After ten years in Seattle, Junior signed with the Cincinnati Reds following the 1999 season. That’s where the story took a dark turn. In what later came to be known as the steroid era, home run totals spiked and Mark McGwire’s Popeye-esque forearms were the rave. But as sluggers like McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro grew stronger with age, Griffey began to break down. It’s a cruel reality which athletes face on the other side of 30, their bodies, the core of their identity, vocation, fortune and fame, slow down and eventually fail them. Some athletes break down younger than others. Griffey’s body began to give out at the age of 31.
by Paul Knepper
It’s spring training. Pitchers are building up their arm strength, fringe players are battling for a roster spot and hope springs eternal for fans of most teams in the league. But this spring is different. It’s the first time in 23 years that Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t in a Major League uniform. And I miss “The Kid.”
The term five-tool player is thrown around haphazardly in baseball circles, but Junior was the real deal. From the time he broke into the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners at the age of 19, it was clear he was a once in a generation talent. The young centerfielder scaled the outfield walls at the Kingdome like Spiderman, gunned down base runners with the precision of an AK47 and turned on a fastball quicker than anybody in the game not named Gary Sheffield.
There was more to the young phenom than his ability and accomplishments; it was his exuberance and sublime artistry that endeared him to fans. He embodied the idyllic hero in the fairy tale of “America’s Favorite Pastime.” Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were very fast, but they didn’t gallop around the base paths as gracefully as Griffey, and Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds crushed scores of mammoth long balls, though none as majestic as Junior’s picturesque left-handed home run stroke. The young Mariner who looked as if he was born to play baseball was fittingly dubbed “The Natural.”
“The Kid” always had a smile on his face on the field and during interviews and playfully wore his hat backwards while putting on a display for teammates and opponents during batting practice. That he and Ken Griffey Sr. were the first father-son combination to play in the Major Leagues at the same time and even hit back-to-back home runs for the Mariners, just enhanced the story line. Ken Griffey Jr. was the Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays of my generation.
The injuries began during his second season in Cincinnati with a torn hamstring. Then he tore a tendon in his knee, followed by a torn ankle tendon, additional hamstring tears and a broken hand. Griffey missed a total of 331 games from 2001 to 2004. As the injuries mounted, the criticism grew. Junior was labeled fragile and some questioned his desire to play. The same sportswriters who once projected him to break Hank Aaron’s home run record, began to speak of him in terms of “what if.”
Meanwhile, Griffey’s contemporaries rewrote the record books while staving off father time. Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, surpassing Griffey on the fast track to home run number 756. Sosa became the fifth slugger to reach the 600 home run plateau. Palmeiro joined Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray as the only players to amass 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
Then the bubble in McGwire’s forearm burst. Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Clemens, Palmeiro and countless others were swept up in a steroid scandal which rocked the foundation of Major League Baseball, shattering their reputations and calling into question the legitimacy of their accomplishments. Desperate for a “clean” superstar to resurrect the game’s image, all eyes turned to Yankee third-baseman Alex Rodriguez to bring integrity back to the home run record. But in February 2009 he was exposed as a user. Months later Manny Ramirez joined the ranks of the disgraced.
The fallout from the steroid era isn’t over yet, but as the storm begins to subside, Griffey is the last superhero standing from that generation of ballplayers. Of course, we can’t say with any degree of certainty that he never used steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. Andy Pettitte and other “clean-cut” players taught us that nobody is beyond suspicion.
Still, based on the information we have at this point, it appears that Griffey never used PHDs. He hasn’t been implicated explicitly or implicitly by any players, trainers, dealers or members of the press. He didn’t add a ton of muscle, go up a hat-size or experience an exponential increase in offensive production. His high mark of 56 home runs (1997 and 1998) was in line with his career arc and fell short of Roger Maris’s long standing single-season record of 61, which McGwire, Sosa and Bonds passed with ease. Most notably, his body didn’t defy the natural aging process.
I recognize that I may be naive or even taking a leap of faith by keeping Griffey on a pedestal when so many of his peers have been exposed, but I have to believe in somebody. As fans we can enjoy watching baseball for the intricacies and artistry of the game, but in order to become emotionally involved in the competition we need to buy into the fairy tale, with heroes and villains playing a central role.
After eight-and-a-half seasons in Cincinnati, and a brief stint with the White Sox, Junior returned to Seattle in 2009, where he first broke into the big leagues twenty years earlier. Uniform aside, he bore little resemblance to “The Kid” who used to chase down balls in centerfield. Injuries had taken their toll. At age 39, his legs weren’t sturdy enough to patrol the outfield, his bat speed had slowed considerably and he carried a paunch which hardly conjured up images of a young #24 dashing around the bases to score the winning run in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS.
Yet, in the wake of the steroid era, there was something reassuring about watching a superstar in decline. Griffey represented the natural progression of an athlete’s career. Watching him misplay a fly ball in the outfield was reminiscent of an over-the-hill Mays stumbling in centerfield during the end of his career with the Mets and Mickey Mantle limping around the bases after connecting on his 500th home run. Ironically, the frailty which once derailed Griffey’s career now stands as a testament to his greatness.
Though his legs were weary and his bat grew heavy, the smile and uniform were still there. He was still “The Kid” in our fairy tale. He still let us dream. Midway through last season Griffey called it a career and the story has been a little less enchanting since. In an era of artificially enhanced superheroes, one man stood alone: The Natural.