By Nick Shepkowski–
(CBS) Being a kid in the ’90s meant a bunch of things. Chances are one of your first crushes was Kelly Kapowski, getting on the Internet required some weird noise coming from your modem and you and your friends were all asking for Starter jackets for Christmas.
Being a young fan growing up in the ’90s also meant something else.
My first memory of Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t even watching him in any particular game. Instead, it was the series of old Upper Deck commercials in which you’d always see one of his highlight catches. Despite some of the greatest ever also being featured in them in the likes of Jordan, Montana and Ripken, I was instantly drawn to Griffey — as was seemingly the rest of my generation, and rightfully so.
From what is still the prettiest swing most have ever seen to robbing home runs to the backward cap, The Kid appealed to everyone on the old sandlot. Everyone wanted to be him.
It was the same tone off the field, as kids of my era grew up with Junior in just about every way imaginable.
In the baseball card world, everyone had to have the 1989 Upper Deck rookie, a card so popular that 26 years later it was popping up in music videos.
Video game wise, who didn’t spend hours playing Home Run Derbys between Griffey and Nick Noheart in Super Nintendo’s “Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball”?
And at the movie theaters it was Griffey who ultimately ended the fairy-tale run of Billy Heywood’s Twins by hitting a moonshot and then by running seemingly a mile to rob what would have been Lou Collins walk-off home run in Little Big League.
Hell, one of my good friends, Matt Blaine, even had a dog named Griffey growing up (RIP, slugger).
Griffey was in his prime and was seemingly on “Baseball Tonight” nightly hitting a blast or making a ridiculous catch. In a game that wasn’t exactly hurting for star power at the time, he was the brightest, and I ate up every second of it.
In the middle of 1996, Griffey was on a tear, like he seemingly always was. He had 23 home runs by mid-June and the Mariners were coming to town for a four-game series against the White Sox. My buddy Jake Ziesmer and I asked his older brother Max to take us to see Griffey, and without any real resistance, he agreed. We got tickets for the June 20 tilt.
There was just one small problem.
Griffey broke his hand against the Blue Jays on June 19 and would be out for weeks. Instead of getting to see Griffey’s sweet swing that night, we instead got to see Paul Sorrento homer off of Kevin Tapani. It wasn’t exactly the same on the cool scale.
Little did I know it’d be years until I’d actually see Griffey play in person. I went to another White Sox-Mariners game during his time in Seattle but missed seeing him play in that one as well. It was the same story for his first few years in Cincinnati — get Cubs-Reds tickets, only to see Griffey either have the day off or be out with an injury.
It took me until I was a sophomore in college in 2006 to see the former superstar. It was one of those old value days at Wrigley Field, half-priced tickets to an afternoon early spring contest. I’d finally get to see Griffey in person, though he was a shell of his old self at 36. He’d missed 365 games over the previous five seasons and fallen off his pace that was supposed to have him break Hank Aaron’s home run record.
But it was still exciting to see the guy I grew up poorly impersonating the swing of.
And in his first at-bat that day, Griffey didn’t disappoint. He launched a bomb off of Glendon Rusch into a tree across Sheffield Avenue. It wasn’t anywhere near as significant as any of his five home runs in the 1995 ALDS, but it was still awesome to see in person.
As The Kid, now 46, gets inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Sunday, he carries the memories of a backward cap-wearing generation with him.