Marking the Way
“A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road at regular intervals. Milestones are constructed both to reassure the traveler that the proper path is being followed and to indicate distance traveled, or the remaining distance to the desired destination.”
Incredibly, Ken Griffey, Jr.’s Major League debut occurred more than 19 years ago. On April 3, 1989, Griffey – batting second and playing centerfield in the Mariners’ lineup on Opening Day – doubled off Dave Stewart in the top of the first for his first big league hit. Junior’s first milestone. On June 9 – 2,438 games later – the man who was once called “The Kid” drove a 3-1 pitch over the right field wall for his 600th home run. Perhaps his last milestone. For all of us who had watched and waited for the drive that placed him in the company of Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Sosa, the surprise lay not in the achievement itself, but in how long it took to get there. At some point in the mid-1990’s, most of us assumed the journey would be shorter and straighter, more celebrated, less confusing and painful, and would end with spectacular fireworks heralding the completion of a once-in-a-generation career. In between over-the-wall catches to snatch away home runs, a gazelle-like sprint from first to third to clinch a Division Series, and rifle-powered throws to cut down base-runners, Griffey launched majestic fly balls over outfield walls with rapid-fire frequency. The milestones seemingly occurred every year during his first decade in the Majors: he hit his 100th home run on June 15, 1993 at the age of 23; one year later, he collected his 500th career RBI. His 1000th hit followed in 1995, and then Griffey powered out his 200th home run in 1996. His first 50-home run season came in 1997 and served as a prelude to his 300th career home run in 1998. The milestones were flying by at breakneck speed, continually reminding us of the seemingly inevitable conclusion which grew larger and more defined as the distance closed. But when he finished the 1999 season with 398 homers, the road – one he had followed spectacularly for 11 seasons – branched off to offer a new path toward the expected destination. Griffey chose to take his march to Cincinnati – the city where his father had helped the Big Red Machine win back to back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. And although the path changed, the milestones maintained their presence: early in that first season with the Reds in 2000, Griffey became the youngest player in Major League history to collect 400 home runs. Just 141 days past his 30th birthday, Junior was more than halfway toward equaling Hank Aaron’s majestic 755. The magical ride appeared steady, home was in sight, and Ken Griffey, Jr. was confidently driving toward immortality. And then the milestones ended and the journey – once so concise, so straight, so resolute – meandered, bogged, stuttered, and broke away from the course that we all expected. In the four years between 1997 and 2000, Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 200 home runs. Over the next four seasons, he hit 63. Injury-watches replaced gazing at the markers, and Ken Griffey was largely forgotten.
The next milestone on the road finally appeared in the middle of the summer in 2004 when Griffey became the 20th member of the 500-home run club. The rare achievement – once expected and anticipated as just another marker on the road to a feat even more unique – had been dulled by the mishaps that prolonged the march toward what we once perceived as inevitable, and Griffey’s 500th home run symbolized more of an exhale than a celebratory leap. The milestones that we had followed for so long had led us down a road we never could have expected.
The baseball encyclopedias and storybooks are littered with the unexpected. Dazzy Vance didn’t win his first game in the Major Leagues until he was 31-years-old, and then he compiled a mountainous peak of excellence that saw him lead the Majors in strikeouts in the twenties, record 197 wins, and earn induction in the Hall of Fame. A half-century before Ken Griffey, Jr. delighted us with his display of talent, another centerfielder opened up his career with immense promise and then found his path derailed by injury. In 1941, Pete Reiser won the NL batting title and finished second in MVP balloting at the age of 22. He was the youngest batting champ in league history. The next season, Reiser was hitting .383 on July 2 when he collided with the outfield wall while tracking a fly ball. It was the first (but not nearly the last) time he had to be carried off the field. Leo Durocher once said, “Willie Mays had everything. Pete Reiser had everything but luck.” In another universe, Reiser’s career would have been littered with milestones all pointing the way toward a plaque in Cooperstown.
There are others, too: men whose final destinations came from unformed beginnings.
