Ken Griffey Jr.: A perfect storm of skill, style and swagger

Ken Griffey Jr., centre, is pictured with Alfonso Ribeiro, left, and Will Smith during filming of an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

It’s October 2011 and I’m walking through a mall in Upstate New York when I pass a Foot Locker and something catches my eye. I spot a product I hadn’t seen in about 12 years.

I go inside the store and ask the sales associate, “Are those Griffeys?” He says they indeed are and that Nike is bringing the line back on a limited basis.

I had owned three different pairs of Air Griffeys – named after MLB superstar Ken Griffey Jr., of course – in elementary school and seeing the new shoes on the shelf brought memories flooding back.

In the mid-90s, Griffey, also known as The Kid, or simply Junior, was the king. He was the player you imitated during recess – even if you weren’t a fan of the Seattle Mariners. An acrobatic Gold Glover in centre-field and one of the best home run hitters ever, Griffey really had it all, with a swing so smooth they even made a logo out of it.

On Wednesday it’s going to be announced that Griffey will be among the 2016 inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And while his career numbers are staggering, it’s not the stats that stand out to me.

I’ll always think of the shoes when my mind wanders back to Griffey’s glory days. Because the footwear was a microcosm of what he was all about. Griffey brought a level of coolness to baseball unlike any player before or since.

He was the perfect storm of skill, style and swagger in MLB.

Let’s start with the sneakers. In the 90s, a time when Reebok was still a footwear giant competing with Nike and Adidas, NBA players of all shapes and sizes were getting their own signature shoes. Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson come to mind, along with Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, to name just a few.

Griffey was MLB’s answer to those big-name stars in the sneaker world. His Nike Air Griffey Max line, which debuted in 1996 and featured different iterations in the following years, gave baseball fans a true counterpart to what basketball fans had for years.

Derek Jeter eventually had his own signature sneaker, as did Deion Sanders, Frank Thomas and most recently Mike Trout. But those lines never exceeded the popularity of Griffey’s, partly because he was by far and away the most marketable baseball player of his generation.

Griffey’s appeal didn’t just stop at footwear. Who can forget his appearance on The Simpsons? Or the guest spot on a 1994 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in which he makes fun of Will Smith? The latter is noteworthy, considering Griffey was one of only a small handful of athletes to ever make a guest appearance on the show, arguably the trendiest sitcom during the early part of the decade.

Junior’s skill and flair were authored during his record eight home run derby appearances. That’s where he crafted some of the most memorable images of his career. Sporting an expansive grin and a cap that was always turned backwards, Griffey would exhibit the aforementioned smooth swing to launch moonshot after moonshot.

His home run prowess even inspired four Nintendo video games named after him. Just as Griffey dominated baseball’s shoe game, he also cornered the video game market.

The nicknames Junior and The Kid stuck because he exemplified youth on the diamond, from his looks to his style of play. It’s hard to picture contemporaries Cal Ripken Jr., Larry Walker or even Roberto Alomar with their own shoe line or video game or guest appearance on sitcoms.

While the legacy Griffey left on MLB was undoubtedly large, it can’t be discussed wholly without at least mentioning the flaws. Injuries and inconsistencies plagued the second half of his 22-year career. And he doesn’t have a World Series ring – the barometer for success that causes some to put Jeter and David Ortiz on unquestioned pedestals.

Off the field, though, those two players became known for their flashy, marketable personas. And in a sense you can argue both owe a tip of the cap to the guy who opened the door to modern flair in MLB, Ken Griffey Jr.

As does the Foot Locker sales associate who made a commission on my purchase.