Perhaps the most exciting story in baseball right now—and, quite frankly, one that is not getting enough attention— is Ken Griffey Jr.’s pursuit of home run number 600. Stuck at 599 for a while now, Griffey is on the verge of becoming just the sixth player in baseball history to join the exclusive club. With Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa reaching the plateau in recent years, however, the 600 mark has lost some of its prestige. But, unlike the aforementioned sluggers, Griffey has never had his name attached to allegations of using performance-enhancing drugs. Mr. Bonds is perhaps the best hitter to ever wear a uniform. He was again in court this week, though, offering a subtle reminder of his alleged past experimentation with banned substances. And Sosa, who recently announced that he plans to retire after the World Baseball Classic next March, has fallen out of baseball grace as well.
But not Junior, who was the most dominant player in baseball long before his current teammate, Jay Bruce, was in middle school. When Griffey mania was in full swing, back in 1997, the then-Mariners slugger hit 56 bombs on his way to winning the American League Most Valuable Player. He then replicated that lofty home run total only to get lost in translation during the historic summer of ’98, as Mark McGwire and Sosa captivated the nation with their chase for Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs. Many of the nation's recent college grads, myself among them, will always hold a special place in their heart for Junior, and those Seattle teams featuring a young A-Rod at shortstop, Joey Cora at second base, Dan Wilson as catcher and, of course, Randy Johnson on the hill. For us, and many other students of the game, it easy to wonder what if?—what if Griffey had not spent so much time on the disabled list when he returned to his stomping grounds (and took less money) to play for the hometown Reds? Would he be inching on 700, or 750, instead of 600 homers? We will never know, and thinking about it does not accomplish anything of value.
Plus, all of the “What if” discussion takes away from what Griffey has actually accomplished on the baseball diamond in his prolific career, perhaps one of the best ever. He has produced some pretty staggering statistics as he inches towards the halfway point of his 16th season—hard to believe, huh?—in the majors. He has a career line of .289/.374/ .550, for an OPS of .921, while collecting 1,728 RBIs through Sunday. In fact, over his career, he has averaged 105 runs scored, 174 hits, 32 doubles, 40 bombs and 115 RBIs over a full 162-game season. Although he has not played anywhere close to a full 162 games since he signed with Cincinnati at the turn of the century, those numbers are hard to ingore. The player formerly called “The Kid” had some monster years in Seattle, where he posted a plus-.1000 OPS on four different occasions. In 1994, a year in which an injury cut short his season, he hit 40 bombs in just 433 at-bats, posting a 1.076 OPS. Then, of course, one must consider those 56-jack campaigns in ’97 and ’98. Griffey, with that smooth left-handed stroke—a thing of beauty, something so pure—consistently hit towering shots into the seats, earning Player of the Decade honors in the 1990s.Then there is his defense. One cannot mention Griffey without bringing up the highlight-reel catches. All of those diving grabs took a toll on his body, for sure, but there was nothing more exciting than watching Griffey play center field during his prime. He won a lot (10, to be precise) of Gold Gloves, in his day—not the most meaningful tool for evaluating defensive performance, given some writers’ bias, laziness and inclination to vote strictly on reputation—and truly was an outstanding outfielder for an extended period of time. A versatile player who could kill a team in so many different ways, he will always be remembered as the greatest center fielder of his era, especially among those who played Little League baseball in the late-'90s and regard Todd Frazier as a legend. Interestingly enough—to show you how fast time has passed—Frazier, drafted out of Rutgers University in 2007, is now in Griffey’s organization, playing infield for the Sarasota Reds in the Florida State League. Even more telling, there were hundreds of players selected in the amateur draft last week who were not even born yet when Seattle made Griffey, then just a skinny kid out of Moeller High School, the number one overall pick back in 1987. Signs like this, in addition to Frazier's presence, all point to the end of the line for one of baseball's most respected, well-liked ambassadors.
Griffey was forced to switch to right field last year, and his range and food speed continue to decline. And it is truly not in the Reds’ best interest to pick up his option for 2009. All in all, Griffey probably needs to move to the other league, where he can become a full-time DH, perhaps prolonging his career to enable him to reach the 650-homer mark in the process.But now, the world watches as Griffey remains at 599.
Sure, he will get to the promise land in the next few days, as it is only a matter of time. Regardless of what happens, though, one thing is certain: Ken Griffey Jr. is undoubtedly one of the premier players of his generation, the steroids era, and managed to do so by keeping his reputation squeaky clean.Judging by the love he receives at every opposing ballpark and the recent All-Star voting results, it is easy to see the tremendous impact that Griffey has had on others—from fans to former teammates—but most important, the game itself.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.