The Kid could do no wrong.
For baseball fans who grew up in the 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. was the best baseball player in the world. He homered in his first major league at-bat, and followed with numbers so prolific you wondered when, not if, he’d pass Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
Griffey was the signature player for the era of the Sports Center highlight. He played center field like Torii Hunter does now, and hit home runs like Ryan Howard does now. His titanic shots were so fluid. His bat drop and the “Yeah, it’s gone” first step out of the box felt like one motion. He made a catch in Tiger Stadium that was so good I tuned in to the 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. airings of SportsCenter the next morning.
His Upper Deck rookie card was the holy grail for pre-teen boys. He wore his hat backward, endorsed the coolest sunglasses and shoes, and starred in Nintendo games that I played for years. My friend Robert and I played countless World Series on the N64’s Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, including one decided by a seventh-game, bottom-of-the-ninth, trailing-by-3 grand slam.
Then the realities of baseball, and life, hit Ken Griffey Jr. With new contracts coming up for both him and Alex Rodriguez, fans figured the team couldn’t afford both. The team decided it could afford neither, letting Rodriguez go to the Texas Rangers and trading Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds, where his father once starred.
The homecoming was bittersweet. He still played in the era of the highlight, but his highlights were usually injuries. I’d cringe each time he rounded third base, afraid he’d top his own mark for worst hamstring tear I have ever seen on television.
But through his years with the Reds, and the last few months since his trade to the Chicago White Sox, The Kid put up numbers. As of Tuesday, he’s tied for fifth all-time in homers (609, 51 behind Willie Mays). Two or three solid seasons could put him at more than 3,000 career hits and place him in the top 10 all-time for runs and RBIs.
When I look back at the career of Ken Griffey Jr., which I would bet all of my worldly assets will end in a Hall of Fame induction speech, I’ll always have two questions.
First, what would Griffey’s numbers be had injuries not taken away the equivalent of three seasons? Second, was I just a fool all along?
The latest issue of Men’s Health includes a survey on baseball, and one responder named Griffey as a player he looked up to, because Griffey has been clean of steroids — “I hope.”
That’s the problem of the steroid era. We’ll never confirm some guys used steroids, and we’ll never prove other guys didn’t.
Friends assume Griffey’s innocence because he grew up with a dad who played in the majors, so he respects the game. They note his power numbers dropped later in his career, unlike those of suspected steroid users.
I don’t think Griffey used steroids, but of course I can’t prove it.
I’ll always think The Kid could do no wrong. I’ll also wonder if steroid cheaters did The Kid wrong.