A couple of 500 Home Run Club members who played in different eras still have a common bond that unites them.
Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson each spent much of their careers blasting home runs for the Cincinnati Reds. Robinson, who is now an adviser for Major League Baseball, was a Most Valuable Player in both leagues and later became the first black manager.
Griffey now plays for the Chicago White Sox and has 611 career homers.
Griffey performed last Sunday night as he did during the prime of his career, reaching base in all three of his at-bats, tagging up to take a key extra base in the White Sox three-run fourth inning to stay alive against Tampa Bay in the American League Division Series.
“You have to have fun while you play,” said Griffey after the 5-3 victory at U.S. Cellular Field. “I enjoy what I do. When I am not enjoying it, then I’ll leave. But I have fun coming to the ballpark. I enjoy the competition and I enjoy the friendships on and off the field that I have.”
The positive attitude and approach of the future Hall of Famer caught the eye of Robinson many years ago.
“I don’t like comparing two different people, particularly from different eras,” said Robinson when I asked him if Griffey reminded him of any particular player from his Hall of Fame playing days. “I think that is unfair to each person. But when I first saw this young man, I really enjoyed what I saw, both on the field and his personality. He is having a good time on the field, laughing and joking and having fun. He did that for a number of years (in
Cincinnati). I pulled him aside one day and told him, ‘Don’t ever change. I really respect you, the way you play the game and the way you are having fun.’ He had a world of ability then. It is too bad he had some injuries that took something away from him. He is still a very good ballplayer. We would be talking about him with over 700 home runs if he hadn’t gotten hurt.”
Griffey, acquired by the White Sox in July in a trade for pitcher Nick Masset and outfielder Paul Orlando, smiled when I relayed the compliments from Robinson.
“He has really no choice,” said Griffey with a laugh. “His godson is my son. I strong-armed him into that one. He is a great guy that I looked up to. For me, being in
Cincinnati and playing there and the things he has done for baseball…I asked him one day to be the godfather of my son. He looked at me and said, ‘yeah.’ It’s pretty nice to have someone that special in your family.”
Robinson makes note of several changes in the game of baseball since he played.
“There are a lot more dome stadiums now,” said Robinson. “I always found it a little more difficult to play in dome stadiums, compared to outside. I used to play games in the Houston Astrodome, and I used to have trouble picking up the ball (out of the pitcher’s hand). The depth perception was different. With the light-colored roof, it was difficult to follow the flight of the ball. You didn’t dare take your eyes off the ball.”
The specialization in the game is so much different now, as well. Especially when it comes to pitching.
“You had more complete games by starters in my day,” said Robinson. “You had a bullpen and you had a starting staff. Nowadays you have a bullpen with defined roles. You ask your starter to go five or six innings. Then you have a bridge man to get to the setup man to get to the closer. And they are expected to be used, because that is how they negotiate their contracts. So even though the starting pitcher is strong out there, managers want to get those other guys in there to do their jobs and earn their money.”