Game Time: Ken Griffey, Jr.: Baseball's Tracy McGrady?
Not as good as Tom Gordon. Who?
I'm not sure if the back-burnering of Ken Griffey, Jr.'s sudden retirement yesterday speaks more to the magnitude of the Jim Joyce/Armando Galarraga aborted perfect game fiasco or just how far the perception of Griffey as a sure-fire lock of a future Hall of Famer had drifted into obscurity, and I'm not sure if it really matters.
I'm not here to argue against Junior's case for the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you recall, I'm the guy who said you could easily make a case for Junior making the Hall of Fame if he decided to retire at age 30 instead of rubbing the Brady Bunch tiki statue all over his body and agreeing to be traded to the Cincinnati Reds. And besides, life is too short to be making silly arguments for the sake of silly arguments (although Jay Marriotti is walking, talking evidence that such douchebaggery does result in web hits on your articles).
What I do know is that, as career arcs of the Power Hitters of the Late 90's go, Griffey's might be the most (choose an adjective) impressive/misunderstood/tragic/sobering. In fact, compartmentalizing as such might be the best way to analyze a career that had such clear delineation between meteoric rise and injury-plagued fall.
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If you go pull up Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career statistics on baseball-reference.com, the first eleven seasons are a parade of gigantic power numbers, All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves, and four-digit OPS's (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, for non-sabermatricians), with a fair share of bold type (meaning he led the league in a given category) sprinkled in.
After finishing third in the Rookie of the Year balloting at age 19 (hard to believe now that Gregg Olson and Tom Gordon are the two players who finished ahead of him), Junior's next ten seasons in Seattle all included appearances in the All-Star Game and Gold Gloves. He finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting for the American League seven times, the top 5 five times, and won the award in 1997.
From 1993 through 2000, Griffey averaged 44 home runs per season, and that includes a 1995 season that was shortened to 72 games because of an injury he sustained making a spectacular catch in centerfield. He was the youngest player ever to reach the 300-, 350-, 400-, and 450-home run milestones and appeared to be a virtual lock to surpass Hank Aaron one day as the all-time home run leader. (Ironically, it would become Barry Bonds -- "The Rock" to Griffey's "Stone Cold Steve Austin" as the top two guys in the game in the late `90's -- who would eventually break the record amidst more than his fair share of allegations of PED usage; such allegations Junior managed to remain on the right side of throughout his career.)
Above all else, Griffey made baseball in Seattle "cool." To understand just how terrible the Mariners were from the time of their inception in 1977 until Griffey's arrival in 1989, you probably had to be there. To call the Mariners from 1977 through 1988 the "L.A. Clippers of professional baseball" would almost be a slap in the face to the Clippers. In their first twelve years in existence, the Mariners' high-water marks were fourth place finishes in 1982 and 1987 (in a seven-team AL West); other than that, they finished 6th or 7th in their division in nine of their first twelve seasons, with the high win total coming from the 78-84 juggernaut in 1987 (Ken Phelps, represent yo!)
If Junior hadn't come along in 1989, who knows where the Mariners would be right now or if they would even exist. If Yankee Stadium was the "House That Ruth Built" then for sure Safeco Field is the "House That Junior Built." He put up numbers, but he was also a quasi-pop-culture icon in Seattle and around baseball with the million-dollar smile and the casual "backward hat in batting practice" that became the go-to move for a generation of teenagers and one more thing to bitch about for old school seamheads.
Indeed, Ken Griffey in Seattle, Part One, was something to behold. For a fan base that would consider "winning more than they lose" as progress for their hometown nine, Griffey and the `90's M's delivered that. However, I think sometimes the perception of the 1990's Mariners (a perception in which Junior sliding into home plate in the 1995 ALDS was the cherry on top) is that they delivered more than that...
If the perception that Griffey completely overhauled the image and profile of baseball in Seattle is grounded in both truth and myth, then the truth is in the marketing -- the jerseys, the gear, the new ball park, and the occasional playoff appearance. The myth is based in data, statistics, team-based measurables.
I'm not here to say that Griffey didn't transform the Mariners from perennial losers into something respectable, however, the facts are as follows:
-- In Griffey's eleven seasons in his first Seattle stint, the Mariners made the post-season exactly twice, winning one playoff series (the aforementioned 1995 ALDS). To put that in perspective, during Griffey's time in Seattle from 1989-1999, the Mariners made the playoffs the same number of times as the Baltimore Orioles and one fewer time than the Texas Rangers.
-- From 1989-1999, the Mariners never won more than 90 games in a season; their best record during that timeframe was 90-72 in 1997, and even in the strike-shortened 1995 season when they won their only playoff series, they finished 79-66, an 88-win pace if you extrapolate it out over 162 games.
