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Hochman: Baseball is having a 'Kenaissance' — Ken Griffey Jr. inspires Cardinals, card collectors and fans

Hochman: Baseball is having a 'Kenaissance' — Ken Griffey Jr. inspires Cardinals, card collectors and fans

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500 Jr. joins elite club

Ken Griffey Jr. waves to fans during a curtain call at Busch Stadium after hitting his 500th career homer run, on June 20, 2004. (Post-Dispatch file photo)

The coolest guy in baseball today doesn’t even play baseball today.

There has been a Ken Griffey Jr. renaissance that has permeated the game, flowing like his stride toward the outfield gap that made one wonder why the Mariners didn’t experiment with five infielders. Nike has re-released his shoe. Baseballism paid homage with a clothing line. And Topps cards featuring Griffey, released in 2020 and 2021, have sparked a fervor once seen for his iconic 1989 card by Upper Deck.

And current ballplayers, some born during Griffey’s prime, speak of Griffey and his game as some sort of touchstone (with a touch of stone — his trademark diamond earring on the diamond).

“He just absolutely balled — on all sides of the field — and did it with a smile on his face,” said the Cardinals’ Harrison Bader, who plays centerfield with a flair Griffey would appreciate. “As a young kid seeing that, seeing the fun, seeing how present he was, that’s his legacy to me.

“Obviously he has so much more that he’s done for the game, but in terms of just going out there and being the absolute best athlete, being the best baseball player you could be — doing it with a smile, doing it free-flowing, that’s just as great of a legacy as you could have. Because at the end of the day, it really is a kid’s game.”

And Griffey was “The Kid.” That’s what they called him. Still do.

He’s older now, 51, but he’s forever young. And he’s forever relevant, for his resplendence splashed the game and players soak it up to this day. He won 10 Gold Gloves. He made the All-Star Game 13 times, often competing in the Home Run Derby the day before with his ballcap on backwards. He hit 630 homers in his career. Finished with a .907 OPS. And then consider this: From 1990-2004, from age 20 to 34, Griffey’s OPS was .949.

“He had the backwards hat, so I got the Mariners backwards hat and I played centerfield,” said Jeff Heckmann, the director of eCommerce and new product development at Topps. “Everyone just loved Griffey, man. . . . He was just so cool and calm, and his play was electric on the field, making crazy catches in centerfield, and that sweet swing he had. . . . So from a trading card standpoint, I think a lot of people that are now collecting cards — and there’s been a resurgence or rebirth — are in their 30s and 40s and early 50s, so they have really fond memories of who Griffey was. His popularity, potentially, is even higher than ever. I mean, it’s definitely gotten back to where he was when he was in his prime.”

The pandemic is partly responsible for the recent popularity in baseball cards. Stuck at home, people rediscovered an old hobby — and infused the card market with interest and investments. Complementing this economic burst was an artistic one. Heckmann and Topps created Project 2020 — 20 specific cards, such as Bob Gibson’s 1959 Topps or Griffey’s 1990, redesigned by 20 modern artists.

“Griffey had the card that sold the most number of copies,” Heckmann said, adding that a card done by artist Keith Shore “on Memorial Day sold almost 100,000 copies. Griffey was one of the most popular players overall, along with Mike Trout and Derek Jeter.”

For 2021, Topps unveiled Project 70 — in honor of 70 years of Topps cards. More than 50 artists can choose any card ever. Three are released each day. Already, a gleaming Griffey card hit the Topps website — and more are expected.

“So many of the artists are attracted to Griffey and choosing Griffey, just because of who he is and what he represents,” Heckmann said. “And I think there’s that coolness factor that they really enjoy and allows them to be very creative with their artistic style. You have got somebody that’s not just a baseball icon, but a cultural icon. He really transcends sport and transcends baseball — and it’s hard to do that in any sport.”

On Baseballism’s site, a hat featured a silhouette of Griffey wearing a backwards hat. And a teal T-Shirt had Griffey blowing a bubblegum bubble, and on the back it read: “Your favorite player’s favorite player.” Both items were sold out within the first couple days — now the site is taking pre-orders for a new batch.

And Nike’s drop of the Air Griffey Max 1 “Freshwater” literally had one fan doing a “Griffey post-HR strut around the living room after landing them.”

St. Louis native Matt Whitener is 37. Grew up in University City. Adored Griffey. Adores Griffey. And not just for what Griffey has done for the baseball community — but for baseball in his community.

“Griffey from the 90s has remained the standard-bearer for Black baseball players for almost two decades, and no one else has come along and captured the collective imagination like he did,” Whitener said. “That’s beyond problematic, but is a sign of the climate for Black ballplayers in the game — and the decline of the sport’s relevance within the Black community. Which is a tragedy considering the roots of the sport within Black history. . . .”

Maybe Griffey can do something about that. He recently was hired by Major League Baseball to improve diversity at amateur levels.

“(All-Stars) Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins didn’t reach Griffey’s level in popularity,” Whitener said. “The closest options had been Jeter or CC (Sabathia), but they never quite became ‘The Kid’ in that same overarching way. Mookie Betts is now the closest hope to becoming that.”

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

bhochman@post-dispatch.com

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