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Fans will recall Junior's best years
Few will remember the end, the reduction of his playing time, the controversy over whether he slept in the clubhouse, the sad, incredible reality that Ken Griffey Jr. no longer was a productive major-league player.
People hardly ever remember the end, no matter how uncomfortable an athlete’s final chapter might be. Instead, people remember the best days of their favorite stars, snapshots of greatness to cherish and to hold.
Heaven knows, Griffey provided plenty of those.
He was “The Kid,” unleashing that beautiful left-handed swing, making spectacular catches in center field, wearing his cap backwards and flashing his trademark smile. He was the first pick of the 1987 draft, the best player in baseball for much of the 1990s, the man most responsible for saving baseball in Seattle.
And, lest anyone forget, he was clean.
We will never know for certain that Griffey refrained from using performance-enhancing drugs. But we do know that his name never was linked to PEDs, unlike so many of his peers. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Barry Bonds.
Griffey, barring some bombshell revelation in the next five years, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The candidacies of Sosa and Bonds will be more problematic. McGwire, in his first three years of eligibility, has yet to receive more than 23.6 percent of the vote, with 75 percent required.
Jeff Pearlman’s biography of Bonds, “Love Me, Hate Me,” included an extraordinary account of a dinner conversation between Bonds and Griffey following the 1998 season.
According to the book, Bonds told Griffey, “As much I’ve complained about McGwire and Canseco and all of the bull with steroids, I’m tired of fighting it. I turn 35 this year. I’ve got three or four seasons left, and I wanna get paid. I’m just gonna start using some hard-core stuff, and hopefully it won’t hurt my body. Then I’ll get out of the game and be done with it.”
Griffey said later that he didn’t recall the exchange, but the book quoted him as saying, “If I can’t do it myself, then I’m not going to do it. When I’m retired, I want them to at least be able to say, ‘There’s no question in our minds that he did it the right way.’ I have kids. I don’t want them to think their dad’s a cheater.’”
Now Griffey is retired.
Based on everything we know, his three children — Trey, 16; Taryn, 14 and Tevin, 8 — have no reason to question whether their father chose the correct path.
Many fans — and media members — are tired of this issue. Steroids, though illegal in many cases, were part of the game’s culture. Countless players used them. The decision whether to cross the line often was not as black-and-white as it appeared.
Perhaps a softer, more sympathetic view of the era will emerge — time heals all wounds, etc. Such a view, however, would be a disservice to all of the players who refrained from seeking an unfair competitive advantage.
Griffey finished with 630 home runs. We’ll never know how many more he could have hit if he had used PEDs, whether he would have been the one to break Roger Maris’ single-season record and Hank Aaron’s career mark. We’ll never know if Griffey could have avoided some of his many injuries — or, on the flip side, if his injuries would have occurred with even greater frequency.
Unlike Bonds, whose jealousy of McGwire and Sosa reportedly helped motivate his decision to use PEDs, Griffey did not crave attention. In 1994, he hit his 32nd home run on June 24, and talk of him breaking the Maris record grew to a fever pitch. But Griffey seemed to almost willfully withdraw from the home run race, hitting only eight more until the players went on strike Aug. 12.
He was introverted, at least with the media, for much of his career, particularly sensitive when he played for his hometown Reds from 2000 to ‘08. Griffey signed an eight-year deal with the Reds for far less money than he could have earned elsewhere. But he was never the player in Cincinnati that he was in Seattle, in large part due to his injuries. Only after he returned to Seattle last season did Griffey finally seem at peace, a unifying force in the clubhouse, the life of the Mariners’ party.
It didn’t end the way he wanted, didn’t end with one of the few accomplishments that eluded him, a World Series appearance — and title. But in the weeks, months and years ahead, few will remember the circumstances of his departure, the loss of playing time that all but forced him into retirement.
People will remember “The Kid,” the special moments that Griffey alone could produce. They will remember the way he electrified ballparks across North America, the joy he brought to a little boy’s game.
And yes, they will remember him as clean.