While the world waits for Bud Selig to further screw up the Jim Joyce/Armando Galarraga situation…
Consider this an “unappreciation” for Ken Griffey Jr., who retired from baseball in a wholly unmemorable and unremarkable fashion yesterday.
Immediately and predictably, the huzzahs started floating down from the sports commentariat. And justifiably so, for Griffey the younger was a great player. An all-time great player, even if the second half of his career didn’t live up to the first. I have no problem with lauding Griffey’s accomplishments or celebrating his place in the baseball pantheon.
I do, however, have a problem with the two central memes emerging in countless articles, Tweets and nausea-inducing Joe Morgan interviews:
1) Ken Griffey Jr. was the best “clean” player of his generation.
2) Ken Griffey Jr. was such a great guy! Look at that smile!
Tackling the cleanliness issue first, we can debate how Griffey compared to his peers (Bonds, ARod, Sosa, etc.) for an eternity. That’s what baseball fans do. But we must confine the debate to the merits, to what these players did on the field, because there is no way that anyone can state with authority that Ken Griffey Jr. never used performance enhancing drugs. We cannot say, “Well, Barry Bonds was 30% better than Griffey over the course of their careers, but when you factor steroids in, Griffey is better.” And we cannot say that Griffey (or Derek Jeter, or Frank Thomas, or anyone else) was the best “clean” player of the Steroids Era.
Ken Griffey Jr. has never been under any suspicion of taking steroids, HGH, or too much Advil. But given what we’ve learned the last few years, how can anyone stare into a camera, or type into their MacBook, and claim Griffey was clean, and know that absolutely?
I don’t think that Griffey every juiced, but neither would it shock me. It certainly wouldn’t surprise as much as it would to learn that Jeter, or Thomas, or Mariano Rivera, or Greg Maddux juiced. Again, let me emphasize that I have no reason to suspect Griffey, other than the fact that he had the bad luck to play in this particular era. But look at his career arc. Look at the way he broke down due to a string of freak injuries. Look at the way he bulked up and became a one-dimensional slugger instead of the gifted, five-tool athlete he once was. His career is the shadow version of Barry Bonds’ career. Does any of that mean Griffey cheated? Of course not, and I’m not claiming that he did or that we should suspect him more than anyone else. But we cannot, we must not define his career by his innocence. That’s not fair to Griffey, his peers, or us.
And it sucks. It sucks that a generation of players who didn’t take steroids has to be compared to Bonds, McGwire, Clemens and the rest. But that’s what Bud Selig and his infernal committees and task forces have wrought. It sucks that we can’t use Griffey as an exemplar of all that was righteous and pure in baseball during the two decades in which darkness reigned. But we can’t. And we know it. There are no absolutes in the Steroid Era.
And it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing in Griffey because of that smile. Because he came into baseball as a fresh-faced 20-year-old phenom, and we all watched him grow up. But can we please take it easy about what a great guy he is? About how warm and genuine and funny he is? Can’t we confine our celebration to baseball, and baseball-related activities? Because for me, in Ken Griffey Jr.’s defining hour, he acted like an asshole.
In the winter after the 1999 season, Griffey has one year remaining on his contract with Seattle, and it quickly became apparent that the two sides would not be able to work out a long-term deal. So Junior sulked and pouted and stomped his feet, forcing the Mariners to trade him to the only place he wanted to go (Cincinnati) for a pathetic return for a player of his value. If the Mariners had been able to trade Griffey on the open market, or even if Griffey had narrowed down his choices to a handful of teams, Seattle could have re-stocked with prospects and legitimate big league talents.
Instead, Griffey insisted he would only accept a trade to the Reds, so Cincinnati essentially had the Mariners over a barrel. They could give them whatever they wanted in return for the player then considered to be the best in the game, and that package turned out to be Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko and assorted jetsam.
The results of the trade ended up being relatively insignificant: the Reds never took off with Junior, and Seattle added Ichiro and had an impressive run of success. (Jason’s Baseball Blog has a great breakdown of the trade’s impact.) But that doesn’t change the fact that Griffey took control of the process, and stabbed the team that he professed to love in the back. He acted like a petulant, spoiled superstar — which is exactly what he was.
So maybe Ken Griffey Jr. is a fantastic human being. Maybe his smile is brighter than the sun reflecting off the hills of Scotland. Warmer than the BP oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But his behavior during that fateful off-season is a blight on his record, albeit one for which he’s paid his karmic debt many times over (see: every season since then). Junior set a template for other pampered, unreasonable stars to follow: How to Fuck Over Your Team and Get Exactly What You Want.
Sure, raise a glass to Griffey the Younger today. Cry a few tears with Joe Morgan. Remember. Just make sure you remember everything.