As Ken Griffey Jr. was carted off the field in the late innings of Sundays game versus the Braves, the only word that came to my head was bittersweet. It was a memorable night for The Kid in more ways than one, as he tied Mickey Mantle for 12th on the all-time home run list with the 536th of his career, and 35th of the season, but then needed assistance in the 12th inning after spraining his ankle.“It’s a little sore,” said Griffey, after the game, in his all-too-common way of down playing major issues. “We’ll see how it feels tomorrow and go from there.”
For Major League Baseball, tomorrow is right now. The bittersweet revolution is happening–buried beneath a media-mass of steroids, broken cameras, juiced Derby balls, and hurricane crisis–but it is most definitely here. The sad thing is that while the last five years has been dedicated to the long ball (and the long needle), the only natural icon has been watching from the sidelines. And, now, once the shadows have been lifted, and true athletic grace becomes the focal point of baseball once again, Griffey, the one designed to lead the way, may be forced to sit this one out, too.
I know I’m in the majority when I say I love Ken Griffey Jr, the man who single-handedly put Seattle on the sports map, and transformed center field into a position fit only for track stars with a dare-devils mentality. His swing, formerly clocked at near-100 mph, can only be described as the closest thing to beautiful a baseball swing can get–it is a marvel of coordination, rhythm, and timing; Tiger Woods could only dream of possessing such a weapon. And his persona, hat always backward, laughing, joking, teasing; half of Sportscenter’s morning highlights were dedicated to Junior’s clubhouse antics (bubble-gum on teammates’ hats, pies in the face, etc). Many have tried to come across as fun-loving and free-spirited (Derek Jeter, Jason Schmidt, even Barry Bonds) but none made it come so easily. If baseball was a game for kids, Ken Junior would be commissioner.
But then again, baseball is a game for kids; kids who think they’re adults. Kids lie, steal, and cheat. They get mad at each other and push and punch. They “swear to God” but lie through their teeth. They try desperately for the fastest and easiest way to be the best, even if it means sacrificing trust, a friendship, morals, the law, a family, a future. The kids who play professional baseball now are unimpressive–they demand contracts of outrageous proportions, they don’t run out ground balls, they don’t listen to their coaches. They betray their fans and their cities. They push cameras and fight in bars. They take steroids.
We live in a society so bum-backward with our role models that we don’t know what the real ones look like. The heroes kids adore are the liars adults admonish. The saddest thing about the steroid controversy in baseball is not the broken records or the broken hearts, it’s the fact that kids watching baseball will no longer know the difference between the chemically-produced and the genetically-produced superstar. Baseball is beginning a transition, a revolution back to the ways of the athletically gifted, led by the likes of Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera. Yet, somewhere there is an 8-year-old too shell-shocked from the death of Mark McGwire’s image to believe in either one of them; we’ve lost faith in the players, but the game is still going.
And somewhere in Cincinnati, Ken Griffey Jr. is sitting in a medical attendant’s room hoping for some good news. His ankle is swollen badly, but only a little sore. He’s played with much worse. He needs to get back on the field to finish his come-back extravaganza. I’m in the majority again when I say that I never would have believed he could have this type of year again, .301, 35 HRs, 92 RBI, 85 R, 30 2Bs. But yet it doesn’t really surprise me. It’s been five years since he hit 40 HRs (although not nearly five full seasons) and yet his performance now barely hits the baseball radar. There are more important things to cover, more pressing matters about lies, and anger-control, and controversy. Baseball is not in a bad place, it just loves bad news and bad players who make them.
In my opinion, there is no story more important than Griffey’s. He’s the shining example of the odd-duck, the one that slipped through the cracks, the honest, hard-working, and naturally gifted baseball immortal. He is a slugger based purely on a God-given talent for hitting a baseball and hitting it far–there is no chemical, no weights, no needles in his closet. Griffey has nothing to hide, nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of. He is baseball savior simply because he has never done anything wrong.
In 2011 or whenever he gets elected into Cooperstown, it won’t be his numbers people remember most. If not so injured, he would absolutely have given Hank Aaron a run for his record, but even still Griffey will hit about 600 natural homeruns, on top of 10+ Gold Gloves, 2+ MVPs, and the title “Player of the Decade (1990s)”. People may eventually even forget his antics and his joyful spirit, his humble attitude, and his importance to the city of Seattle and even Cincinnati.
His mark on the revolution, however, will endure, even if he doesn’t know it or want it. He has dulled the pain of losing heroes, and kept baseball acceptable. No one can ever say that baseball is dominated by no-talent weight-lifting freaks as long as Junior’s name is remembered.
There will be more; now, more than ever, the light is being focused once again on baseball magicians not medicinal ones. But here he was, standing tall amongst the cheaters and the crooks, a point-guard dominating in a league full of seven-footers, a horse beating a spread full of automobiles. As his career closes, and the speed, grace, timing that made him so good begin to wither and falter, and he says “goodbye” as unassuming as he said “hello”, baseball will be losing one of its most prized children.
After all, baseball is a kid’s game. Sometimes it’s the smiles and jokes, the backwards hats and the bubblegum, that can make a young child fall in love and never look back.
Zach Schonbrun, Syracuse University