“It’s like there’s a party in my mouth and everybody’s invited.” – Ken Griffey, Jr.
(Oh boy, did this get longer than I expected… But you expect nothing less of me, right?)
Those of us who are old enough to remember just how exciting it was to open a pack of of the brand new Upper Deck baseball cards (“one dollar for a pack of cards?! that’s obscene!”) with the hope that the smiling face of Ken Griffey, Jr., would greet you, or who vividly remember the night a new primetime cartoon premiered starring a family of weird yellow people whose Christmas was saved when the losing greyhound at the track on Christmas Eve joined their family may not want to admit it, but 1989 was 21 years ago now. Any baby born the day Kid Griffey took his first cuts as a major leaguer can now buy beer whenever he wants. That’s just too much.
Seeing as how two such legendary – though clearly long-in-the-tooth – institutions were born in the same year, I thought it might be fun to compare how their careers have played out these last 20+ years. Considering how they both hit such ridiculously high peaks in the 1990s before succumbing to age and injury in the 2000s, the comparison may be more apt than you realize…
Some might say that, since The Simpsons began in December 1989, it’s first year was 1990. Television seasons start in the fall, though, so it makes more sense to me to line-up the 1989-90 television season with the 1989 baseball season, and the 1990-91 television season with the 1990 baseball season, and so forth… Besides, it gives us some wonderful synchronicity to play with.
Both Griffey and The Simpsons got off to solid, if unpolished, starts. Griffey batted .264/.329/.420 (108 OPS+) in 127 games that year and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting to Baltimore’s rookie closer, Gregg Olson.
Of course, the Kid had a lot of hype to live up to that year – The Simpsons, not so much. As a new animated series coming to the still young Fox Network, and being based off the cartoon shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show, it wasn’t exactly network television’s top prospect. But with episodes like “Bart the General”, “The Telltale Head”, and “Krusty Gets Busted”, we could certainly see the talent that would make it one of the greatest shows ever.
There was no sophomore slump in either Seattle or Springfield. In fact, both Griffey and The Simpsons improved a great deal from their already solid first seasons. Griffey increased his slash line to .300/.366/.481 (135 OPS+) in 155 games, and upped his home run total from 16 to 22.
In it’s first full season, The Simpsons brought us such classics as “Bart the Daredevil”, “Bart Gets Hit by a Car”, “Dancin’ Homer”, and “Two Cars in Every Garage…” (and I could list another five episodes here and still leave off some of your favorites). And, yet, there were still even better episodes to come.
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The third full season of Griffey’s career was also his first truly great year. While his first two years netted WAR values of 2.8 and 4.6 respectively (enviable for any 20 year old), he accumulated an MVP-worthy 7.3 WAR in 1991. In 154 games, he belted 22 home runs and batted .327/.399/.527 for a 155 OPS+. Cal Ripken won the MVP that year after posting 11 WAR, but that doesn’t diminish what the 21-year old Griffey was able to do in Seattle.
At the same time, The Simpsons was only getting better. Leading off the year with the wonderful “Stark Raving Dad” and taking us through such episodes as “Bart the Murderer”, “Flaming Moe’s”, “Radio Bart”, and “Colonel Homer”, it was hard to deny The Simpsons ever-increasing excellence. The third season also saw the classic “Homer at the Bat” episode, featuring Ken Griffey Jr. himself, aired.
The 22-year-old Griffey had another solid year in ’92, putting up nearly identical numbers to his previous campaign. It was neither poor nor great.
But it was The Simpsons that really starred in ’92. Featuring some of its greatest episodes of all time (“A Streetcar Named Marge”, “Marge vs. the Monorail”, and “Last Exit to Springfield”) and a slew of other classics (“Kamp Krusty”, “Homer the Heretic”, “Mr. Plow”, and “Whacking Day”, among others), Season Four has a good case as the best season ever.
