Simply put, Ken Griffey Jr. showed us how baseball should be played
Ken Griffey Jr. retired 75 years to the day that Babe Ruth retired
In his prime, Griffey had no great contemporary as a center fielder
He hit 438 homers from 1989 to 2000, but only 192 the rest of the way
History doesn't do the small stuff. Very quickly, it will not matter that Ken Griffey retired with more reported in-game naps than home runs in his final season and that the Seattle Mariners gave him a gentle push toward retirement. A true legend has left the game, for Griffey forever will stand as two templates of major league baseball: the prodigy and the all-around virtuoso, a DiMaggio of his time. Hundreds of others will be measured against him, and virtually every one of them will go lacking.
Years from now many people will sit on their porches, and when some hot shot rookie comes up or some center fielder glides into the spotlight, they will say with a wry smile, "Yeah, but I saw Griffey play."
The details of his leaving will be discarded as insignificant against the breadth and volume of his career. Griffey, after all, left baseball exactly 75 years to the day that Babe Ruth did -- the numbers three and five hitters on the all-time home run list linked by a delicious piece of happenstance. Ruth, too, left without a glorious sendoff. The Boston Braves actually asked for his release after much friction between Ruth and his manager and the front office, including their denial of his request to attend a Normandie celebration in New York. The details of the endgame are but specks of trivial dust.
The prime of Griffey is what lasts, and in his era there was absolutely nobody like him. With Griffey, unlike Willie, Mickey and the Duke, there will be no songs written as homages for great center fielders as contemporaries. From 1989 through 2000, Griffey hit 438 home runs -- the next closest center fielder in that time was Ellis Burks with 247. In those 12 years Griffey also hit .296, stole 173 bases and won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, providing the definitive statement of what a baseball player should be, what the old timers used to say was straight out of the Spalding Guidebook.
The images are as indelible as that long-striding elegant stroke of DiMaggio. Griffey gave us the statuesque pose after clubbing a home run, as if stopping in his tracks to admire the beauty of the ball in flight. The cap worn backward. The pell-mell leaps and jumps across turf, tracks and walls in pursuit of any fly ball, no matter the danger it may bring. And maybe above all else, with neither bat nor glove in hand, the textbook cutting of the bases on his 270-foot dash to home plate with the winning run of the 1995 Division Series to defeat the New York Yankees and save baseball in Seattle. That someone with such power could run so swiftly was a wonder to behold.
No one could measure up to the young Griffey. Sadly, that included the aging Griffey. The second half of Griffey's career largely was a scrubland of injuries and not-what-he-used-to-bes. Griffey had his last 100 RBI season at age 30. He hit .296 in his career through that season, but .260 after that in almost 1,000 games. He hit 438 homers through age 30 -- early on, he was supposed to be the heir to Hank Aaron's record 755 homers -- but hit only 192 after.
And of course, the one constant, from the blissful 19-year-old kid who wouldn't know if that day's opposing starter was left-handed or right-handed, to the 40-year-old, heavy-legged bench player who ran out of time with the Mariners, was that every year the World Series was played without him. Griffey had three cracks at the postseason, two with Seattle and once upon hitching a late-season ride with the Chicago White Sox. And yet though he played with such greats as Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez, he never made it to the Fall Classic in 22 tries.
History, too, will raise Griffey a little higher because so many of his contemporaries were lowered by their decision to use performance-enhancing drugs. That decision, too, set him apart. Unfortunately, Griffey also was one of many transcendent stars who gave no dissenting voice to The Steroid Era, one of many in the coalition of the willing. It rankled him, those close to him used to say, that one-dimensional players would pass him in the public consciousness as major stars, only because of the boost of the juice. But never was he comfortable with answering questions on the topic, as were players such as Frank Thomas, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling. He didn't want in on the debate.
In the end, what mattered was Griffey gave us as sublime a picture of how baseball should be played as anybody in his lifetime: well, hard and, as we want to believe, clean. And in that manner, in that window of history, he stands alone.
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