught it. It was one of those moments you dream about. My first inning of my first All-Star Game, and I take a home run away from Barry Bonds, the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen with my two eyes.
Of course, Barry came out and picked me up and put me on his shoulders. That was a show. I’m 26 years old, and here’s this guy Barry Bonds carrying me on his shoulders in the All-Star Game.
We have a DVD of that game, that catch, and I’ll be playing it for my grandkids when I’m an old man. What’s funny about that is that, in a way, I made that game a tie and that caused all that controversy.
My second All-Star Game was in San Francisco in 2007. The best part of that was meeting Willie Mays when he was honored before the game. What’s so amazing about the All-Star Game is all the players you hang around with and the great stars you meet, people you’ve admired since you were a kid. It’s an exciting time, and I’m honored to be going back.
I just hope Chone Figgins comes with me. He’ll flip if he makes it, I promise you.