Now is the time to appreciate Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas
To be a ballplayer, especially a home run hitter, at the end of the century has become the historical equivalent of serving in the Nixon White House in the time of Watergate. Surely not all were corrupt, but our shorthand methodology of memory defines the players by the times. The Steroid Era, as we now know it, belongs to all, and maybe, whether by willingness or silence, that's not as unfair as it first seems.
Sometimes, too, it is important to make distinctions, and try our best to run the whole mess through a giant sluice box and see if we can make something of real value shake loose. No one can pretend that is easy, given how cynicism has replaced faith (or perhaps more accurately, naivete) and science replaced sweat in this Age of Discovery. But now seems like a good time to appreciate Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas, two of the last remnants of value from that era.
Griffey and Thomas are two of the last six active positional players who were in the majors as far back as 1990. (The others are Moises Alou, Luis Gonzalez, Gary Sheffield and Omar Vizquel.) Griffey somehow is sneaking up quietly on 600 home runs, needing another six. The Kid is 38 years old. Thomas turns 40 next month. With 84 more hits he will join Griffey and just a dozen others with 2,500 hits, 1,500 RBI and 500 home runs.
More importantly, Griffey and Thomas have hit a combined 1,110 home runs through that era without a hint of suspicion about turning to illegal drugs. Griffey, the Natural, as gifted an all-around ballplayer as you will see, was eclipsed in his prime by the hulking physiques of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. Thomas was the only active player who publicly volunteered to cooperate with the Mitchell Report investigators, a sad commentary on the rest of the timid flock.
That both of them are still important everyday players in 2008 is remarkable. That both of them have arrived here on the other side of the Steroid Era with their reputations squarely intact is admirable.
Think about this list when you consider Griffey's place in history: the top home run hitters in baseball from 1996 through 2000, the five-year sweet spot of his career:
1. Mark McGwire, 277
2. Sammy Sosa, 255
3. Ken Griffey Jr., 249
4. Rafael Palmeiro, 206
5. Barry Bonds, 202
6. Jeff Bagwell, 197
7. Juan Gonzalez, 195
8. Mo Vaughn, 188
Griffey, who was 26 when that run began, finds himself smack dab in a baseball rogues gallery there. And he is the only one still swinging away.
The sweet spot of Sosa's career started at age 29, and he blew past the old five-year record for that age (held by a guy named Ruth) by a whopping 26 percent with a ridiculous 292 home runs. McGwire peaked starting at age 31, and with 284 homers, smashing the old mark at that age by 11 percent. And Bonds peaked beginning at age 35, hitting 27 percent more home runs in that five-year window (258) than anyone ever did. In short, aging through their 30s, no one came close to what they did. It's easy, but unfair, to lose sight of the greatness of Griffey with that kind of freakish power to define the era.
Thomas never had the pure home run stroke that Griffey did. Actually, Griffey did come up as a lethally efficient hitter. I remember once watching him take early batting practice at Yankee Stadium in which he hit one line-drive missile after another to leftfield. It was like watching Tiger Woods on the practice range. Lou Piniella, his manager then, said, "If he wanted to, he could win a batting title. Easy." Griffey was a career .302 hitter through age 27, roughly the first half of his career. But he has hit .276 since then, trading points off his average to become more of a flyball hitter.
What Thomas perfected was a front-foot, line-drive stroke and a most selective batting eye. The knock on Thomas was that he refused to dial up his aggressiveness even with runners on, but the fact is he was a slightly better hitter in RBI spots than Griffey. Junior, of course, was the more dangerous longball threat and, in his prime, an exquisite centerfielder and baserunner.
Back in 1994, just as the whole steroid mess was beginning to boil beneath the surface, we picked our 25-and-under all-star team. Most are done with baseball now: Mike Piazza, John Olerud, Carlos Baerga, Royce Clayton, Travis Fryman, Juan Gonzalez and Steve Avery. One is dead: Rod Beck. One is still pitching: Mike Mussina. And then there are three still swinging: Gary Sheffield, Griffey and Thomas. Sheffield, an offensive wonder in his own right, was ensnared in the BALCO investigation, claiming to have used steroids unknowingly.
Griffey and Thomas go on, still dangerous hitters, but also, as far as we know, baseball ambassadors to appreciate. They came through the Steroid Era having redefined what it means to be a bigger man.