Griffey's skills are long gone -- but it sure was fun while it lasted
There was a time when Ken Griffey Jr. was considered the game's best player
He was certainly among the most exciting and most fun to watch for years
He has been a very average hitter for a few years and a below average defender
Don't worry, even though this is built off the whole sleeping saga, this is actually a celebration of Ken Griffey Jr. First, though, we have to start off with a pretty negative point: Ken Griffey has been a below-average player for quite some time now. You know that WAR (Wins Above Replacement) measures a player's value against a generic replacement player, the sort of player that you should be able to find in Triple-A. A well-below average big-league player.
Here are Griffey's WAR numbers since 2006:
That makes him precisely a replacement player for the last four-plus seasons. If you prefer, you can use Baseball Prospectus' WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), which shows only a slightly kinder version of the story.
Both, though, make it fairly clear that Griffey, who's now 40, has really not been a whole lot better than someone you might find in Toledo or Omaha or Durham or wherever. In some ways, he has been worse. He can't play in the field anymore -- and really couldn't his last couple of years as an outfielder in Cincinnati. He's more or less helpless against left-handed pitching -- .212 average the last four-plus seasons -- and not especially dangerous against righties lately, either.
He has found a place in the big leagues because he's Ken Griffey. And, I have to say, that actually makes me happy as a baseball fan.
Look, it seems to me that there are two basic ways a legend can go out. One is the more common way: kick them out the door as soon as they're finished as effective players. As much as writers and fans and players and coaches like to talk about the history of the game and its traditions and loyalty and all that, the sports themselves tend to be pretty cold places. The world keeps on spinning, the pressure to win never dulls, and with few exceptions once a player can't catch up with a fastball, can't get strike three, can't get to the hole, can't stay with a receiver, can't finish, he is released or benched or offered a coaching job or nudged -- or battered -- into retirement.
Many would tell you that's actually the more humane way, because the second way for a legend to go out is sadly, as a shell of their former greatness. Stan Musial hit .255 in a part-time role his final year. Johnny Unitas got sacked again and again in San Diego. Willie Mays fell down in the outfield. Michael Jordan averaged a career-low and empty 20 points a game for a brutal Washington Wizards team.
The gut tells us that the first way to go is better. Pull the bandage off fast. It hurts our sports-fan souls to watch Harmon Killebrew whiffing in a Kansas City Royals uniform or Greg Maddux getting smacked around for the Dodgers or Jerry Rice trying to make a go of it for the Seattle Seahawks. Better that they should retire too soon than too late. Better that they should disappear gloriously into our memories rather than linger too long on our television sets.
Anyway, that's what the gut tells us. But, lately, I've been thinking about it differently. And Ken Griffey is the reason why. Griffey has been, perhaps, the most joyous player of our generation. I'm not talking about Griffey the person; I don't know Griffey the person very well. I've known him to be both engaging and aloof, both fun to be around and depressingly cynical, but that's the sportswriter side, and let's face it: That doesn't mean a whole lot. Some very nice people don't like sportswriters. Some unsavory people love the attention.
On the field, Griffey radiated joy. That's the point. Some of it was his expressiveness, his classical swing, his grace. And some of it was just a wordless gift, this ability to convey happiness on a baseball diamond. In different ways, Kirby Puckett had it... Cal Ripken had it... Nolan Ryan had it... Brooks Robinson had it... Ozzie Smith had it... Sammy Sosa had it. There was something electric and dramatic in their games. They looked like they were having fun. It didn't really matter if they WERE having fun anymore than it matters if Humphrey Bogart enjoyed acting or Taylor Swift enjoys performing. Ken Griffey made you feel that being a great major league baseball player was the most fun thing any person could ever be. He made you feel alive.
Griffey was so much fun to watch that he probably inspired people to think that he was better than he was. For a long time the consensus seemed to be that Griffey was the best player in baseball, even though he probably was not. He was ONE of the best. He hit the prettiest home runs. But in his prime years, Barry Bonds was probably better all the way around, Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell were probably better offensively, Mike Piazza was a savage hitter, Mark McGwire hit more home runs, Craig Biggio did so many things well that he may have contributed more to the team.
But Griffey fit the eye better. He was a Gold Glove center fielder who hit beautiful-looking home runs. That's the place for some of baseball's greatest heroes -- Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker and so on. He was not especially fast -- Griffey never stole 25 bases in a season or finished in the top five in triples -- but he was so graceful. He struck out quite a bit more than he walked, but he looked GOOD striking out. He was Buck O'Neil's favorite player, and I think the reason is because there was something timeless about him. He would have looked good in any era. When the 2000 season ended, he looked to be a good bet to break Hank Aaron's home run record -- he was 30 years old and he had 438 home runs.
Most home runs through age 30:
1. Alex Rodriguez, 464
That would have been a chase that would have captured America. People would have LOVED for Griffey to be the one to break Aaron's record.
Of course, it did not work out that way. Griffey got hurt. Griffey got old. Since he turned 30, he has averaged fewer than 100 games per season. He has not won a Gold Glove and was not ever really a candidate for one. He has stolen 11 bases, total, about one per season. He has hit .261.
But he has kept on going, kept on playing, occasionally flashing some of his past brilliance -- like in 2005, when in the last 85 games of the season he hit .333 with 29 home runs and slugged .654 for Cincinnati. Mostly, though, it has been a struggle. There are baseball fans too young to remember that Ken Griffey was once just about the best thing baseball had going for it.
Griffey, though, has not wanted to retire. And so, the last couple of years, he has been mostly a ceremonial player in Seattle. They know he can't really play. But they keep him anyway. I'm not saying that it has been selfless charity on the Mariners' part; they, no doubt, hope that Griffey will add a few home runs to his 630 and encourage a few more fans to the come to the ballpark. Still, by honoring Griffey, they are honoring memory.
And, I have to admit that, against my gut instincts, I find it kind of heart-warming. Sure, I thought it sounded bad when a story featured two unnamed players saying that Griffey fell asleep in the clubhouse during a game and was not available to pinch-hit. Since then there have been the predictable denials -- Griffey saying it's not true, or at least that there are some issues that are not true -- and FoxSports' Ken Rosenthal reports that the great Mike Sweeney challenged whoever said it to step forward and fight him. Nobody stepped forward*.
*Not that this really proves anything -- nobody would really want to step forward and fight Mike Sweeney. Greatest guy in the world, but I suspect that he could inflict serious damage if pressed.
Needless to say, if Griffey really fell asleep when his name was called, yeah, it's pretty awful. The Mariners are playing lousy ball and they need inspiration, not prostration. But only the Mariners know for sure; and that's for them to work out. If it's true, I suspect that they will find a way to, as they say, get Griffey gone. If it's not true or greatly exaggerated, well, life goes on.
In the meantime, I've been glad to see Griffey in uniform even though I know that he isn't the same. I'm glad because he brought me so much joy as a fan. I'm glad because, on the right day and the right pitch, he could recapture that moment.
And I'm glad because, while it's natural to settle on the bitter part of watching our heroes grow old, there's something sweet about it, too. Griffey knows that he's not a great player anymore. He knows that he's not capable anymore of rushing back to the wall and pulling back a home run or pulling a 97-mph fastball into the upper deck in right field. He makes a lot of money compared to the rest of us, but certainly not a lot in baseball terms. And he knows that he will fail a lot. But he still wants to be a part of it. He still believes that he will help the team. He no longer has his supernatural gifts. Instead, he is just like all the rest of us -- he's getting older. He's just doing the best he can.
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