MLB Featuring Ken Griffey, Jr.: A Love Affair, Rekindled

By James Hawkins in Features
Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm

 

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​By: Drew Paryzer

I declared myself done with video games early on in my undergraduate education. As I saw it, I had spent enough hours of my life rabidly pursuing secret levels and alternate endings and mini-games that - I proclaimed grandly, to myself, in my head - amounted to prolonged digital masturbation. (I won't mention my senior year relapse during which I performed such tasks as essentially being Super Mario World TWICE in a week, due to an accidental file erase.) I travelled for a year right after I graduated, and didn't touch a controller for that entire time. I got philosophical about it -- "Oh, my former self who built a bunker of Link and Yoshi to blind himself from the anxiety-filled ambiguity of modern experience yadda yadda yadda." I convinced myself that listening to Radiohead B-sides while looking at some dry mountains in Chile was what I should actually be doing.

When I returned to the States, I moved to Los Angeles with two actor friends and steeped my days in a soul-crushing mix of menial office work and hours of solitary, misplaced TV writing at assorted Starbucks'. It was soon into this debacle that one of my friends acquired his brother's old Nintendo 64. Larry David was probably somewhere in my peripheral vision the first time we fired it up, and the smell of Stouffer's Dog-Food Lasagna was most likely seeping out from our microwave. All I know for sure is when I wrapped my hands around that triple-stalactite of a controller, my liberal-arts pretentions melted away. I remembered that I LOVED VIDEOGAMES. Simply, truly, deeply. Deliberate identity formation, be damned.

We had a small trove of titles to pick through, but I gravitated towards one N64 cartridge in particular: Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey, Jr. The game was (and is) a relic in every imaginable way: gaps in the game's A.I. large enough to drive a semi through; the kind of stone-age polygon manipulation that leads to such baseness as every batter acting in the exact same way whenever they witness a called strike; and even the fact that Griffey himself was a solid decade-and-a-half removed from the height of his popularity. The title screen music - in which Griffey himself repeatedly implores you to "Ca-ca-call [him] Junior" - may be one of the more laughable numbers in VG history. In short, time was not kind to this game. But against all odds, this was the one that did it. This was the one that made me a gamer all over again.

Nostalgia (both for the ballplayers of the mid-90's and for the game itself) was certainly a factor in its sway over me . . . but once my roommates and I each chose a team and began the 162-game season, I realized I was playing the game completely differently than I did as a kid. Back then, I spent hours and hours before I even played my first game of the season learning how to game the system in order to trade for all the best players. I trotted out my lineup for the first time with all eight (I think?) "large zone" players in the game within it. If I did anything that approached losing, I would press "Reset" immediately. Same thing if Griffey himself did not hit a home run every single time he came up (I was aided by a cheat that did exactly that, and further made you think Griffey steered this game towards being some sort of lasting tribute to his greatness, a la the Pyramids of Giza). I went 162-0 that season, and made damn well sure of it.

 

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​This time around, though, my compatriots and I altered our rosters very little. We vowed to never erase our failures from the record via the On/Off switch. We took pleasure in getting solid singles with our lesser "small zone" hitters (whose circles were the exact size of the square you would try to match it up with) and navigating our starters who had 4 out of 10 Stamina through five serviceable innings. The quest for utter perfection that dominated the way I played the game in my youth gave way to the challenge of making do with what I had. In a way, I think that mimicked the way my perspective on the world changed: the childhood idea of achieving perfection, of getting everything you want the way you want it once you're older (read: no longer a socially awkward nerd who finds wish fulfillment in video games), is replaced with the reality that things in the real world will always be imperfect, and what's most important is how you make do with what's given to you. Griffey wasn't on my team, but Tyler Houston was, and it doesn't matter that Tyler Houston's as slow as a Galapagos going down the first-base line because he's gonna jack this next one right into the gap. In a way, re-playing The Griff made me realize that I'd grown up more than I realized.

My roommates and I found out pretty quickly that playing 162 games with three different teams was not exactly a brief endeavor. But our commitment was unwavering. As a doting boyfriend might study his lady friend's quirks not with criticism but in order to love her better, we looked at the A.I.'s flaws as ways to dig deeper into the gaming experience, to enhance our enjoyment. We debated when the best moment was to steal a base - which would change as a pitcher became more and more fatigued. We started to sense when the computer would throw to a specific base, allowing our other runner to move up on the throw. We learned we could bunt a runner home from third, and the opposing team would almost never go for a play at the plate. We took these not as shortcomings in the game, aspects to pick apart and berate, but as details to enjoy. Questions of fidelity to the real-life game of baseball never entered the picture. Our love for The Griff was a generous love.

We'd win regularly by huge margins at the beginning of the season - twenty runs, thirty runs - but the computer became more and more challenging. When the playoffs came around, every series was a dogfight. Our beloved Yankees were beaten by Ken's own Mariners team, which set up a matchup between them and our Chicago Cubs in the World Series. It had been over two years since we had started playing; it became a bi-coastal affair when two of us (and the system) moved to New York at some point mid-season; between the three of us we had played nearly five hundred games of The Griff, all told. And it all was about to come to an end.

The series, truth be told, was a bit of an anticlimax. We swept the Mariners in four games, and were never really in hot water during any of them. When we recorded the final out, we watched our players rush the field and dance awkwardly, each celebrating by themself, in a world of their own. They'd occasionally fall on their back and wiggle their appendages like an overturned cockroach. We laughed, watched the credits, congratulated each other. I said good-night to my now former roommate, and went back to my apartment.

Next time I came over to hang with him, a new season had begun. Of course it had. I laughed. I grabbed the controller. I took the odd innings, my friend took the evens. I faced facts: as long as that man on the screen wants me to call him Junior, I would have little power to do otherwise.

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