In their fifth seasons, Griffey and The Simpsons reversed their roles from the previous year. Where, in 1992, Griffey put up a less than stellar season and The Simpsons put up a season for the ages, it was Griffey who had the year for the ages in ’93 and The Simpsons that gave us a mostly forgettable season. In Seattle, the 23-year-old Kid hit 45 home runs, with 109 RBI, 113 runs scored, 359 total bases, and a slash line of .309/.408/.617 (a 171 OPS+) for the fourth place Mariners. Amazingly, Griffey finished only fifth in the MVP voting that year.
Meanwhile, The Simpsons were giving us probably their weakest season of the early years. There were still plenty of great episodes (“Cape Feare”, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”, and “$pringfield (Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)”) but the clunkers were evident (“Bart’s Inner Child”, “Homer Loves Flanders”, and “Secrets of a Successful Marriage”). Thankfully, there were still plenty of great seasons ahead for both.
The players’ strike of 1994 curtailed a season that was figuring to be brilliant for Griffey. As of mid-August, when the strike went into effect, Griffey was sitting on 40 home runs, 90 RBI, 94 runs, and a slash line of .323/.402/.674 for a 170 OPS+. In only 111 games, he had already accumulated 6.6 WAR (extrapolated out to a full 162-game season that comes to 9.6 WAR). For the second year in a row, Griffey would lose the MVP award to Frank Thomas, finishing in second place.
The sixth season of The Simpsons didn’t fully recover from its season five lull, but it did improve. The clunkers this year – “Fear of Flying”, “Round Springfield”, “Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy” – were much fewer and farther between, and they were more than counter-balanced by a great selection of classic episodes (“And Maggie Makes Three”, “Bart vs. Australia”, “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds”, and “Lemon of Troy”). The fact that the season ended on the great “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” cliffhangar only makes it better.
The 1995 season looked to be a lost season for Griffey and the Mariners. After starting the year nearly a month late due to the players’ strike, Griffey injured his wrist in late May. He did not return from the DL until mid-August. It was in plenty of time for him to help the Mariners into the ALDS and score the winning run on the most famous play in Seattle baseball history.
The seventh season of The Simpsons kicked off with the second half of the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” storyline, and never really looked back. With great episodes like “Radioactive Man”, “Bart on the Road”, “King-Size Homer”, “A Fish Called Selma”, and “Two Bad Neighbors”, this season might rival Season 4 as the best in Simpsons history.
Following the postseason success in 1995, Griffey and the Mariners both put together a solid campaign in 1996. Griffey, now 26-years-old, played in 140 games this year, belting 49 home runs along with 140 RBI and 125 runs scored. He batted .303/.392/.628 for an OPS+ of 153. Offense was strong across the league that year, though, and the Ivan Rodriguez/Juan Gonzalez-led Rangers were at their peak. The Mariners finished second in the West to Texas that fall, and Griffey finished fourth in the MVP voting to Juan Gonzalez.
It was around this time that The Simpsons began starting their seasons with the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episodes (that is, the first episode of the season was “Treehouse of Horror VII”). This year’s “Treehouse” featured a trio of classics: “The Thing and I” (Bart’s evil Siamese twin), “The Genesis Tub” (Lisa creates a miniature race of people), and “Citizen Kang” (“Don’t blame me! I voted for Kodos.”). The second episode of the year is easily my favorite Simpsons episode of all-time, “You Only Move Twice”. Other great episodes this season were “The Homer They Fall”, “Burns, Baby Burns”, “The Springfield Files”, “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson”, and “Homer’s Enemy”. There were one or two duds this year (“El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”, “Homer’s Phobia”), but overall it was a great season.
Using the traditional stats, it’s hard to argue with 1997 as Griffey’s best year. In his ninth full year, the 27-year-old Griffey posted career highs in runs (125), RBIs (147), total bases (393), and home runs (56). These stats were finally enough to earn Griffey his first MVP award, handily beating out Tino Martinez and Frank Thomas.
As Griffey reached his peak, The Simpsons began a rapid descent. Where seasons 7 and 8 were filled almost from top-to-bottom with good-to-great episodes, season 9 had a few too many clunkers (“The Principal and the Pauper”, “Dumbbell Indemnity”, “Lisa the Skeptic”, “The Cartridge Family”, and the ridiculous “Trash of the Titans”). Thankfully, the clunkers were balanced out by a few top notch episodes such as “Bart Carny”, “The Joy of Sect”, “Das Bus”, and “King of the Hill”. The balance between the best and worst episodes of the season started to weaken disturbingly this year.
As we all remember, offense in the 1998 season exploded. Griffey benefited as much from this as anyone else. His counting stats in ’98 were nearly identical to those of the year before (56 HRs in both years, 146 RBI vs 147 the year before, 120 runs vs 125, etc), but his rate stats declined from .304/.382/.646 to .284/.365/.611. His WAR totals from the two years are 9.4 in ’97 and 6.1 in ’98. It was a great year, regardless.
Like Griffey, it was more of the same for The Simpsons – though, in this case, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The best episodes of season 10 were “Marge Simpson in: ‘Screaming Yellow Honkers'”, “Mayored to the Mob”, “Monty Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Wild Barts Can’t be Broken”. There were a larger number of less-than-stellar episodes, though: “When You Dish Upon a Star”, “Viva Ned Flanders”, “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday”, and “Maximum Homerdrive”. The “storytime” gimmick was also started this year with “Simpsons Bible Stories”.
Griffey’s final year in Seattle was a typical year for Griffey, though the increased offense of the era may mask some decline. His counting stats show 48 HRs, 123 runs, and 134 RBI, but his rate stats are at only .285/.384/.576 for a 139 OPS+. Wins Above Replacement value his campaign at 4.8 WAR.
The eleventh season of The Simpsons would only continue the decline. It had its high moments – “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”, “Last Tap Dance in Springfield”, and “Behind the Laughter” – but they weren’t nearly often enough. The “not good” episodes were much more common: “Little Big Mom”, “Beyond Blunderdome”, and “Saddlesore Galactica”. This was probably the last season that I watched with any frequency.
In February 2000, the Mariners traded Griffey to the Reds for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, and a couple of other players. Griffey then signed a long-term contract to stay in Cincinnati at a very reasonable rate. Fans of the Reds and Bud Selig alike were ecstatic. Things didn’t quite work out that well, though. The aging Griffey spent the next eight-and-a-half years in Cincinnati battling injuries and rarely putting up the numbers Reds fans were hoping for. In his first season in a Reds uniform, Griffey put together a 5.8 WAR campaign. In the nine-plus years since then, he has posted a combined 3.8 WAR. The 2000s were not good for Kid Griffey.
Nor were they good to The Simpsons. Fans of the show have spent the last ten years telling everybody “It’s still a good show – just not as good as it used to be.” I don’t particularly agree. In the same way that it’s taken Griffey a decade’s worth of baseball to accumulate barely as much value as his most disappointing years in the 1990s, The Simpsons have taken over 200 episodes these last ten years to give us barely enough good episodes to form the equivalent of one weak 1990s-era season.
This will be Griffey’s final season in baseball. Much to the chagrin of the more stat-minded Mariners’ fans, the team signed him for one final farewell tour. His performance thus far has not been great, but Seattle’s front office has their reasons for keeping him. The Simpsons, on the other hand, has no end in sight. They have been signed on through the 2010-2011 season, and it’s unlikely that Fox will give up on them then. The presence of Bart, Homer, and the rest of the Simpsons family has been a hallmark of the network for almost it’s entire existence; it’s going to take a little more than weak episodes for them to part ways.
As disappointing as these last ten years have been for both Ken Griffey, Jr., and The Simpsons, their greatness will continue to endure. No, it’s not likely that anyone will be telling their kids one day about Griffey’s 2002 season or about the Simpsons episode with the chimpanzees, but they will still be talking about Griffey’s slide into home during the 1995 ALDS or his combination of offense and defense that led him to be named to the Top 100 players of the 20th century list in 1999. Likewise, scenes like a teenage Homer Simpson singing along to “The Joker” or Bart quietly studying his heart out so he can pass the fourth grade while everyone plays in the snow will be a part of American culture forever. A slow and steady declines just cannot take away that much greatness. Still, I count myself lucky to have been able to witness it all from the beginning.