Sunday, March 20, 2011

Griffey Jr.'s Career Brilliant, But Still Leaves an Empty Feeling

For the first time since Richard Nixon was president, no big league team will break spring training camp with a Ken Griffey on its roster—Senior or Junior.

Every April from 1974 through 2010, there was a Ken Griffey in the majors. First it was the original Griffey—Senior—who broke into the bigs with the Cincinnati Reds and who kept playing until his baby boy grew up and was old enough to be his teammate with the Seattle Mariners in 1990.

Then there was Junior, making his big league debut in 1989 with peach fuzz as a 19-year-old with the Mariners.

Junior gutted it out until age 40, when his body creaked for the last time, and he retired last June, once again a member of the Mariners after a couple of stops in between.

Now there are no more Ken Griffeys, for the first time since 1973.

Combined, Senior and Junior banged out 4,924 hits, slugged 782 home runs and drove in 2,695 runs. They were the John and John Quincy Adams of baseball.

More accurately, the Griffeys were a family business the same way the Mafia was in concrete and restaurant linens.

But no longer.

Junior called it quits last year, and it wasn’t the clean break that someone of his stature should have enjoyed.

Junior was 40, he was hitting less than .200, his power was gone and bottom-feeding bloggers like yours truly were calling for him to hang up his spikes and save himself further embarrassment.

There was an unseemly story of Junior falling asleep in the Mariners clubhouse—during a game. Worse, the leak came from Griffey’s own teammates, who went to the media before going to Junior himself.

Griffey was back where it all began—Seattle—but the homecoming was awkward, and if there was anything storybook about it, then it was penned by the Brothers Grimm.

It was a far cry from 1989, when the teenaged Griffey bounded into the majors with a smile that matched his range in center field—as broad as a barn.

The Junior smile sported enough wattage to light up every ballpark from Seattle to Boston.

They used to say that, as good as he was, there was no telling how much better Mickey Mantle could have been had he been afforded the chance to play on two good legs instead of one. Same for Al Kaline, to a degree.

Mantle played baseball in terrific pain for most of his career, yet he sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The Tigers’ Kaline played many years on a deformed foot that, in Al’s own words, was like “having a toothache in my foot” every day.

Kaline, too, was elected into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.

So too will Junior, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of a career that was part triumph, part tragedy.

It’s easy to be conflicted when discussing Ken Griffey Jr., because you can both be enamored with his remarkable talent and marvel at his numbers, or you might simply shake your head, wondering what might have been.

It wasn’t because of brevity that you’d shake your head; Junior played 22 years in the big leagues, after all. But several of those 22 years were lost to injury.

It reminds you of the players during wartime—the Hank Greenbergs of the world who lost time to serving their country and whose baseball numbers were sheared because of it.

Griffey Jr. lost time to conflict, too, but it was within his own body.

Usually the problems occurred below the belt.

His legs betrayed him most often, specifically his hamstrings. In a period from 2001-2006, Junior missed over 400 games due to various ailments. That’s about two-and-a-half seasons, and at the rate he was going at that time in his career, one number stands out above all others: 630.

That’s how many home runs Junior lofted over the seats, using that trademark, smooth-as-silk uppercut swing that was the Mona Lisa of its kind.

You give Junior back that time missed, and we’re not talking about Barry Bonds as the one surpassing Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time home run list.

Junior would have amassed about 3,300 base hits, slugged 750-plus home runs and driven in over 2,000 runs, had his legs not betrayed him.

"What’s the difference?" you might ask. "He’s going into the Hall of Fame anyway, isn’t he?"


But Griffey Jr. wouldn’t have just been a Hall of Famer; he would have been the epitome of greatness.

For at least a decade, Junior was considered by many to be the best player in baseball and not just of his own time, if you know what I mean.

Then the injuries struck, and all those games he could have played in went down the drain, never to be recovered. The calendar stops for no man.

The folks in Seattle never really understood or got over the trade that shipped Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds following the 1999 season—a year in which Junior slugged 48 home runs, had 134 RBI and scored 123 runs.

It was like trading Willie Mays in his prime.

Griffey’s injury woes hit him in Cincinnati, almost as if some mad doctor in Seattle started poking a voodoo doll made in his likeness.

Griffey played for the Reds from 2000-2008 before being sent to the Chicago White Sox for their pennant push. The Mariners brought him back as a free agent in February 2009, some 20 years after his big league debut.

That’s where the Brothers Grimm took over the tale-writing duties.

Griffey hit .214 in 2009 and everyone was too polite to say it out loud, but again the comparison to Mays was apt, in that Junior was looking like the Say Hey Kid, circa 1973, when Mays stumbled around for the Mets as a 42-year-old.

But Griffey came back for more in 2010, against the judgment of people who thought they knew better. Perhaps they were right.

Junior was dreadful, his skills gone. When the story broke of the alleged sleeping incident, it was sad but in a way, it went along nicely with the whole, “He should have retired” talk.

So he did, finally.

The other day, Junior addressed the circumstances surrounding his abrupt retirement last June.

"I just felt that it was more important for me to retire and instead of being a distraction, it no longer became the Seattle Mariners, it became, 'When is Ken doing this? When is Ken doing that?' and that's something I didn't want to have my teammates, who I truly cared about, having to answer these types of questions day in and day out," Griffey said.

Today, Griffey is still with the Mariners, as a special consultant. He plans to work with the kids and do some time in the broadcast booth.

And it’s left to us to wonder what might have been, had Junior’s legs not caused him so much grief.


Blogger Peter said...

"The folks in Seattle never really understood or got over the trade that shipped Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds following the 1999 season..."

This seems to imply that the trade was a decision solely made by the Mariners when in fact Griffey was set to become a free agent following the 2000 season and had made it clear that he would be leaving the Mariners. He had turned down an eight-year, $148 million contract extension that summer with the Mariners. He ended up signing a 9 year, $112.5 million dollar contract with the Reds. The Mariners had no choice but to trade him in order to get some compensation.

10:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home