Remember 1997? Spice Girls. Titanic. The Simpsons (back when it was still good). And Ken Griffey Jr.
Ok, so maybe Griffey wasn’t a pop culture icon like Baby Spice, Leo, or Homer J(ay), but he was the unquestioned king of baseball.
He hit home runs. He made great plays. He smiled. He had fun playing. We had fun watching.
Griffey was the type of superstar professional sports yearn for. Yes, he was a little cocky with his home run strut, but what star athlete isn’t?
Griffey had a presence.
Fast forward 12 years and Griffey is no longer the player was. He is a shell of his former self, hitting .214 in partial duty, carrying a little extra weight on his once perfectly trim, athletic frame, and no longer making those Griffey signature plays.
One can justifiably argue that the Mariners made a poor choice bringing Griffey back, now in the Mays-like twilight of his career, but you can’t really blame them either. How do you say no to Ken Griffey Jr.? How do you turn him away? And more importantly, why would you want to?
It is in the best interest of the game of baseball to have Griffey around.
Not because Griffey sells tickets. He no longer does.
Not because Griffey will be breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record; a record, that Griffey once seemed destined for. He no longer will.
Not even because Griffey is a particularly productive player. He no longer is.
But because Ken Griffey Jr. is a symbol of what is right in baseball, when almost everything else seems to be going wrong.
Griffey, the once proud king of a baseball era soaked under a storm cloud of steroid suspicion, has remained dry. While Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and countless others have faced acquisitions, congressional hearings, and perjury trials, Griffey has continued his career, devoid of suspicion.
While the sizes of McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds biceps, heads, and home run numbers grew, Griffey’s legs gave out. While the stats of McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds got better with age, Griffey’s began declining.
As sad as it is to see a superstar fade, there are few sights more comforting this day in age.
When Griffey first began his Major League career in 1989 he was already anointed “the chosen one.” He was a number one draft choice and the son of Major League player. He was a five tool player with a star attitude and star play. He was destined for greatness.
Griffey’s good-but-not-great rookie campaign was followed by a steady rise to the top. His batting average climbed. His power numbers climbed. His on base percentage climbed. He was on his way to being the best and most beloved player in the game.
Griffey’s breakout year came in 1993 at the age of 23. Where most 23 year old players – even top prospects – are either toiling away in the minors or just getting their break, Griffey was already in his fifth major league season, and ready to take over the league. His breakout year of 1993 featured 40 home runs, a .309 batting average, and an OPS of 1.025.
Over the next six years Griffey took over the baseball world. He became the most popular, and arguably best, player in the game. He did it all (including capture the adoration of a boy in Minnesota, who turned his bedroom into a Ken Griffey Jr. shrine).
Griffey was the best.
Following the 1999 season, however, everything changed. Griffey wanted out of Seattle. He demanded a trade, with a short list of acceptable destinations; number one being his hometown of Cincinnati.
Griffey made the move to a seemingly perfect situation: a smaller ballpark, in his hometown, on team that seemed ready to compete.
Griffey, however, faltered slightly in 2000 (although not as much as history may lead you to believe). He still hit 40 homers and drove in 100 runs, but it didn’t seem the same. Griffey was 30 years old, and with 12 big league season already behind him, seemed on the decline.
The next seven years in Cincinnati were disastrous. Griffey suffered through injury after injury; playing in more than 130 games only once – at the age of 37. The once great Griffey was reduced to an afterthought.
While Barry Bonds, the player Griffey was most compared to, was breaking records and performing at what seemed an impossible level for a man near 40, Griffey was nursing injuries, slowing down, and losing bat speed. Griffey was playing like an aging Major Leaguer.
He plodded along, never again reaching 40 home runs. Never making the playoffs (until a late season trade to the White Sox in 2008). Never playing like the superstar we all loved to watch in the nineties. The old Griffey was gone, and as sad as it was, it seemed oddly right.
So here we are in 2009. In a time when steroid scandals are commonplace and everyone tries to find the bad in baseball, Griffey represents the good.
We seem to forget he is fifth on the all time home run list with 630. We forget, because unlike the abusers before him, he isn’t getting better with age. He is taking the career path a superstar should. He is now the past-his-prime veteran, showing nothing but glimpses of his old self.
Griffey is lost in the steroid shuffle.
I was at a Twins game this past season when Griffey hit a home run right into the center of a “hit it here to win $25,000 from Subway” sign – the first, and only, time a player hit said sign in the Metrodome. (Nobody won the $25,000 because apparently it didn’t count if an opposing player hit the sign, which is completely ridiculous. How cheap can Subway be? I mean come on. We weren’t eating fresh enough, or what?)
The home run was a special moment, because you could still see a glimpse of that sweet Griffey swing. So still and perfect, smooth like a perfectly mixed cocktail – the smooth crisp cola, with just enough whiskey kick.
Those moments are few and far between now, and I, like any good baseball fan should, will treasure them, because once Griffey is gone, it will close the book on an era.
Maybe it is fitting that Griffey is the last to go, since he is the one we should celebrate the most.
Griffey, the forgotten superstar, is the one we should remember, from an era we want to forget.