I'm sitting in the visitor's dugout of a miniaturized baseball diamond deep in the bowels of the MLB Network's New Jersey studio. Across from me, sitting in a puffy black armchair on home plate, Ken Griffey Jr. is casually launching fly balls over the center field fences in MLB The Show 17's Home Run Derby mode. It's the event he made famous during his legendary all-star games throughout the Nineties. That swing, that backwards cap, the obscene dinger that bounced off the Eutaw Street warehouse. At 47, he still has the touch on a Dualshock.
Griffey is the featured athlete for this year's edition of The Show – released March 28, exclusively for PlayStation 4 – and last July, he took his rightful place in the Hall of Fame with a definitive 99.3 percent of the electorate. Statistically it was a no brainer, Griffey could've been a first-ballot inductee if he hung up his cleats at 30, but he's also the one superstar of his generation exempt from the scrutiny and hand-wringing of the steroid era. Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds continue to slide down the ballot, Roger Clemens doesn't have much hope, and Mike Piazza – who was enshrined alongside Griffey – netted an underwhelming 83 percent as hearsay PED rumors continue to dog his legacy. It's ironic how an undisputed boom period for baseball only gave us one icon who can still reasonably appear on a licensed product.
But Ken Griffey Jr. isn't worried about any of that. When he joined me in the dugout we spent 20 minutes talking about his post-retirement life, the Black Ops matches he has with his kids, and the legendary, one-of-a-kind NBA Jam machine at his house. If there's any pressure in being one of baseball's few modern heroes, he's great at keeping it under wraps.
When I heard I was going to interview you, the first question that popped into my mind has to do with a longstanding rumor. Legend says that you and Gary Payton requested a custom version of NBA Jam in the early Nineties where you are playable. Is this true?
Yes, I have the game still at my house. I got my hat backwards in there, I'm on fire, and my stuff is unknown. That's how good I am.
And is Michael Jordan playable in this game?
Okay, so this is the one version of NBA Jam that has Michael Jordan in it, because he famously was not included in the initial release.
That's incredible. What is it, is it a cartridge?
No it's the actual arcade game, and it's downstairs at my house, and no, I'm never trading it in. (laughs)
What were those gaming sessions with Gary Payton like? I know you guys were friends and you're obviously both famous Seattle athletes.
Yeah we were just having fun. As guys who play different sports it gives us a chance to relax and do things we don't normally do. We were competitive, so we played everything from video games, to dominoes, to spades. In that era we were a close-knit group. I had season tickets to the SuperSonics, I kept trying to get George Karl to put me in. I'd be like "I can get you at least five points!"
This is the first time you've been on the cover of a video game in at least 15 years or something. I know you did some motion capture, what was that experience like?
It was a little different this time. The motion capture 20 years ago was a three day process. The motion capture for this took four hours. You put stuff on, capture it, and move on. 20 years ago you'd do it and your elbow would be over in the dugout and you'd have to do it again. I had a lot of fun doing it though, the voiceover and the motion capture were both neat.
Who plays the most video games in the Griffey household these days, is it one of your kids?
Yeah, because I still have things I have to do. Between the three of us we're probably about 100 hours a week, but my two boys do like 85 of them, and I'm at 15.
Do you know what their favorite games are?
A little Call of Duty, basketball, Forza, FIFA, baseball, MMA, we play everything. We're a group that gets it on.
You know, in Ken Griffey Jr.'s Slugfest, Alex Rodriguez has a slightly bigger targeting reticle than you. And to me it feels like if you have your name on the game, you should have the biggest target, right?
Oh I got the cheat codes. So I can hit a homerun at will.
You must have a bunch of copies of those still around the house.
Yeah I've got three boxes, factory sealed, and they haven't been touched.
You've been getting into other stuff since retirement. You seem really into Instagram.
Well I was always interested in photography. It's a way for me to watch my kids play sports without people coming up to me, because if I'm sitting there it's just an open invite. But nobody wants to bother the cameraman because nobody wants to make me miss a shot. So I'm the team photographer for my son's football team. I've got the opportunity to shoot my daughter's basketball, and I've got to do a few bowl games with Trey.
Last Friday was the first time I walked upstairs to see the offices of Rich Rodriguez, [head coach of the University of Arizona Wildcats, where Griffey's son Trey Griffey played football.] If you ask any of those coaches they'd be like "he don't say nothing." I feel that college coaches – they may know or not know what they're doing – but they're making a lot more money, and you have to let your kid sink or swim. But you still have to be that parent when it's going in a direction where it shouldn't go.
Is there an example where you've been like "you know what, I've got to talk to the coach."
There's been a few times, mostly when they were younger. Don't be upset, or get upset as a coach if you're coaching a professional athlete's kid, and don't take it out on them because your career didn't go so well and you think "well I can't take it out on the dad but I can take it out on the kid."
Oh really? So you've noticed that?
Oh yeah, and it's sad. Because my kids want to play with their friends and they're eight, nine, or ten. And you're saying things to them because of your career. They might not be able to see it because they're that young, but it's up to me to step in. The way I see it is Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr. don't run Trey's routes, don't shoot Taryn's jumpers, and don't do anything for Tevin. They're the ones out there doing it like everyone else. So don't take it out on me, don't take it out on them. They're just kids. They happened to be born into a family that's done some things, but that doesn't mean they don't want to do their own things. They want to be successful in their career path, no matter what that may be. I had a couple coaches that understood that, and my kids still call them coaches, but there's been a few that we had to move on from before Dad ended up in jail. (laughs)
You're on the cover of MLB The Show 17, and it's weird to think that out of your generation there aren't a lot of guys left who could appear on a baseball game without any baggage. You're one of the few left standing, is it weird being held up to that gold standard?
Nah, I'm just being me. I don't worry about what other people do, or what people took or didn't take. I worry about what I can control, my attitude, how I play, how I try to carry myself. There's good days and bad days like everybody else, but I know that once I leave my house I know I'm Ken Griffey Jr., not Ken the husband or Ken the dad.
On the cover you have your cap backwards, which was very much part of your image as a player. Over the course of your career you occasionally caught flack from old cranky baseball writers about how your backwards cap was disrespectful, and that's continued with people getting upset over Yasiel Puig's bat flips, or Bryce Harper's confidence. Why do you think baseball culture is still so stodgy?
It's one of those things where, is it disrespectful to the other team or is it just excitement? The problem is they see the bat flip, but they don't see the pitcher punching somebody out and running off the field screaming. They don't say nothing about that. But if you do a bat flip after a home run it's all over the news. There's a give and take. Sometimes there may be a little history between two guys, but as long as you don't show anybody up I don't have a problem with it. For me, as a defensive guy, you could show a little more excitement because you were 300 yards away. Once I make the play and throw it in, nobody sees what I do.
One last thing for you. There was a story about 10 years ago that a fan in the audience was heckling you, and you handed him a brown paper bag with your jockstrap inside. Is this true?
That was at Dodger Stadium. It was going on for seven innings. He was right by the dugout and giving it every time I went out and every time I went in. I said to him "you can't hold my jock" and he said "I'd sure like to try!" So I got it, signed my name on it, put it in a bag and gave it to him. He started laughing, held it up, and gave me a high five after that.