An era is over: Junior Griffey has retired, abruptly, before reaching the halfway point of his 22nd season in the major leagues. The sports world received the news, issued by Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, as baseball games were being played around the country on Wednesday night.
I love Ken Griffey, Jr. He started out as promising as any player in the history of baseball, and he gave us some of the best baseball ever played. The rest of his career was a disappointment, after the fateful series of hamstring injuries that left him unable to play the kind of athletic, graceful center field he had in his early days and which he never seemed to want to give up as things started going downhill. (In case anyone needs reminders, here are some from before the Mariners even changed uniforms in 1993.)
But I will never hold the latter years against him. Sometimes injuries happen, and athletes just can't perform. No one should ever call Griffey a bum.
It seems like such a grave mistake he made in going back to Cincinnati, where he was a standout baseball and football player at Moeller High, to play for the Reds in 2000. After that, he was never the same.
Since the rest of his career went the way it did, Griffey will always embody youth, promise, and nostalgia, for me anyway. When he was young, he played the game like few have ever played it--amazing in the field, sheer athleticism combined with hustle and flair. His swing was pure beauty: one-handed, finishing on the back foot, just...cool. An all-around love for the game. Playing every day like a kid. Laughing. He hit with a lighter bat that had a concave end, which now is standard practice but back then seemed to befit everything Griffey was about.
Griffey is a character at the mercy of history, more than anything else. His greatest season was torn up by the strike in '94, cut off in August as Griffey led the American League with 40 home runs and 47 games to play, on pace to challenge Roger Maris' 61-home-run record. "A lot of players were having great seasons, but we picked a bad year to have a good year," Junior said at the time. Still at the top of his game in 1995, many fans had turned away from baseball, and some of Griffey spent some of his prime years while the game suffered and then recovered from its labor dispute.
Later in his career, he couldn't stay healthy, and he never returned to the form of his youth. His own unparalleled skill got caught up in larger currents beyond his control, including age, politics, and the physical risks of being a center fielder who played the way he did.
It's poignant that the depths of Griffey's lows--when people started to realize he was truly fading a couple years after the Cincinnati move, when fans and pundits began suggesting he had bummed out--happened as the steroid era came into full bloom.
Few remember that the great home-run race of 1998 was first a race between Mark McGwire and Griffey--until Sammy Sosa hit 20 (twenty) home runs in June. Griffey "fell off" the pace set by those two massive human beings, but he shared in the limelight early that season. He would hit 56 home runs that year, the same number he hit in 1997. The following season, after the bar had been set by McGwire at 70, Griffey would hit 48. It would be his last season in a Mariners uniform until his return to Seattle last year. In the three seasons after Barry Bonds broke McGwire's record with 73, Griffey never made it onto the field for more than 83 games--just over half a season--in any one of them.
Griffey has never been implicated in any steroids scandal; he has never been mentioned peripherally in any of the high-profile investigations into it. To my knowledge, no one has ever implied that Griffey was a juicer--despite the injuries that nagged him, and the reasons he may have had to use steroids or HGH to recover.
As injuries dogged him and he fell out of form with the Reds, Griffey was outshone by the main figures of the MLB steroids era (McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, even the young A-Rod). He sat in the dugout and struggled to become, once again, the player he used to be--something he never would achieve--and was compared unfairly (in my view) to those peers by the sports commentariat.
I'm glad Griffey made it back to the Mariners, in the end. He ends his final season hitting .184, having entered 25 of his 33 games at DH and the remaining 8 as a pinch hitter, a far cry from the electric center field he once played. It's kind of sad, but that's what happens to all the great players when their careers fade, and Griffey was an AL-er from the start, which makes his role as a designated hitter seem, maybe, less unnatural.
Perhaps most fitting is that on the day Griffey's retirement was announced by his manager, Griffey's story was overshadowed by umpire Jim Joyce's ruination of Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga's almost-perfect game, with a bad call at first base on the game's final out. It's now being discussed as the worst call in MLB history. Galarraga's would have been the third perfect game this season--the third, in fact, within a 30-day span, something that has never come close to happening before.
Joyce's call has dominated sports news today, even dominating coverage on political news channels, with Griffey's retirement not even mentioned. Galarraga's stolen perfection. A transcendent performance, the kind of rarity that sends exuberance through the world of sports, cut off by a freak occurrence and forces beyond the player's control.
If all was right in the world, we'd only be talking about Griffey today, and how he was the greatest player in MLB history, rather than the worst call in MLB history and Griffey's faded career of shortchanged promise. He may have stayed around too long, as some have suggested. But no one can deny that Griffey gave baseball fans hope, highlights, and something awesome to aspire to back in the day.
All I can say is: Junior for President, 2012. Yes to pepper: