Ken Griffey Jr. played only 317 games from 2001-2004, hitting a mere 63 home runs in that span. Through age 30 he had belted 438 homers, averaging just shy of 50 per year over the last five of those seasons. Had he stayed healthy and continued at that pace, he would be closing in on Hank Aaron's all time record this year at age 36. His career home run average would have had him surpass Aaron at age 39.
Can we just talk baseball, please, please, please?
-Ken Griffey, Jr.
It appears the weight of the world is on Ken Griffey Jr.'s shoulders. The Kid never talked like this in his prime. Not when the only concern we had regarding Ken Griffey Jr. had to do with which was more golden: his smile or his swing. His swing is still there-it's still as beautiful as ever. That swing with the grace of ease, smooth and natural. A swing not designed for power, but power is the result of mechanics, strength, quickness and recognition. Unfortunately, the smile appears weary. Not as if he laments his injuries or his play or the recent questions he's had to bear, but only that he laments what has happened to the game. Baseball is a beautiful game, and Ken Griffey Jr. played as though he knew it.
Since his arrival with the Reds there have been issues. He's had to deal with the additional stress of playing to his hometown crowd and the expectations of living up to a massive conract. He's had to deal with a string of health issues which I wouldn't wish on anyone, much less a player of Griffey's caliber. As these concerns wore on him, his smile and carefree attitude seemed to fade away, but now there may have been more to his burden than we thought. Now he's been thrust into the farcical steroid scandal, as a character in one of the new books to divulge private information on the decisions of Barry Bonds. It should be noted that Griffey was not the source of any information.
According to the story, in the winter prior to the '99 season Bonds was in the company of Griffey and three others who were not baseball players. Bonds expressed frustration at the attention being paid to players like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, who he felt (and rightly so) were inferior players to himself.
Coming into 1999 Barry Bonds was one of the best players of all time. He hit for power, for average, played defense, had speed and he knew how to use it. His alleged decision to use steroids was not based on his desire to get better and put up bigger numbers, but rather to tear the spotlight away from players of lesser talent such as Sosa and McGwire. Players who were good, but whose careers were starcrossed with the inevitable point of what happens when the substance can't swing the bat for you. McGwire and Sosa didn't fade away; they burned out. They were players who didn't deserve their names across the top of the record books. Bonds was a better player, was getting up in age, and according to the book was willing to sacrifice his body for a few years to get the financial payoff.
It was a decision made in frustration. Bonds was justified for feeling the way he did and I sympathize with him, but in the end the decisions he supposedly made aren't justified. If anything it makes him less forgiveable than players like McGwire, because he knew what the right decision was, and he was good enough to rule the league without enhancement.
At the height of steroid use, at the height of his career, at dinner with a man who befriended him his rookie season, Ken Griffey Jr. was at a crossroads. He could stay clean and continue to be a future Hall of Fame player, but there was the chance he'd lose fame to players whose careers would flame out; flashes in the pan. Or he could do what so many other superstars were doing, and have baseball immortality within his immediate grasp. Ken Griffey Jr. decided to stay away from steroids.
Then in Cincinnati the pressures built again. Not only was he not living up to the expectations of the fans, not only was he dealing with a maddening string of nagging injuries, but he was forced to stand idly by watching players half as good as he was putting up his type of numbers. He was forced to watch these players make a mockery of the game while he couldn't go out and put on a display of his own. As enhancements took over the game and players one by one, the one pure thing Griffey could control was himself, and he wasn't able to play. He had made the choice to stay clean, and now he was hurt. Repeatedly. Sometimes, life isn't fair.
Just the name: Barry Bonds. It's the name of a superstar. With the letters B-O-N-D-S stripped across the shoulders of a jersey, the name was a symbol for the threat concealed beneath the uniform. He was a player whose swagger said everything you needed to know, and everything he already knew: I will beat you. In the batter's box, in the outfield, on the basepaths, it didn't matter. He was Barry Bonds, and he was going to beat you.
Now, no one can wait to beat Barry Bonds.
There are two books chronicalling Bonds and his alleged steroid abuse coming out by the summer. Every question Bonds answers has to do with Balco and Conte and creams and concealing agents and his size and the books, as though should he say "I DID IT! I USED STEROIDS!", then the whole dark issue would be fixed. If Bonds just admits it, then the black clouds hovering over baseball on and off the field would lift. Right?
Getting Bonds to admit to anything doesn't solve anything. There is no magic bullet, and I get the sense that the reason the media and baseball experts keep going back to Bonds is because it helps them to ignore the real issues while they feel justified for going after an easy target. But what would getting Barry to admit to something actually accomplish?
Nothing. Ignore Barry. He can't help you, Major League Baseball. The issue of steroids and performance enhancing drugs starts with policies and punishments, from here forward. Policies currently in place are a good starting point, but the best you can do is carry out those rules. Going back to what Barry, or any player, did in 1999 or 2000 or 2001 won't solve the issue for you. You need to catch them in the present, not the past.
When your dog leaves a steaming pile on the carpet, you punish him. You don't wait a week, then go back to your dog and ask him questions about it. If your child doesn't fill the gas tank after a night with the car, you don't wait 4 years and then get the child to admit they didn't put $10.00 in. You need to move on, and be sure it doesn't happen under your watch again.
Stop blaming Barry, Major League Baseball. He could have been a hero, and while he's still accountable for what actions he's taken, his intentions were good. Unfortunately his intentions became distorted versions of what's right...sort of like Darth Vader. He'll have to accept the consequences of what he's chosen, but you're the parent, Major League Baseball-it happened under your watch. What will you do about it?
What Makes A Hero
A hero makes the right choices, whether they're ethical, moral or otherwise. In spite of the pressure, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of other temptations, a hero does what is right. Sometimes the fate of the hero is tragic. Sometimes the fate of the hero is what they deserve.
Peter Parker's Aunt May was right when she said "There's a hero in all of us." Everyday there are decisions to be made. They may not include saving Mary Jane, saving the world or being a role model for kids, but we know when there's a right and a wrong decision. It's just a matter of whether we're strong enough to make the right one.
There is sympathy for Barry Bonds, but he was not a helpless pawn. That old cliche about two wrongs not making a right? It applies here. There is one thing that can come from Bonds admitting to using steroids, if he did. This is the redemption of the hero. A hero can be mortal, a hero can make mistakes; he has to know when he's made one.
Ken Griffey Jr. has always been one of my favorite players. I looked up to him growing up, as I did Kirby Puckett. If what I've read is true, if Griffey made the decisions they say he did, then I admire him even more. The quote to open this post was Griffey's response to questions of his name appearing in the story about Bonds. He's finally coming off a fairly healthy season in which he played 128 games, hit .301 (over .300 for the first time since 1997) and hit 35 homers (his most since 2000), and now he has to answer questions of this nature? He's had mountains on his shoulders over the past few seasons between injuries and expectations, and now the steroid farce, but he's stayed true. In the end, that's the duty of a hero: stay true, stay incorruptible.
If I can't do it myself, then I'm not going to do it. When I'm retired, I want them to at least be able to say, 'There's no question in our minds that he did it the right way.' I have kids. I don't want them to think their dad's a cheater.
-Ken Griffey, Jr.