06/02/10 9:39 PM ET
Griffey always played the right way
The announcement of his retirement Wednesday, at age 40, is an acknowledgment that he can no longer play the game at anything resembling his previous, lofty standards. But for those of us who saw him play in his prime, the memory of "Junior" will have no retirement.
It is unfortunate that Griffey did not have more left in his tank for his second tenure in Seattle. His first time around with the Mariners was glorious and more. But nothing at this point will detract from what is clearly a Hall of Fame career.
The Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1990s was one of the true greats of the game, in that era or any other. A five-tool player? That didn't really cover the necessary territory with him. He had a skill for every occasion. His power numbers were breathtaking, but he was just as good in the defensive half of the game. He won 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards while playing in center field, covering the entire decade of the '90s. He defined defensive ability during his peak years.
He was a perennial All-Star, a dominant player during that decade. The only argument regarding Griffey's greatness at that time would come in a one-on-one argument. Which player was the greatest in the game, Junior or Barry Bonds?
And the way that history will settle that argument will also be in Griffey's favor, even though the numbers in the new century obviously favor Bonds. But Bonds changed body types. He appeared to become, from a pharmaceutical standpoint, someone else, someone obviously bigger and stronger, but someone else.
Griffey, on the other hand, remained mortal. He remained the same physically, until in recent years he put on a few pounds, as human beings occasionally will with added age. And as he moved into his 30s, and moved back to his baseball boyhood home in Cincinnati, he became increasingly injury-prone.
In nine seasons with the Reds, he played more than 140 games only twice, and never more than 145. Over the three-year period from 2002-04, he played a total of only 206 games. Hamstrings, ankles, knees, shoulders, feet; all were injured during his stay in Cincinnati.
It was unfortunate that a career so brilliant could be so repeatedly sidetracked. But it was also a tribute to the fact that Griffey played straight. The performance-enhancing drugs that led to speedy recoveries elsewhere, not to mention wildly inflated home run totals, were never part of his story.
With anything resembling reasonably good health during the Cincinnati years, Junior would have had the career home run record and all of the acclaim that went with it. Instead, he gets a much more subtle kind of award; the broad recognition that he played the game the right way, and not only on the field. Griffey did not become the most prolific home run hitter in baseball's history, but he won the moral battle, playing the game with integrity, without PEDs.
In 2009, Griffey, in his return to Seattle, was an uplifting clubhouse presence for an improving Mariners team. This season, with expectations soaring, he became one more Mariners hitter who couldn't deliver enough to lift the club out of its run-production doldrums. But Griffey is not going to be defined by this small slice of his career, either.
Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the all-time greats and a joy to watch during his prime. Those of us who watched in true admiration and real appreciation would have wished a longer prime for him. The fact that the second half of his career was riddled with injuries proves only that he was human. The fact that his name was never associated for a second with a hint of performance-enhancing substance scandal proves that he was honest.
So, as Ken Griffey Jr., the baseball player, leaves the scene, I think we view him not only with memories of his greatness and respect for his game, but with real gratitude for what he symbolizes.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.