The Painted Ponies Go Up and Down

Was I the only one shocked by this story?  While we all pretty much knew this would be Ken Griffey, Jr.’s last year as a player, I just assumed that it would entail a farewell tour around the league, culminating in a standing ovation from a sellout crowd at Safeco Field on October 3.  Now Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Mariners will ask Griffey to retire within the next few weeks; if he doesn’t, they will release him.  The whole article is anonymous hearsay, but it seems believable in the way of a doctor telling you that your wheelchair-bound 95-year old cancer-riddled grandmother might not see another Christmas.  Apparently Griffey “doesn’t sleep well at night, he’s away from his family,” and so he was napping in the clubhouse when Don Wakamatsu looked down the bench for a pinch-hitter.  Are you kidding me?  “The Kid” is now officially “The Geezer.”  Griffey’s skills have evaporated so quickly and so completely, those of us who grew up in the era of 39-year old MVP’s and 42-year old ERA leaders don’t quite know what to make of it.

I became a baseball fan in 1993, when Junior Griffey was at the height of his glory.  Though he was only 23, the fans voted him into the All-Star lineup for the fourth straight summer.  (I wanted to vote, but in those primitive days the only way to do so was to go to the ballpark and grab a paper ballot.)  He rewarded us with a show in the Homerun Derby, drilling one off the warehouse at Camden Yards.  On my elementary school playground 2,788 miles from the Kingdome, we all tried to imitate his awesome, deadly swing.  We’d take turns grabbing a whiffle bat, standing tall and straight in the lefty batter’s box, cockily wagging our shoulders along with the bat, then in one explosive second stride and whip it like a pit bull unleashed, drop it behind the back foot and jubilantly jog toward first while staring up into the sky above right-center.  Our dads cheered for Dykstra or Ripken or Van Slyke, but Griffey was a Kid like us, baseball’s version of Michael Jordan, with his backwards hat that I took to be an act of cool youthful nonchalance.  With (insincere) apologies to Bonds, Griffey was the Willie Mays for the ESPN generation – flashy, always bubbling with joy; it was easy to imagine him joining in our recess whiffle ball games.

My first little league team was called the Mariners, which I think was the reason my mom bought me a teal-green #24 jersey T-shirt.  She could not have known the scars that Junior inflicted on my psyche as a young Yankee fan in 1995, his Jacksonian performance leading Seattle to victory in the ALDS.  The series ended as he slid across the plate in the 11th inning of Game 5 while Jim Leyritz and me and the rest of Yankee Universe could only watch helplessly.

Even then, I continued to admire Griffey and the way he played the game.  But it was always from afar; I didn’t see him play in person until his Reds came to Philly late in the ’01 season.  The Phillies were in a tight race for the first time in eight years, so I bought two tickets at a local Ticketmaster outlet, then told my dad I’d won them in an online trivia contest and begged him to take me even though it was a school night.  The desperate ploy worked, and we got there right as Randy Wolf struck out Junior in the top of the first.  You could pretty much sit anywhere you wanted to at the old Vet, so we sat out in centerfield to get a good look at Griffey.  When I saw him play for the second time, in the ’08 playoffs against the Rays, he was already looking old and very out of place in a White Sox uniform.  I hope to see him for a third and final time this weekend at the Trop, even if it’s just for a few swings in batting practice.

It’s been suggested that the adulation lavished upon McGwire and Sosa in ’98 was what compelled Bonds to start juicing.  He was a better hitter, certainly a better all-around player, than Mac or Sammy, so why should they get all the love?  Of course, Griffey had all the same reasons to feel jilted.  He’d hit 56 homers in ’97 and again in ’98, yet was overshadowed both years.  He was on pace for 58 when the strike began on August 12, 1994 (a date which will live in infamy).  Griffey had 37 more homers on his 37th birthday than Bonds did on his, and just 29 fewer than Aaron.  Both the season and career records could have easily been his.  I don’t know if it’s moral superiority or some other reason that Griffey stayed clean and battled through some mediocre, injury-plagued years while Bonds was rewriting history.  What I do know is that Griffey’s career seems like a disappointment simply because it followed a natural arc.  If you can justify the backlash against the juicers and accept their glaring absence from the hallowed hall in Cooperstown, then you’ve got to give some extra recognition to the clean guys from the era.

So although I didn’t fully appreciate him at the time, I’ll remember Griffey as the greatest player of my long-gone childhood.  I’ll remember how he broke his hand in ’95 flying into the wall to rob Kevin Bass, then returned three months later to hit a walk-off homer off John Wetteland which began the incredible playoff run that saved baseball in Seattle.  I’ll remember all the bombs into the tier deck of the old Yankee Stadium, and the circus catch at Tiger Stadium.  I’ll remember the classic Nike commercials, their juvenileness so apropos of that time in my life.  Please, Griffey, quit ruining these memories with your lazy groundouts.  If your heart’s not in it anymore, it’s time to hang ’em up.

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