‘Junior’ documentary review: MLB Network successfully showcases Ken Griffey Jr.’s historic career
Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 400th home run on his dad’s birthday. Then, “The Kid” hit his 500th on Father’s Day. Before all of that, he left the Seattle Mariners to focus on his role as a parent. So, it’s fitting that the MLB Network set Father’s Day 2020 as the release date for “Junior,” the channel’s Griffey-centered edition of “MLB Network Presents.”
Highlighting the 22-year career of the Donora, Pennsylvania native, “Junior” is everything baseball fans wanted a documentary like “Long Gone Summer” to be, and can simply be described as a 90-minute showcase of both an all-time great in the sport of baseball, and one of sports’ greatest families.
Sticking with the Father’s Day theme, the film spends a majority of its time highlighting Griffey Jr.’s connection to his father and former MLB star, Ken Griffey Sr. It starts with Junior’s presence at his dad’s games during the latter’s tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, and ends with his father’s thoughts during an interview while reminiscing on his son’s career.
“I’m one of the proudest fathers there ever will be,” Griffey Sr. said.
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At the same time, the documentary provides a unique opportunity for Griffey Jr. to open up about the impact his father’s playing career had on his childhood.
“Pops being an athlete, leaving, coming home, you really come from a single-parent household,” Griffey Jr. recalled in the film. “As a kid, you resent that, because, you know, I’m the one kid in little league baseball that doesn’t see his dad.”
A similar sentiment rang true during Griffey Jr.’s own career, with the Mariners legend worrying about how his own children felt during his time away from his loved ones.
“The first time your kid walks, you may or may not be home,” Griffey Jr. said. “Is it the price we pay to pursue a dream? Yeah. But my kids, they didn’t sign up for it. I’m a normal dad with an abnormal job, and I want my family to be normal.”
While the documentary does a great job at honing in on the family details that have stood out to Griffey Jr. throughout his life, they also fully encapsulate the raw talent that he brought to the table for decades.
That sheer skill and passion for the game led to 630 career home runs, American League MVP honors in 1997, 13 All Star Game appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, and a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with a then-record 99.32 percent of the vote.
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So, what do you do when you’re discussing one of the greatest to ever play the sport of baseball in an hour-plus documentary? You bring in the big guns, regardless of their profession. In this case, the MLB Network came out swinging, bringing in MLB legends like Reggie Jackson, Bo Jackson, Harold Reynolds, NBA star LeBron James, NBA legend Gary Payton, musicians like Macklemore and Nick Lachey, and many more.
“He was what baseball would call the total package,” Bo Jackson, a phenom throughout his multi-sport career, said in the film. “It was like, ‘Wow, this kid was born to play this game.'”
Rounding out the documentary in complete fashion was a group of Griffey Jr.’s former teammates from his days in Seattle, and broadcasters who were around to cover him, helping to display the impact he had on both the city and the sport as a whole.
“I’m getting to watch history from the start,” Peter Gammons said in the film.
The documentary didn’t shy away from the negatives that Griffey Jr. was forced to endure throughout his career, like the mental toll his time in Seattle had on him during the early days of his own family, and the laundry list of injuries he was forced to deal with after being traded to Cincinnati.
However, it also shined a light on Griffey Jr.’s unique approach to the game, and how unwilling he was to shift who he was to better fit a mold.
“When you play sports, you know that injuries are part of the game, it’s just the way it is,” Griffey Jr. explained. “If you play hard and it happens, oh well.”
“Would I change the way I played? No.”
From a film perspective, fans may have been spoiled by “The Last Dance” and the series’ ability to unearth secrets about the Chicago Bulls dynasty in the 1990s. That may, in turn, act as a critique for documentaries like “Junior” in the long run.
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For those who are new to “The Kid” and his story, the film is a stellar 90-minute breakdown of what made him into the highly-touted legend he became.
But, for those who followed him throughout his rise in the sport, there isn’t much new information to dive in on. It could be viewed as a knock on the project if viewers were looking to be served some Chicago-style drama like it was a slice of pie down by Wrigley Field, but it’s tough to downgrade “Junior” as a whole because of that lone fact.
All in all, the film was about as perfect as you’d want it to be, which is about the same that could be said about Griffey Jr. himself. What you saw with “The Kid” was what you got, and the documentary captured everything that “Junior” was throughout his decades-long career in baseball.
And, in the end, the Father’s Day release of “Junior” adds one final feather to that infamous backwards cap as it relates to Griffey Jr.’s incredible connection with both his father, and with his own family.
“Junior” is set to premiere on the MLB Network on Sunday, June 21 at 8:00 p.m. EDT.
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