-- The Mariners actually finished below .500 in six of Griffey's eleven seasons there during the early part of his career. So for a majority of the time, the M's were still a losing team with Griffey, and even when they won they never won big.
-- Perhaps the most eye-opening portion of the Mariners' history page is the four seasons after Griffey was traded to Cincinnati -- from 2000-2003 the Mariners won 91, 116, 93, and 93 games, all higher win totals than any single season of the Griffey Era.
Baseball is a team sport, so I don't raise these stats as a direct damnation of Griffey's legacy, however, the perception that baseball in Seattle went from sad sack to "beast mode" while Griffey was there is wholly inaccurate.
As I indicated earlier, Griffey could have retired after the 1999 season at age 30, and other than the inevitable questioning of his love for baseball that doing something that drastic would have raised, he would have still been a Hall of Famer. And in retrospect, it's a good thing he had banked all of those pantheon-level seasons in the Pacific Northwest, because after his first season back home in Cincinnati (a solid 40-home run, All-Star effort) the wheels fell off quickly.
Even terrible graphics couldn't keep Griffey down in Seattle
Over the next seven seasons, Griffey would average 100 games played with 22 home runs and 62 RBI -- not exactly the franchise catalyst the Reds had in mind when they signed him to a nine-figure extension upon his arrival in Cincinnati. Ironically, the Reds had done the Griffey extension in the early part of the 2000 decade, when Wall Street was awash in stock market scams and corporate shell games (Enron, anyone?). To call Griffey the Red a "scam" would be an injustice, but to say he was a stock that tanked from a productivity standpoint is entirely accurate. Griffey wasn't stealing money, his body just stopped cooperating.
From 2001 to 2004, Griffey suffered at least one major injury per season, and played in an average of just 73 games per season. During that time, he hit just 63 home runs which completely derailed any hope he had of catching Hank Aaron for the all-time record. Exasperatingly, Barry Bonds hit more home runs in 2001 at age 36 (his 73 home run season) than Junior did during this four-year span. From age 36 through 39, Bonds averaged 52 home runs per season. That's how you win all-time home run crowns...well, that and shooting yourself full of enough testosterone to fuel an entire chach bar in North Jersey.
Eventually, with all of the aches and pains, Griffey became a shell of his Gold Glove self in center field. When the Reds wanted to move him to right field, he fought it. Over his final two seasons with the Reds, the fans kind of turned on him and were ready to move forward without the hometown kid (who was really not a kid anymore). At the trade deadline in 2008, he agreed to be traded to the Chicago White Sox.
And just like that, what was at one time hailed as the hometown hero and prodigal son returning became a trade-deadline footnote.
Houston Rocket fans should look at Griffey's career arc and nod their heads. If Cincinnati Red Fan is looking for someone to go halfsies on "injured star fan therapy," there are no shortage of potential partners here in our fair city. Because we, Houston, have seen this before -- superstar with all of the natural, God-given ability in the world evolves from teen phenom into genuine uber-monster in his sport by the midpoint of his career (including leading his league in the most prominent statistical categories) and when he finally settles into a hand-picked situation to suit the back end of his career, his body falls apart and eventually the fans turn on him. Yes, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career is eerily similar to that of one Tracy McGrady.
Eventually 2008 would end, and instead of hanging up the spikes, Griffey did what most stars unfortunately do -- convinced himself he could still play and signed back with the team from whence he broke in, the Seattle Mariners who were ironically coming off a 61-101 season that would have made the 1989 mess that Griffey joined the first time around look like the '27 Yankees. Yes, the Mariner franchise which Junior joined to complete the final chapter of his career was even more dilapidated than the one he joined as a teenager -- they just lived in a nicer house.
Tony Soprano once said "For a wise guy like me, it ends one of two ways -- either in the can or in the morgue. Most of the time." (I'm paraphrasing, but you catch my drift.) The same can be said for athletes. Few go out on their own terms, especially the great ones whose uncontrollable thirst for competition and sometimes warped sense of what they still can and can't do -- in other words, the very things that made them great when they were still bullet-proof -- are ironically the same things that keep them around for a year, two years, or in the case of Junior maybe three or four years longer than they should stay. Ultimately, it ends with getting waived or a grim realization that you're now one of the worst players in your sport and you quietly retire. As Tony said, most of the time.
This is how it ended for Junior Griffey. A career that started with so much fanfare, a second-generation superstar whose skills practically coined the phrase "five-tool player", ended quietly Wednesday night buried underneath a story of an historical umpire gaffe. It ended in the same uniform that it started. If you followed Ken Griffey, Jr.'s career, you would know this bizarre "circle of life" ending was equal parts ironic and appropriate, not an easy combination to pull off.
But at his best, that's exactly what Ken Griffey, Jr. did -- he made the impossible look easy. See you in five years, Kid.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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