No one could have imagined that when the Yankees made a trade with the Kansas City Athletics on December 11, 1959, their newly acquired right fielder named Roger Maris would go on to pass one of baseball’s most hallowed milestone achievements. Maris’ ascendancy in the baseball consciousness coincided with another unanticipated and startling climb. From 1955-1960, Sandy Koufax went 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA. After a season of blossoming promise in 1961, Koufax peaked like very few ballplayers in history. In his final five seasons in the Majors, Koufax averaged 22 wins, 289 strikeouts, and compiled a 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+). He won five ERA titles, led the league in wins on three occasions, struck out a (then) Major League record 382 batters in 1965, was named the NL MVP in 1963, and pitched no-hitters in four straight seasons, culminating the mastery with perfect game on September 9, 1965. Koufax’s journey did not follow the usual course, and his milestone achievements stand within his seasonal odysseys: 20 wins, 300 strikeouts, ERA’s less than two. Fall Classic dominance. Four no-hitters. A brilliance illuminated by 10,000 foot-candles of brightness. Koufax’s burst of excellence resonates for its immediacy and suddenness and its abrupt conclusion that leaves us only with those memories of greatness. The attendant milestones mark the trip with the same splendor.
More than thirty years after Sandy Koufax stepped off the mound for the last time, another left-hander began a similar run of excellence and dominance. Unlike Koufax’s meteoric rise and equally abrupt goodbye, this southpaw’s apex evolved from an earlier phase in which the milestones had begun to identify the journey. Randy Johnson made his first start for the Mariners in the same year Ken Griffey, Jr. debuted for the team, and one year later, Johnson passed his first milestone with a no-hitter against the Tigers. After that, the markers began to appear with greater and more impressive frequency. His 1000th strikeout victim swung and missed in 1993. His 99th win (not quite reaching the normal marker, but getting close enough to squint and see it in the distance) came on the last day of the 1995 season when he pitched a complete game and allowed just one run in Seattle’s victory over California in the third one-game playoff in American League history. His 2000th career strikeout came in the final game of the first season of Johnson’s rise to the top in 1997, and began a run of dominance that would end in 2002. From 1997-2002, Randy Johnson averaged 20 wins and an astounding, jaw-dropping, still hard-to-believe 340 strikeouts. There have only been nine seasons since 1893 when a pitcher struck out 340 batters in a season – Randy Johnson averaged that total for more than a half-decade. His ERA over that span was 2.58, and his ERA+ was better than Koufax’s during his run. And then, when the lightning and thunder portion of the journey wound down, the milestones kept appearing, kept passing, and kept leading toward the realization of the truly historic. 3000 strikeouts appeared before the blur of 2001, when Johnson recorded the third-highest
strikeout total in modern history, won his third straight Cy Young Award, recorded three wins in the World Series, and was named co-MVP of the Fall Classic. His 4000th strikeout came in 2004, as did a perfect game – the 17th in Major League history. After a brief time in New York, Johnson has followed the signs leading the way back to Arizona, back to the place where he reshaped the image of the strikeout pitcher in the dictionary, where he leapt to the top of the headlines, where he continued to travel toward a destination reserved for only the greatest of the game.
Randy Johnson currently sits on 288 wins. The milestone 300th win beckons, offering itself as one final indicator on this Hall of Fame journey. Ken Griffey, Jr. currently stands 269 RBI short of 2000, a few re-energized seasons away from becoming only the fourth player in history to achieve that nice, round number. Neither man needs to play another day in the Major Leagues to ensure his legacy and place in the baseball timeline. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball for a decade – he played with a flair and poetry and dynamism that few have ever approached. He made us believe in the attainment of achievements that we previously considered unapproachable. Randy Johnson revived the sensibility of another era, when pitchers could instill fear into the jelly-legged torsos of batters, and along the way, established himself as one of the greatest to ever toe the rubber. Both men – teammates for more than eight seasons – have reached and passed enough milestones to solidify their places among the game’s most elite. They will always serve as reminders of a particular place and time in the baseball world, when Griffey’s sweet swing and backwards baseball cap offered a joy and a counterpoint to the menacing glare of Randy Johnson as he prepared to unleash another slider on an overmatched batter. But Griffey’s 600th home run milestone and Johnson’s 300th win milestone remain important and essential to the story. In connection with their achievements, we will be given the opportunity to remember and recall those times when these two ballplayers showed us something all too rare and fleeting. We will be given the opportunity to relive and reassess, and the thousands of images and moments that we associate with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson will coming flooding back to us in a gust not unlike the refreshing sensation of feeling the wind against our face with the window down on a journey to anywhere. For that is the job of milestones – to remind of us where we’ve been and to give structure to where we are headed.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for statistical information that helped with this piece.