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The Complex Personality Of Hall Of Fame Inductee Ken Griffey Jr.

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Fans at Safeco Field cheer Ken Griffey Jr. as he steps to the plate Tuesday, April 14, 2009, in Seattle in the first inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels. Griffey singled in his first time at the plate at home since rejoining the Mariners.

With Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr. garnering the most votes ever for selection into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, there’s been a lot of talk about his athletic achievements: 630 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves and 13 All-Star appearances, just to name a few.

But sports commentator Art Thiel told KPLU's Kirsten Kendrick there’s a very complex personality behind the powerful swing and graceful outfield leaps.

'Beautiful Ball Player, But...'

"I think everybody embraced his Hall of Fame selection but he's put people off from time to time," Thiel said.

"A lot of that has to do with some deep insecurities he's had. And it seems odd to most of us to see somebody of such surpassing talent [experiencing this].

"I would agree with those people who say he was a beautiful ball player. Everything he did was the acme of what you'd want in a baseball player."

A Cutup In Clubhouse, With Kids

But who was Ken Griffey Jr. off the baseball field?

"Griffey has a very sharp, acid wit," Thiel said. "Around people he knows he is really the life of the party. And he looks to elevate the mood in the clubhouse.

"What he doesn't like are crowds of strangers. At a distance, 50,000 people you can manage. But, up close, a room full of strangers seeking his autograph and wanting to praise him and just get a picture of him, makes him uncomfortable. As a consequence, he has been defensive and he pushes people away."

But Thiel said Griffey is totally different around kids.

"I've seen him have pillow fights with Boys and Girls Club kids. And they love him. He rolls around on the floor. He teases them. He engages them and he smiles and he has this great eye contact. There's a real humanitarian in this guy.

But if he gets uncomfortable and has to be nice to a lot of strangers, it doesn't work. So, there's a significant number of people, I think, in this Seattle marketplace - and in others - who are put off by the guy," he said.

Hurt Feelings Over His Two Departures

"In 1999, he decided he wanted to be traded somewhere that would closer to his Florida home and also around his parents at the time," Thiel continued.

"A big part of it was also Safeco Field. He discovered that is a pitcher-friendly ballpark that would diminish his home run totals. So, he forced the trade.

"It really hurt the fan base here, emotionally. As then-team president Chuck Armstrong said: 'We just traded Babe Ruth.' And that's pretty close to the truth.

"Everyone was sour about that, I think, in Seattle. They understood some of his reasons but that still didn't diminish the hurt.

"Then, after eight years when he was playing in Cincinnati and a little bit for the Chicago White Sox, he came back to Seattle for a final couple of seasons.

"Some people hadn't forgiven him for the first departure and in the second departure he got into his car in the middle of the night and he drove away," Thiel said.

No Farewell Tour

"He was a diminished athlete at that time and he did not want a farewell tour. He said 'If I can't play this game anymore, I'm gone.'

"So, that was a shocker. That really put a lot of people off. And they haven't forgiven him yet," Thiel said.

Nobody's Perfect

"What I say to them is Griffey was as close to a perfect ball player as we've ever seen, but he was a human being like the rest of us — flawed and insecure and having difficulty managing some things in our lives.

"So, I would say accept him as the ball player and know that he has done many good deeds in his personal life for a lot of people And, I think, if he hurt feelings and left people uncomfortable or wounded, it was not an intent.

"It was just Griffey being a complicated figure like the rest of us."

UPDATE: Griffey confirmed Thursday that he will go into the Hall of Fame in a Mariners cap.


You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwestand

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.