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Archive for February, 2010

Over the past few years, baseball names and records have been tarnished by the use of steroids. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, the “Bash Brothers” of Oakland, are the cover boys for this notorious fraternity of juicers. The list includes the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and of course the Home Run King* himself, Barry Bonds. These players launched long ball after long ball, mesmerizing fans with their strength and ability to put a run on the board with one swift swing of the bat. Now that these players and others have admittedly used banned substances, whether it be to overcome an injury or get a leg up on the rest of the league, one question comes to mind. What about Junior?

Ken Griffey Jr. burst onto the major league scene at the age of 19, following in his father Ken Sr.’s footsteps, and was dubbed “The kid”. Griffey had it all. The glove, the bat, the speed; he truly was the prototypical 5 tool player that had every GM in baseball drooling from the mouth. I also took notice of “The kid” and began mimicking his swing every day in my backyard. I would sway my hips back and forth, holding the bat close to my body, while my dad would wind up for a pitch. I would wake up every morning during the summer and race to my tv room just to watch the morning edition of Sportscenter. I didn’t get to see many of his games, and he played on the west coast for Seattle, so the only thing on my mind was seeing the Mariners highlight. All I wanted was a homer or game-saving catch from Griffey. More often than not, he came through, and I would trot out to my backyard and pretend to be a superstar just like him. Of course, it was impossible to truly replicate Griffey. He had the most beautiful swing in the game of baseball. It was so effortless, but powerful at the same time. He made hitting home runs look easy, as if he wasn’t even breaking a sweat.

I remember going to a game at Tiger stadium in June of 1999. The Tigers were playing the Mariners and we had pretty good seats about 15 rows up behind the Tigers dugout. My brother, sister, and Dad went to get refreshments while the Mariners were coming up to bat, but I could not leave my seat for fear of missing a Griffey at bat. He came up to bat, and I do not think my eyes blinked. I was captivated. My favorite player was no more than 100 feet from me. He sauntered up to the plate, dug his feet in, and locked eyes with the pitcher. Then, with 2 men on and a 1-1 count, he launched a missile over the head of Brian Hunter and into the empty bleachers of center field. Tiger Stadium was not a spacious ball park down the lines, but dead center was 440 and that is exactly where Griffey went. I was blown away and got exactly what I had come for.

The kid wasn’t all offense though, which is demonstrated by his 10 gold gloves as the best center fielder in the American League. Griffey frequently made spectacular plays, setting the standard for outfielders in the 1990s. His outstanding range made for countless diving catches and home run saving web gems.

The issue at hand though, is the home runs. Griffey ranks 5th all time on the home run list with 630 and is first among active players. He led the American League in long balls in 1994 and 1997-1999, was voted to the All-Century team, and was named the American League Player of the Decade. He also won the 1997 AL MVP award. Plagued by injuries throughout his career, who knows how many he could have, had he been healthy. That’s not even including the lockout of 1994 in which he had 40 home runs through 111 games.

While Griffey pounded out massive home runs, other players stole the spotlight towards the end of the 90s.  In 1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa re-wrote the record books with 70 and 66 home runs, respectively. Griffey hit 56 home runs that year while getting hurt late in the season, but no one remembers, even though he was the only one that was clean out of the three. Bonds, who was the National League Player of the Decade, began juicing in spite of Mcgwire and Sosa, feeling he was being outplayed by inferior players. Bonds, a good friend of Griffey’s, knocked out 73 home runs 3 years later and hung around long enough to beat out good ole Hank for the career home run mark.

But what about Griffey? When asked about steroids, he replied, “Somebody will be bigger, stronger and faster than you, growing up,” Griffey said with a shrug. “So why worry about it? As long as you don’t let them outwork you, and you can look yourself in the mirror, then that’s all you should worry about. Never worry about what somebody else is doing.” Ken Griffey Jr. played the game the way it was supposed to be played, and did not cheat to better himself or get a leg up. He was the most pure home run hitter of the past few decades, maybe even of all time. Had Junior stayed healthy, I have no doubt that he would be the current home run king.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a moment to look at the numbers. Griffey missed 729 games in his career for various reasons, whether it be injuries (most prominent reason), the lockout year, or even days of rest. That is the equivalent of 4.5 MLB seasons. Let’s say Griffey played in roughly 550 of those 729, and assume he stepped to the plate 3-4 times per game. If we factor this with his career average of 15.4 AB per HR (which includes his late years), we can assume that he would hit a home run once every 4 games. So, if Griffey had played about 550 games he would have an additional 138 home runs, give or take a few, to leave him with a total of 768 for his career. That would leave him 6 home runs ahead of Bonds and 13 ahead of Hank Aaron, with this season still to go. It is unfortunate that Griffey had the misfortune of injuries, but he did not turn to steroids to stay in the game. He fought through those injuries and can hold his head high with his 630 home runs and counting. If only he had Cal Ripken’s bone structure…

The only thing the media can talk about is the players who cheated to go yard. No one mentions Ken Griffey Jr. anymore, and he seems to have been lost among the rest of the players of the past 20 years, receiving less attention than the known roiders. Albert Pujols seems to be the only player who could come into play for this argument of “pure” home run hitters, but he is still about 270 home runs behind Griffey. As the 2010 baseball season approaches, Junior comes in 7 pounds lighter than last season and ready to add to his home run total at the ripe age of 40. He may not be “The Kid” anymore, but he still has that same perfect swing. This will probably be his last season, and I would hope that ESPN and the media will give him the credit he deserves as the last pure home run hitter of the steroid era. This is our last opportunity to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play, and as one of the greatest to ever play the game, I think we should be taking a little more notice.

Matthew Benedetto © 2010

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