Sunday, June 6, 2010
Amid the hustle and bustle of perfect games, would-be perfect games, instant replay debates, the Finals in basketball and hockey, the passing of arguably the greatest coach of the past century, and Americans preparing for the one month out of every four years in which they turn their attention to some European sport where you can't use your hands, we all had to wave goodbye to a big part of our childhoods. With considerably less fanfare than anyone would have predicted 5, 10, or 15 years ago, Ken Griffey, Jr. retired this week.
If you knew me during Griffey's days with the Mariners, you'd never have expected me to write something like this. Part of that may have to do with Junior tattooing Yankee pitching to the tune of a .311 average, 36 bombs, and 102 RBI in 501 career at-bats, akin to full season's worth. And there's also the image of him sprinting around third and sliding into home plate for the series-winning run in the 1995 ALDS that reduced me to tears as a 9-year-old. But another part of it was, despite his otherworldly talent and charisma, the guy came off as a bit of an asshole during his most productive years. He was a polarizing figure. Some saw his ever-present backwards hat as a testament to youthful exuberance, and others saw it as a "look at me" disrespect to the game. His patented bat-slam and slow walk out of the batter's box (at the :20 mark of the video) when he knew he'd just went yard was a staple of mid-'90s Sportscenter highlights, but was also the textbook example that taught me what it meant to show up an opposing pitcher. Almost everyone my age loved him, but I couldn't stand him.
Then he gets traded to Cincinnati between the 1999 and 2000 seasons, and proceeds to morph from The Kid to The Old Man. After 10 straight All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards with Seattle, Griffey couldn't get out of his own way in the Queen City. From 2000-2008 (8 1/2 seasons with the Reds, and a forgettable second half of '08 with the White Sox), Junior played over 140 games just three times. As the numbers indicate, he was still a good player in the second half of his career when he could stay on the field, but nowhere near the perennial MVP candidate we remembered. To see him keep coming back from injury after injury was a sad yet inspirational image. Despite the severely curtailed on-field production, the mid-2000s version of Ken Griffey, Jr. was the one that skyrocketed in my estimation, and ultimately gained the same admiration out of me that my whole generation had bestowed upon him 10 years earlier.
Why, do you ask? Why did it take a late-career decline for me to finally give a nod to the greatest player of my generation? Because the decline itself, as weird as it sounds, was refreshing. It made him 100 times more likable in my book. At the very same time that Barry Bonds' production in his late 30's and early 40's was making a mockery of the game and raising every eyebrow in the nation toward the steroid issue, Griffey was experiencing the down end of the classic career bell curve. The handwriting was on the wall - Griffey was famously one of the few players of his era who eschewed lifting weights and instead went the flexibility route to generate his bat speed and power. So when the flexibility started to decrease and the body got more brittle, Junior became a shell of his former self in his last few seasons. And that's totally OK. If anything, it restored us to a time when a guy could put together a few monstrous seasons and not be immediately suspected of using PEDs.
It's funny, but these days the best thing a superstar can do for his legacy is have a few down years to close out his career. Junior simply did what guys like Aaron, Mays, and Mantle did in years past- he got old. And you know what that allows us fans to do? It lets us look back on the guy's legendary career (devoid of juiced-up late career numbers) with admiration instead of speculation. For that I'm willing to look the other way on the things I disliked him for in the '90s, and instead focus on the unbelievable catches, the shows he put on in the Home Run Derby, and that wide, captivating smile. I'll remember Junior from now on for being the best baseball player of the division-play era, and for doing so by natural talent, not by anything that came out of a syringe.